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Some thoughts on “Queering God” and traditional religion

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A seldom spectacle arose in Ben West parking lot on the afternoon of Jan. 29 to the delight of some and chagrin of many others – a conservative Christian group protesting on our campus. The demonstration seemed to be a mixture of prayer, protest and bagpipes. The latter, I must admit, did not help their cause. I do, however, want to consider the question of whence their indignation comes.

 

Neither I nor the protesters have very much knowledge of “Queering God,” or “Queering the Bible,” besides the title, so I am in poor position to critique the course. Nonetheless, these two words, “Queering God” seem to point to a program of Queer Theology, which many people of traditional faith might find blasphemous by applying to God a term that implies sexual activity that the Bible treats rather disfavorably. But why should some conservative Christians from who-knows-where take issue with a course taught in a small liberal arts college? I could ask why any of us would take issue with a misrepresentation of our own views. I, for example, considerable myself an ardent proponent of the Romanesque style. I completely understand if the cathedral at Bamberg may not enthuse others so thoroughly as it does myself, but to interpret my preference of barrel to rib vaults as an implicit endorsement of fascism would be ridiculous and offensive. Traditional Christians might find a “queering” of their deity equally outlandish, and even make them feel powerless when this interpretation comes from a place of prestige. To traditional Christians any reworking of the faith is, moreover, not only a misrepresentation but an attack on what is held most near and dear, namely their sense of the sacred. All the more so with a course that seems to propose a sexualization of God.

 

This is not the first provocatively titled religion course to be offered in our college. Take “Is God a White Supremacist?” for instance. I do not doubt that these courses present some valuable theological perspectives, but what are we telling students of traditional faith when a course so brazenly undertakes to handle, according to the fads of recent discourse, what some believers reserve for the deepest reverence? I doubt that a course called “Gender depictions of the Divine” would provoke so much ire and indignation as “Queering God.” Consider an intelligent prospective student brought up in and practicing Christianity in the American South, but hoping to expand her horizons and challenge herself at Swarthmore. What if the most she heard about Swarthmore recently was an article about a “Queering God” or “Is God a White Supremacist?” course that her family has recently discussed with contempt. Even if she may be open to consider new opinions about her lifelong faith, the self-presentation of this course does not help to diversify our college with experiences such as hers.

 

To offer a course in queer theology may be utterly inoffensive to the majority of the campus population, but there are also believers whose pious sensibility these courses offend to its very core. Ought we not take care for them as well? The answer is not to suppress the speech of secular (Quakers, forgive me) college professors. On the contrary, it is the academic endeavor to critically evaluate the import of the perspectives presented in every course. Nonetheless, a clickbait course title, which can be taken by believers as irreverent, may do more to perpetuate a sense among them that “this course intends to attack my faith,” than “this course is presenting new and interesting theories that might challenge, but can respectfully engage with my faith.”

 

When I briefly observed the protesters, they were praying the rosary. I, for one, believe that I am in no position to refuse the prayers of anyone. Nay, my spiritual economy will always enjoy a gratuitous deposit. And, however much I regret how these Christians voiced their dissent from the Swarthmore curriculum, prayer is a rather mild manner of resistance. On that note, God bless the protesters for having so great a sense of religious propriety so as to come out and demonstrate. And God bless the academic investigations pursued at Swarthmore.

Conservative group protests “Queering the Bible” religion course

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On Monday afternoon, a group of protesters, dressed in red sashes and carrying bagpipes, gathered on the sidewalk outside of the Benjamin West parking lot. They were demonstrating in order to, as one sign read, convince Swarthmore to “STOP attacking God.”

These protesters were members of a conservative Catholic organization called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property. Their protests came after several right-wing news organizations, including Fox News and Breitbart, reported that Swarthmore would be offering a Religion course titled “Queering the Bible” in fall 2018. The course will be taught by associate professor of religion Gwynn Kessler, who is on leave and could not be reached for comment.

TFP Student Action leader John Ritchie took a break from reciting Hail Mary prayers to express his dissatisfaction with the college for offering the course.

“A college that purports to thrive on tolerance is committing an act of intolerance by attacking Christianity, and many people are offended. Most of all, God is being offended and as one nation under God, we want to keep it one nation under God as a country. That’s why we’re here praying.”

TFP has a long history of protesting institutions that it believes are violating its conservative values. This includes, according to the TFP website, organizations that support “abortion,” “the social acceptance of homosexual practice,” “transgenderism,” “international communism,” and “public blasphemy.” The Student Action wing of TFP, which led the Monday protest, has protested at many colleges and universities. TFP members have protested at Catholic colleges who have granted charters to LGBT affinity groups, including Notre Dame, and has held rallies in support of heterosexual marriage, which they refer to as “true marriage,” at colleges across the nation. Another wing of TFP, America Needs Fatima, has staked public opposition to works of art it finds blasphemous, including the film “The Da Vinci Code” and the HBO series “The Young Pope.”

By holding an in-person protest, the TFP members hoped to push President Valerie Smith to change the school’s curriculum.

“We’re really hoping that Dr. Smith will cancel the course and find a better way to teach religion,” Ritchie said. “We’ll have a delegation to present 14,000 petitions that we’ve collected … over 14,000 people have signed a petition asking Dr. Smith to cancel this course. We’re hoping that she will hear us favorably and resolve this question.”

A small crowd of student onlookers began to gather in the parking lot. At first, many did not know what the protest was about.

“When I got there it was me and a couple of other friends,” Peter Chong ’20 said. “People were walking by in the parking lot and we just got into a conversation about what this was because no one seemed to know.” Chong described student attitudes as “confused amusement.”

“A lot of them were trying to look and see because this kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often,” he said. According to Chong, several TFP protesters began to play the bagpipes, and students jokingly requested songs.

Chong himself chose not to engage with the protesters and recalled that a faculty member encouraged student bystanders not to take the protesters’ “bait.”

Bystanders who did talk to protesters did so calmly. Nathan Holeman ’18 noted that religion professor Mark Wallace was one of the first to engage with the protesters.

“Professor Wallace brought with him a mood of patience and respectfulness, and the students followed suit,” Holeman wrote. “That does not imply that any professors/students present agreed with any of the protestors. Instead, it was understanding for the sake of intellectual honesty.”

Holeman followed Wallace’s lead and ended up talking with a protester for about 20 minutes. During the dialogue, Holeman attempted to explain to her why the college would offer such a course.

“We told her calmly — and quite slowly — that sometimes it’s valuable to consider all sorts of ideas, even if they’re challenging. We explained that people should sometimes even scrutinize beliefs that they know are wrong,” Holeman wrote.

Though the protester did not dramatically change her view, Holeman believes that the conversation was somewhat fruitful.

“I determined that my conversation with [the protester] was getting somewhere. Her starting point was, ‘It’s stupid,’ which taken as an argument is vapid. Her ending point was ‘Some ideas are dangerous,’ which is indeed a real argument. She made one tiny step toward engaging in productive dialogue with us.”

John Woodliff-Stanley ’21 also attempted to engage in dialogue with a protester.

“I believe that they absolutely have the right to practice their religion and hold their own views,” Woodliff-Stanley wrote. “But their own religious freedom does not grant them the right to impose their views on others.”

While Woodliff-Stanley believes that dialogue between groups can lead to deeper understanding, he emphasized that it would be unfair to expect marginalized people, such as LGBT students, to engage with groups that oppose them.

“If a group is bringing into question someone’s fundamental identity or worth, I do not believe it is the responsibility of the oppressed people to engage in this in order to defend themselves,” he wrote.

The protest was ultimately a peaceful affair. “There were no explosions, tensions weren’t high,” Chong said. 

President Smith was out of town on Monday and was not available for comment. However, the Communications Office released an official response which showed no indication that the college would make changes to the curriculum.

“Swarthmore is committed to fostering intellectual freedom, respect for diversity of thought and expression, and the examination of ideas in pursuit of truth. We affirm the rights of our faculty to explore new ideas in their teaching and research, and the rights of our students to learn within and beyond the classroom. Members of our on- and off-campus community have the right to engage in peaceful demonstration and free expression as long as those rights do not interfere with the rights of others to work, to teach, and to learn.”

Boy Scouts and Burning American Flags

in Campus Journal by

 

When I was a Boy Scout, I burned hundreds of American flags. Once or twice a year, at summer camp or at a Court of Honor (basically a barbeque where merit badges and rank advancements were awarded), my scoutmaster would bring boxes and boxes of tattered and worn American flags to be “retired,” as he called it. This was done in accordance with the U.S. Flag Code provision that directs: “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

The flags themselves varied in size; some were the size of envelopes, while some were so big it took six people at each bisector of the rectangle to hold the flag so that no part of it touched the ground. My scoutmaster was a notable man in the small town where he had lived in all his life. He had been fire chief and he was head of the security at a large hospital nearby, he smoked cigarettes and was the scoutmaster of the Boy Scout troop. By virtue of all these different hats he wore, he came into contact with many people who regularly felt compelled to give him their torn and tattered flags to be respectfully disintegrated. Additionally, my scoutmaster regularly put American flags on the graves of war veterans, many of which were the recently uncovered graves of Civil War veterans buried nearby in an overgrown church yard that had been cleared by an enterprising Eagle Scout at the request of my scoutmaster. Putting flags on the graves meant checking to make sure they were still in good condition, and those that did not meet the standard were also added to the collection of doomed flags my scoutmaster would accumulate.

The flags also varied in material, meaning they all burned differently. Some were made out of some kind of thin cloth, and these would burn fast and turn immediately to dust. Some were plastic and only melted when the fire became extremely hot, leaving a hardened mass of black goo behind the next day. Some of the flags were truly massive and would throw off tremendous heat and light and burn in a spectacular variety of ways depending on the angle at which the cloth was lying and such variables. Pretty much everything burned, since fire does a very good job of burning things. For some reason though, the little sticks with the small American flags that are put on soldier’s graves or used as decoration for somebody’s walk for the fourth of July, mostly didn’t burn up but just blackened a little.

I do not remember exactly what was said at these ceremonies, but it was very much like the, to turn a phrase, “typical flag patriotic stuff” they play in big stadiums from loud speakers you cannot see, from an announcer who does not sound human. I do remember that several times a particular speech was read that described the symbolism of each part of the American flag, including the white stars, the blue field on which they lie, and each of the thirteen stripes, which were said to stand not for the colonies but for the cardinal American principles and supreme sacrifices that were made and would continue to be made by those fighting in our wars on behalf of our government. After each statement was read to some effect, a stripe would be torn by a Scout and thrown into the fire.

The fire gave off an unbelievable amount of light and heat.  Everyone had to move back behind the benches that enriched the fire circle, and it was as light as day when the fire reached its zenith, illuminating us as we stood around in silence watching all the flags burn.

I have more patriotic leanings than the average swattie, partially for ideological reasons, but in no small part because of the terrific impression left on me by watching these ceremonies two or three times a year during my adolescence.

That being said, I think the idea of outlawing the burning of American flags is dangerous and hypocritical. Additionally, the idea of people facing social or economic consequences for protests related to the flag seems unbelievably authoritarian and stupid. To treat such protests like a problem that needs to be stamped out is woefully unpatriotic, since it takes a clear attempt at engagement and treats it like some sort of curse-imposing magic trick. These people treat refusing to stand for the national anthem as if it were the greatest political problem we have in America, as if Colin Kaepernick is causing more social ill in this country than then the ill-gotten gains of some of the billionaire owners of NFL teams. Additionally, the idea that burning an American flag is somehow ipso facto “desecrating it” is ill-informed considering 1) that it is the prescribed manner of disposal, and 2) because the American flag code, which is the source of the directive to stand for the national anthem, also specifically bans using the American flag to emblazon clothing or as festoonment. Where’s the outrage over American flag ties and suits and t-shirts and underwear?

When I heard about the group of Native students burning an American flag on Columbus Day, I was incredibly moved by the events described. I cannot begin to understand what something like Columbus Day means for Native students going to this school anymore than I can understand what life in America is for many other minorities living in this country; I cannot ever even know what an American flag looks like to them.

But I was also struck by the similarities I saw between what the students did on Columbus Day and what I used to do in Boy Scouts. The destruction of the American flag in the exact same way, done solemnly and silently and accompanied by words of considered reflection. I do not want to equivocate the two very different events. I, feel, though that there must be some common ground that sees much meaning in the burning of the same symbol, whatever that meaning may be. The flag code says, somewhat mystically, that “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” But debates over the flag are certainly lively, and it seems the meaning of America is being continuously examined and reconsidered in the minds of all those people fighting the good fight. And if America’s meaning is up in the air, so too is its future up for grabs.

 

Statement on kneeling during anthem

in Open Letter/Opinions by

Dear Friends,

This past week, President Trump released several tweets chastising athletes who have not stood during the national anthem as well as those who have declined White House invitations. His blanket critique speaks to a reckless pattern of racist sentiment that now endangers the very diversity that America is built upon. Our country’s history suffers from the remnants of massacred Native Americans, enslaved Africans, discriminated against Latinx Americans, persecuted Muslims, economically marginalized Whites, and others disenfranchised by American society. Our own grandparents — some of whom are proud American military veterans — recollect stories of lynchings, church bombings, and police brutality. As young women, we fear a future in which our children will not come home for dinner because they have been assailed or shot in the streets simply for being black or brown.

We are patriotic Americans who value our freedoms to speak against injustices. President Trump struggles to recognize that to be patriotic might at times also require dissent. Our Founding Fathers acknowledged that as much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did. Patriotism and dissent are not mutually exclusive; America’s greatness is manifest in love and equality for all, not hate and privilege. Thus, in solidarity with athletes and activists around the country who have taken a knee in hopes of addressing a long-standing and systematic pattern of racial violence aimed at brown and black people, we feel compelled to join this action. As black athletes, we especially understand the hateful perception of our bodies as valuable on the court, but disposable on the streets.

We invite all athletes and spectators to express solidarity with a movement that believes America can do better.

Trust in our love and faith in our country. Trust when we question an America that does not afford all its citizens security and safety. Only when we address the disease of white supremacy and racial injustice, can we truly become, as our anthem states, the land of the free. Today we kneel because this sense of security remains unattainable for the average young brown and black person walking or driving in their neighborhoods; today we kneel to honor the brown and black lives lost to violence, and to remind ourselves that none of us can truly be free until we all are.

 

In solidarity,

 

Emma Morgan-Bennett ’20 and Lelosa Aimufua ’20

The SGO Forum and the Failure to Listen

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The SGO forum on divestment last Friday appears to have produced more tension than dialogue. This is largely due to Mountain Justice’s curious interpretation of the event after the fact. By their account, expressed in the op-ed “Friday’s Forum: An Exercise in Futility” written by Mountain Justice member Aru Shiney-Ajay ‘20 , the organizers only allowed “one student representative when there were three from the administration… the administration repeatedly danced around questions, refusing to give concrete answers.”

The implication that the organizers of the event were trying to stifle student dissent by only allowing one student representative from Mountain Justice is simply unfounded. The forum was about divestment, not Mountain Justice, and the organizers succeeded in finding a diverse array of backgrounds and positions. There were three students: one for divestment, one against it, and one that was neutral. There were two professors: one for divestment and one who was at least skeptical of it. And there were three administrators: the President of the College, the Vice-President of Finance, and the Sustainability Director. It is hard to see how having another Mountain Justice member would have improved this lineup in any way. Regardless, the pro-divestment contingent of Shiney-Ajay and Professor Lee Smithey had by far the most speaking time, and were in no way impeded by the moderator, who gave them plenty of permission to speak on nearly every question, which they did.

Mountain Justice’s second point of contention, that the administration agreed to the forum as a show and had no intention of listening to students, is frankly hypocritical. It is highly doubtful that any member of Mountain Justice, who showed up prepared with cameras, pages of notes, and trendy finger snaps, came to the forum with the intention of listening to any doubts of divestment at all. This is a shame, because despite the awkward fishbowl format there was still a lot of valuable information that came up in the panelist’s statements and interactions. For example, Shiney-Ajay actually convinced me that the 1991 decision to forbid social causes from influencing the management of the endowment is fundamentally at odds with the decision to divest from South Africa, and by extension implies that only one of those decisions was correct in the eyes of the Board. For their part, if Mountain Justice’s delegation had done less talking and more listening, they might have had enough time to hear the answers they are now indignantly demanding. Or perhaps they would have heard Professor Timothy Burke’s warning that as a young activist he had overrated the importance of his own activism work in the context of a larger movement. It is hard, of course, to hear these criticisms over the sound of your friends snapping their fingers as you deliver a pre-written speech that takes up most of the time allotted for discussion and leaves you with no time to hear actual answers.

The real regret I have from the fallout of this forum is the way Mountain Justice has treated President Valerie Smith. Apart from her initial statement and other direct questions, President Smith sat in silence and spent the most time actually listening than any other participant in the forum. For this effort her office was soon the subject of a sit-in by the people at the forum who had listened the least. This is a serious impediment to further dialogue between the administration and students, and pro-divestment students should recognize that dialogue is as much a chance to listen as it is to speak.

MJ members receive sanctions

in Around Campus/News by

On Friday, March 17th, Associate Dean of Students Nathan Miller informed five students by email that they could face sanctions for a violation of the student code of conduct incurred during their participation in a peaceful protest last month.

The five students are members of the student organization Mountain Justice, which held a sit-in in the office of Chief Investment Officer Mark Amstutz on Feb. 24 after President Smith informed students that the Board of Managers would stand by its decision not to divest, even though students voted on a proposal for partial divestment in a student referendum held earlier in the month.

The Board’s response continued a history of rejecting student demands for divestment. In 2013, the college refused to divest from fossil fuels after student protests prompted the Board to consider its position. In March and April of 2015, students staged a one-month long sit-in in the office of Vice President for Finance and Administration Gregory Brown in an effort to persuade the Board of Managers to reconsider divestment. Since then, the college has amended its student code of conduct to prohibit any protest that occurs in offices or disturbs the normal work of the college.

According to the 2017 Student Handbook: “Expressions of dissent are expected in any living and learning community, but this expression must not interfere with normal College business … Protests are permissible, except in the following locations: classrooms, offices, libraries, dining halls (including cafes), Worth Health Center, residence hall rooms, and lecture halls, ensuring that the normal work, residential experiences, and services of the College can continue. Students who disrupt the functions of the College, including violating the rights of community members and invited speakers to speak, may be subject to the judicial process.”

The students each attended a judicial hearing on March 22nd. In a statement published in the Daily Gazette on Monday, Mountain Justice revealed that the administration found the five students guilty of violating the student code of conduct. Initially, the administration had threatened a consequence as severe as fines or probation, but chose to issue the five students warnings instead. In their statement, Mountain Justice presumed that the administration backed down after it was met with student, faculty, and alumni backlash.

At a faculty meeting on March 17th, faculty voted 53-to-9 in support of partial divestment. Following the student citations, 25 faculty members signed an open letter to Miller and Dean of Students Liz Braun outlining their objection to the administration’s actions and their support of students’ right to nonviolent protest.

“We encourage [students] to think of creative ways to intervene, to raise awareness, to change mindsets, to disrupt systems, or create new ones. We encourage them to not lose faith, or to give up easily.  We encourage them to persist, and they have done so through their persistent calls for divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in alternative energy resources,” the letter read.

Similarly, more than 650 students and other members of the community have signed a petition urging Miller and Smith to affirm students’ right to peaceful protest.

Alumni have also expressed their disapproval with the college’s decision not to divest in an op-ed open letter addressed to Smith and Miller. The letter has collected more than 200 signatures.

Several alumni have withheld financial contributions as a result. Some have instead opted to contribute to the Responsible Endowments Fund, an alternate fund established by Mountain Justice to collect funds it will release to the college on the condition that it chooses to divest. Otherwise, the money will be used to finance students in their fight for climate justice, according to the fund’s website.

John Braxton ’70 explained over email that he will withhold contributions from the college over the issue of the Board’s refusal to divest.

“Until Swarthmore divests, I will not make contributions to the college, and I encourage other alumni to join me. I will hold these funds and gladly make a contribution again when the Board of trustees [divests],” Braxton wrote.

Lee Oxenham ’72 stopped contributing to the college in 2013 when the college initially refused to engage with the divestment movement. She was further upset to learn that the college disciplined students for their participation in the protest last month.

“I am outraged that the Swarthmore College administration would even consider taking action against nonviolent student protesters on any issue,” Oxenham wrote over email.

Peter Meyer ’65 was also upset by the college’s continued refusal to divest.

“I am embarrassed for Swarthmore every time I [read] an article about divestment that mentions where the movement originated and then notes that the college has not acted,” Meyer wrote in an email.

Anne Kapuscinski ’76 stated that she and other alumni sent letters to the Board in January asking members to engage in dialogue with students. In an email she sent to the Board on Jan. 23, Kapuscinski expressed her disappointment with the Board’s refusal to divest and said that she stopped giving to Swarthmore as a result.

“With tears welling, I said that I would feel morally obligated to stop my annual contributions if Swarthmore continued to avoid divestment. In December 2016, with a truly heavy heart, I did not send an annual contribution to Swarthmore because the leadership had still not committed to a plan to divest,” she wrote.

The students cited were dismayed with the college’s decision to discipline them rather than engage with them on divestment.

Stephen O’Hanlon ’17, one of the students disciplined by the administration, noted his disappointment with the college’s response to the protest.

“It’s really disappointing that not only is the institution refusing to engage in dialogue on divestment after the students have passed it by such a huge margin … [but] that they’re so unwilling to engage on this that they would rather cite students than sit down and engage in dialogue,” O’Hanlon said.

O’Hanlon acknowledged that he and the other protesters cited were in violation of college policy. However, he believed that they have upheld a moral code through their actions.

“We acknowledge that we did take action that was in violation of the code of conduct, but we think that even if we broke that code, we held to a moral code that’s grounded in the values of Swarthmore, and in the values that we’ve been taught in our classes and that we talk about with our peers,” O’Hanlon said.

September Porras ’20, one of the students who received a warning, noted miscommunications between the Public Safety officers present and the students in Amstutz’s office over their violation of the school policy.

“We weren’t clearly informed of what the consequences would be,” Porras said.

Director of Public Safety Michael Hill said that he informed the students that they were in violation of the student code of conduct in occupying Amstutz’s office.

“I gave all of the students who remained a chance to leave the office at that point but again made it clear that if they chose to stay they were violating college policy; I repeated this several times as well as the fact that there could be sanctions,” Hill wrote in an email.

O’Hanlon was not sitting in the office when Public Safety took student IDs. He also noted that several students who were in the office during the day were not cited.

“I was never actually asked to leave the office but I was still cited, which seems really perplexing. I had gone into the office a few times to communicate with students but I was never sitting in the office. And there were a number of other students who were in the office throughout the day who also were not cited,” O’Hanlon said.

According to Hill, officers took IDs of five students who were either in the office or continued to enter the office.

Lewis Fitzgerald-Holland ’18, one of the students cited, said that he was unsure as to why Miller cited five students when there were more than five students in the office throughout the day. Miller could not be reached for comment.

Fitzgerald-Holland believed that the administration targeted O’Hanlon simply because he is a coordinator of Mountain Justice.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s pretty clear that they’re going after [O’Hanlon] simply as a student leader, which is just naked political repression. It’s not acceptable,” Fitzgerald-Holland said.

In response to the backlash, Smith published an op-ed article in the Daily Gazette affirming free speech and peaceful protest as values core to Swarthmore. She explained that the students who sat in Amstutz’s office were disrupting his ability to do work and thus were in violation of the student code of conduct.

O’Hanlon said that the students in the office aided Amstutz in completing menial tasks.

“During the sit-in we made sure there weren’t too many people in the office so that [Amstutz] couldn’t move around and complete his tasks, and his task for the day was shredding papers. The shredding company had big bins in his office already … He told us that was what he was going to be doing that day, and that we could help if we wanted to, and a number of students who were at the sit-in helped him do shredding and helped him with his tasks that day,” O’Hanlon explained.

Amstutz could not be reached for comment.

Porras believed that Smith’s tone toward the five students was biased.

“[Smith] said in her op-ed article that several people left the room once they figured out what the consequences were going to be, and five remained, making us sound like five of us were obstinate, rude, and refused to leave and were disrupting what everybody else was going for at the protest, which wasn’t true. We were leading the protest, so we very much knew what we were doing,” Porras said.

Fitzgerald-Holland noted that Smith’s op-ed was published before the five students had been notified of the results of their hearings. The op-ed was published on Thursday, Mar. 23, and the students were informed of the results the following day. Fitzgerald-Holland believed Smith’s action was unprofessional.

“The op-ed that Val Smith put out was particularly egregious because as an administrator, she was commenting on a judicial proceeding that had not actually finished, assuming guilt, making numerous factual errors, and in that respect, it was very out of line for an administrator to do from a due process perspective. It’s not acceptable in any regard,” Fitzgerald-Holland said.

Porras also noted factual inconsistencies in Smith’s op-ed. One error involved the number of participants in the protest. Smith wrote that three dozen members of the community participated in the sit-in, but Porras said that this number was higher.

“Over the course of the day, 70 people signed in, which we were very proud of considering we planned this the day before,” Porras said.

Fitzgerald-Holland believed Smith’s condemnation of the student’s actions as violations of college policy is contrary to her personal beliefs in the power of student activism and peaceful protest.

“I think the hardest part for myself and a lot of people right now is seeing Val Smith come out publicly like that and condemn our actions when everything she has said and done in the past — in her inaugural speeches, in her interviews — she has so strongly pushed for this idea that you need to rely on the younger generations to expose moral challenges … and that’s why student protesters and student leaders should be respected, and then here you have Val Smith doing precisely the opposite,” he said.

O’Hanlon believed Smith and the administration have contradicted the values on which Swarthmore stands.

“[The administration] betrayed our values as an institution, our generation that’s going to be impacted by climate change, and the millions of people who are being threatened by the Trump administration’s and the fossil fuel industry’s disastrous climate policies. President Smith has a choice about whether she’s going to stand up for students, for communities around the world impacted by climate change, and our values as an institution, or if she’s going to stand with the board. And we hope that she stands with us,” he said.

Fitzgerald-Holland noted the importance of condemning the fossil fuel industry in an age in which many deny the existence of climate change.

“I think it’s more urgent than ever that independent institutions like Swarthmore take a stand against the fossil fuel industry when our president doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of what I think is probably the greatest moral threat to our generation,” he said.

He also affirmed the value of nonconventional forms of protest to producing change.

“Cookie-cutter protests aren’t going to get us anywhere if all you’re doing is standing at a table, giving people flyers. You’re not going to actually pressure powerful organizations to change. Val Smith cannot purport to uphold these values of student leadership and students taking a moral stand and then erase that when those students actually stand up to power in any respect. You can’t have it both ways,” he said.

 

Not to Humiliate but to Win Over

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Reflections on the Right to Peacefully Assemble to Protest Fossil Fuels Endowment Investment at Swarthmore College”

The 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution states the right of free people to peacefully assemble, and to petition their governing body for a redress of grievances.  In this spirit, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1958 that the aim of the nonviolent resistance movement is not to “seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.”  Beginning five years ago, the on-campus campaign to persuade Swarthmore to divest its fossil fuels holdings has operated in the spirit of King’s constitutionally protected movement for social change.

But this peaceful effort has now provoked a disappointing response on the part of the College.

The core mission of Swarthmore College is to teach students how to pursue learning with a commitment to social change.  Faculty agree with this goal, and on March 24 voted 53-9, with 4 abstentions, to urge the College to divest from Big Oil, Gas, and Coal.  Additionally, on February 24, students sat in the administration’s Investment Office and surrounding public spaces to protest the college’s endowment policy.  This action is the same action that was taken in the Spring of 2015, but the earlier protest lasted almost five weeks instead of one day.  In the recent one-day sit-in, the same spaces were occupied as the one in 2015, including the so-called private work area of the Investment Officer.  As a faculty ally, I was present at the beginning of the 2015 sit-in — along with student protesters who temporarily, and peacefully, occupied the Investment Office at that time.  No action was taken against anyone involved in the 2015 sit-in.

Fast forward to today.  Now, in response to the recent one-day protest, the college is charging student protesters with entering and failing to leave a private work area, and interrupting the work of staff members.  This is a debatable charge for two reasons.  Fundamentally, no college-owned work space is strictly private.  Moreover, why was the current standard not invoked two years ago when faculty and students, in protest, entered the same office and surrounding space and interrupted the work of staff members?

On March 26, President Valerie Smith wrote an open letter charging the sit-in students with violating the student code of conduct.  This letter followed a March 17 confidential letter by Dean Nathan Miller announcing an administrative review of the protesting students.  But the mission of the college says “Swarthmore seeks to help its students realize their full intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.”  To me, this is the core issue at stake in this on-going disputation.  I believe the nonviolent protesters were simply living out this mission statement and realizing its full aim by peacefully taking over an administrative office guided by their commitment to social and planetary well-being.

Contrary to President Smith and Dean Miller, the students’ action, fundamentally, was not a conduct code violation, but a courageous act of conscience.

Concerning the specifics of Dean Miller’s private letter and subsequent secret hearings, the college’s review of the students in question violates due process.  The hearings assumed certain facts in question, gave the students only two business days to prepare, made no provision for students to secure outside counsel to assist them in their defense, prohibited the students from asking for a continuance, and announced a set of dire consequences if they failed to accept its terms.  According to Dean Miller’s letter, the students were adjudicated under the Minor Misconduct Process, but the intended punishments were potentially severe, ranging from notations in students’ records to probation, monetary damages, and “additional educational sanctions,” whatever that means.  In the end, it appears the college let the students off with a warning.  But what will be their fate, or that of future protesters, if they attempt a similar act of peaceful dissent in the future?

Guided by conscience and good will, Swarthmore students today, as they did two years ago, are putting their education and their futures on the line by thoughtfully challenging the college administration to do the right thing and stop giving the toxic fossil fuels extraction industry its seal of approval.  Nonviolent direct action is not a new tactic at Swarthmore.  Previous peaceful occupations of administrative offices – for example, African-American students take-over of the Admissions Office in 1969, and Anti-Apartheid students take-over of the Admissions Office in 1985 – portended the fossil fuels sit-ins of 2015 and last month.

As King said, we should never demean or insult one another as we struggle in the communities we serve to realize common ideals.  Fair-minded people of good will, then, can sometimes agree about long-range strategic goals, but disagree about immediate tactics to realize these goals.  The College’s Sustainability Office, Environmental Studies Program, Climate Action Plan, carbon charge, green advisors, and much more, are central to its concerted efforts to facilitate learning and living responsibly in troubled times.  But Swarthmore is also squandering its good name by lending its moral capital to a dying industry hell-bent on destroying the self-regulating climate system that sustains Earth’s biosphere.  Instead of charging students with conduct violations who are living out the College’s mission through peaceful action, Swarthmore should crown each of these students as climate heroes whose fearless actions are an inspiration for all of us.

Candy-coated family-friendly version of activism achieves nothing

in Opinions by

Swarthmore brands itself as an institution where student-staff-administration collaboration is crucial not only to student culture but to college function. Another critical value of the campus community is student activism, which has been present at the college since its radical founding. This spring semester, the college is neither living up to its history as an actor for social justice nor holding true to the values it advertises.

An essential part of the Swarthmore experience is learning to question the world around oneself. Through academics, campus resources and organizations, and simply being with other Swatties, students are taught to question, point out flaws, offer improvements, and assert their voices in an earnest way. Part of what students examine is the very institution from which they learn this critical thinking. This action can be seen presently in Mountain Justice’s divestment campaign and multiple demonstrations and protests on the issue. The college should largely support these initiatives, but has threatened students with citations and probations for interfering with college operations.

To first offset some concern, the Phoenix does not expect the college always to orchestrate actions perfectly in time with current events — the college does not control each aspect of this issue. Questions of the student handbook must be addressed to follow due diligence; however, the college’s handling of these situations must be examined independently, so students can engage earnestly with their institution.

Beyond disagreeing with divestment, the college’s warnings of citation and probation are seemingly meant to deter students from exercising their rights to assembly and peaceful protest. As an institution that encourages political activism from its founding to the sanctuary campus initiative and financing of Women’s March events, it is disappointing and demoralizing that the college only supports activism as long as the demonstrations are not aimed at it.

We acknowledge that it is true that the students sitting in the Chief Investment Officer’s were in violation of item six of the disorderly conduct definition of the Student Code of Conduct. However, we not only protest the enforcement of this item, but it’s very existence. Item six includes within disorderly conduct “other conduct that disrupts the normal operations of the college.” This broadens the definition of disorderly conduct to include anything that inconveniences faculty or staff. It’s also important to note that this item is a new change to the 2016-2017 Student Code of Conduct; any claim that the students opted in to this rule is tenuous as the majority of current students had already established themselves at the college before this rule was added. Although the previous edition of the Student Code of Conduct did state that conduct which impinged on the “orderly and essential operations of the College” was disorderly and that the previous defining list of five items was not limiting, the language has since been clearly intentionally broadening, which is troubling.

Furthermore, if the college intends to stand by this change to the Code of Conduct and its broad enforcement of the new definition it cannot position itself as a supporter of campus activism. The new wording bans any activism inconvenient to the college and, put very simply, supporting only activism which is convenient for you is not supporting activism. The point of demonstrations is to disrupt day to day activities to draw attention to a pressing issue. If there’s no disruption, all that’s left is a candy-coated family-friendly version of activism which achieves nothing and would be shameful to this college’s founders.

Future students will enter the liberal arts tradition. When speaking to prospective Swatties, the college rattles off stories of students using the campus to incubate ideas that they can explore boldly on and off campus. Tour guides mention  sit-ins and trips to Philadelphia and Washington they have attended to illustrate the campus’ activist tendencies. Item six in the Student Code of Conduct hampers inquiry and challenge where students are meant to hone those skills for the future.

The college’s actions this March, in its threats of probation and citation against student protesters, have demonstrated the college does not support the activities it promotes if those actions are directed at it. As it has decided that social justice is part of its history, character, and branding, the administration must find some to respect student activism.

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