Last Thursday, a male visitor to the college waved the stars and bars of the confederate flag during the closing minutes of Pub Nite. The visitor, as well as some Swarthmore students standing near him, allegedly pushed one student who asked him to put the flag away and called another a “giant slut.”
Although only a small number of students witnessed the event, an email sent out the next day by Senior Class Secretary Maia Gerlinger ’12 to the entire student body informed the community of what had happened. The display of the flag launched a debate about the meaning of this symbol and how the college should handle incidents of violence and hate speech on campus.
Avery Davis ’12 was one of a small group of students who actually witnessed the event and asked the visitor to put the flag away. She said that the visitor began waving a flag a little larger than a standard sheet of letter paper at 11:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before the Pub Nite ended. He was standing with a group of five to 10 friends, some of them Swarthmore students, chanting “U.S.A.” One of the Swarthmore students, a high school friend of the visitor, served as the guest’s host on campus.
Davis, citing the fact that Pub Nite was a safe space and that his actions were inappropriate, asked him to put it away. The male holding the flag as well as some of his friends, who Davis described as looking pleased and eager to provoke other students, pushed Davis away. Davis alerted the Party Associates to the situation. When the man holding the flag continued to refuse to put it away, two of Davis’s friends also asked him to put it down. When a third friend of Davis’, also a female, approached, the man holding the flag said, “Fuck off you giant slut.”
Davis explained that she and a group of friends found the flag offensive because it represented a time when the United States oppressed and enslaved a large group of people. While it is perfectly legal to display the flag, Davis felt differently. “In my opinion [the flag] should be legally classified as hate speech.” Davis returned with friends to a dorm and searched the Cygnet and Facebook to find out the names of the visitor and his host.
The next morning Davis, along with Julian Leland ’12 and MC Mazzocchi ’12, spoke with Dean of Students Liz Braun to ask that the visitor be asked to leave campus and not return. They also asked that the Swarthmore students who invited him to campus be spoken to. “[Braun] was pretty receptive,” Davis said the next day. “I am hopeful that she will take action.” However, on Monday the group returned to the deans because they felt that there had been an incredible silence surrounding the incident. Davis described the response to the incident as “slow” and “paltry.”
Braun said that she did not email the campus until Monday night because she wanted to make sure that the Deans shared accurate information with the campus. According to Associate Dean for Student Life Myrt Westphal, the host is being adjudicated in accordance with college policy. The student handbook states, “Hosts are responsible for the behavior of their guests and can be sanctioned if the guest breaks College policy.” In this case, the guest’s violations included underage drinking and intimidation.
Westphal indicated that in the confidential adjudication project the administration would be mindful of how the host responded. “I think the host of the guest did what he could to get the guest out of the way and off campus.”
The host, a first-year student who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the subject, spoke regretfully about the incident. “I’m really sorry for bringing him here,” he said. “I didn’t know he had the flag.” The host said that as soon as he saw the flag out at Pub Nite, he took it away from his friend, left the scene and asked his friend to leave campus and not come back. He added that he doesn’t think that the flag is an acceptable symbol to display in public.
However, the incident has incited discussion about the meaning of the flag. A post on swassipthesequel.tumblr.com describing the incident was met with five anonymous commenters who identified themselves as students stating that displaying the flag was not a hateful or intimidating act.
Westphal said she did not feel comfortable deciding whether this was an instance of hate speech. However, she said that what mattered was the fact that students felt hurt by the incident.
In addition to concerns surrounding the display of the flag on campus and lack of respect the visitor showed when he refused to put the flag away, students also raised concern about Public Safety’s response to the incident. Mazzocchi was working at McCabe library during Pub Nite. After it ended, a friend went to McCabe to inform Mazzocchi of what had happened. They felt very upset about the incident and called Public Safety after the incident because they wanted there to be a record of the event.
Mazzocchi called Public Safety once and then, 10 minutes later, remembering more information, Mazzocchi called back. During the second call, they felt the Public Safety Communications Officer on Duty did not take the report seriously. Mazzocchi’s library shift supervisor, Late Night Access & Lending Supervisor Kim Gormley, overheard the two phone calls and confirmed that Mazzocchi sounded like they had to justify themselves. “For the person that’s supposed to be the gateway to safety to be so dismissive, that’s really alarming,” Mazzocchi said.
In an email, Mazzocchi said that on Tuesday George Darbs, Public Safety Communications Supervisor, called to apologize for the dispatcher’s behavior and to say that the flag was a hateful symbol.
Davis and Mazzocchi are worried that these types of hateful acts have become a trend on campus. “I feel like there has been a real increase in violent and hateful incidents,” Davis said. Early Sunday morning, homophobic graffiti was written on the walls of David Kemp Hall. Five weeks beforehand, there was an incident of homophobic hate speech directed toward a first-year student at a Swarthmore Queer Union party. The male student was dancing with another man when someone shouted “faggot.” Last spring, two violent incidents took place, one involving strangers assaulting students and another involving a student threatening another student.
While both Braun and Westphal were hesitant to say that this was any sort of trend as each incident took place under different circumstances — in some cases with students, in others guests, and in others total strangers — the two deans said that there is an ongoing dialogue about how to protect and support students who have felt injured in any way. In her email concerning the three intimidating incidents this spring, Braun said, “These separate incidents point out the need for us to be ever vigilant in our commitment to resolve differences in a constructive, civil manner, and to be mindful of others who may feel intimidated or anxious if discourse deteriorates.”
In an interview, Braun said that one potential way to help students “resolve differences” is to implement Bystander Training, a program open to all students, at the college. This type of training, which Braun has spoken about with her colleagues at peer institutions over the past few months, entails teaching students alternate strategies for intervening in difficult situations while still avoiding the type of direct confrontation that would put students in danger.
Bystander Training would enhance the resources already in place to support students, such as the PAs and trained Party Hosts.
However, Braun said that there is not a certain program or solution that can be expected to “fix” these types of situations. “The important thing to remember is that there isn’t a one-side fits all approach.” She emphasized the importance of community dialogue and suggested that the upcoming diversity symposium beginning March 28 would be an important part of this multi-faceted approach to making the college a safe community.
In addition to Bystander Training efforts, a group of RAs has submitted a letter to Dean Head, Dean Westphal and Dean Braun voicing concern and expressing plans for the future.
Davis, in regards to Bystander Training, was in agreement that no one program could make the campus feel safer. “I think Bystander Training is a good idea,” she said. “But I think what is the root cause and why this is happening are important issues.”