NOTE: This is an expanded version of a report originally aired on KMUD News on June 20, 2017.
Last month students at Washington’s Evergreen State College demonstrated for racial equality and in defense of their right to protest. Campus administrators agreed to many of their demands, but now Evergreen is facing an assault from the political right. Republican state politicians are calling for the privatization of the school, while Fox News hosts have compared Evergreen student activists to Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Meanwhile right-wing extremists who have repeatedly forced the closure of the school, including through threats of terrorism and mass murder. Dan Young reports.
DAN YOUNG: On May 23, a series of student protests and sit-ins took place at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Evergreen is a public school with around 4000 students, but it is also a liberal arts college that offers experimental and non-traditional education.
The demonstrations mainly focused on issues of racial equality, but protesters also had demands about support for LGBT students, as well as concerns about how the current Evergreen student conduct code may interfere with students’ right to protest. Although campus administration have granted many student demands, the campus has also seen a right-wing political backlash characterized by a mix of extreme violent threats and accusations that the Evergreen campus community itself is opposed to free speech.
On June 19, I spoke with Evergreen professor Elizabeth Williamson. Williamson gave me background about race and racism at Evergreen State College.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Evergreen’s a public college. We serve mostly white working class students. About a quarter of our students are students of color, and many students live below the poverty line. Our current president is new to the college and he’s actually been better than his predecessors in addressing equity issues. He established something called the Equity and Inclusion Council last year, which is a group of faculty, staff, and students that’s been working to make some progress on issues of race and racism. They set some strategic goals that they released last November, and those are in many ways in line with what the students were demanding during the recent protests.
DAN YOUNG: Williamson also described for me the three key events she said helped spark outrage and organizing on campus around racial issues leading up to recent demonstrations at Evergreen in late May.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: First and foremost, there are two young black men: Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, who were shot by a white Olympia policeman in 2015. And they have been subsequently put on trial for assaulting the officer with their skateboards. On May 18 of this year they were convicted of misdemeanor assault charges, and the officer has not been held responsible for his actions — including paralyzing one of them. So that’s the first and foremost.
On campus the two things are — there are a couple of black trans students who are in the process of getting kicked out of school for participating in various Black Lives Matter-oriented protests on campus. And many people feel that they’ve been targeted because they’re black: they’re not the only students involved in those protests.
The third thing is, that the weekend just before the protests, there were two black students who were detained and questioned late at night by campus police over accusations made by a non-black student. So there’s a lot of frustrations about how campus policing works.
DAN YOUNG: According to reports in the Evergreen student newspaper, the African American students who were controversially detained by campus police, were actually detained related to a heated but nonviolent in-person interaction that evolved from a social media conversation related to racial dynamics on campus — a conversation which many students had taken part in.
Additionally, the two young black men Williamson mentioned who had been shot by an Olympia police officer, were actually both found guilty of felony third degree assault in late May of 2017. In Washington State this is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. According to Williamson, many Evergreen students were involved in solidarity activism related to this shooting.
I also spoke about the recent protests at Evergreen with professor Peter Bohmer, who has taught political economy at the school since 1987. Here Bohmer describes the sit-in on Wednesday, May 24, that led to a series of student demands.
PETER BOHMER: Beginning about 1 o’clock there was huge numbers of people, I think many hundreds — I’m not sure how many but I would say at least 300, possibly more — sitting in around the president’s office having discussions led by black, Latino students, but some native students. A lot of white students were there, probably at least half of the students who were there in support were white students. And people barricaded partially the front doors of — it’s like the main building at Evergreen, it’s called the Library Building. But people could get in and out. The police were not called. And then eventually a meeting with the president — originally meeting with faculty, I was there — but then it ended up maybe being 150 to 200 people with probably half being students involved with the action. And then that led to demands.
DAN YOUNG: On Friday, May 26, Evergreen State College President George Bridges gave his official response to the student activists’s twelve demands. Elizabeth Williamson gave an overview of the demands and the administration’s response.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: They demanded mandatory sensitivity and cultural competency training for faculty, staff, administrators, and all other employees. And one of the things that happened as a result of the protests is that our union reached an agreement with the administration saying yes, we are going to have these mandatory trainings for faculty. They also demanded the creation of an equity center to sort of centralize on campus work around anti-racism, and I think that was an excellent idea, and Bridges agreed to that. They also demanded — we have a new trans and queer center, they demanded that the temporary employee who’s been running that be given a full time job. Bridges agreed to that, and to a bunch of other things that basically involve money — putting more money into supporting students of color.
DAN YOUNG: Williamson also said that student protesters had demanded that campus police stop carrying guns — a demand which college President Bridges did not agree to. Three other student demands involved calling for suspension or firing of three different faculty or staff members. Bridges did not accede to these demands, which Williamson said she felt was appropriate as all campus employees should have the right to appropriate due process in cases of possible disciplinary procedure. According to Williamson, another important upshot of the student demands was a promise from college President Bridges to revise the student conduct code with input from students. Williamson said that this was significant because of current provisions of the code which interfere with students’ right to freedom of assembly, speech, and protest.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: So the student conduct code says that you can be disciplined for “disrupting” campus activities — which gives a pretty broad leeway for them to decide what that means. Because if you can kick students out of school for disrupting college events, that means that any protest that is in any way successful can result in students being kicked out.
DAN YOUNG: On May 26, the same day that Evergreen State College president George Bridges issued his response to student demands, Evergreen professor Bret Weinstein chose to appear in a six minute segment titled “Campus Craziness” on Tucker Carlson’s FOX News program.
Over the last school year Bret Weinstein has repeatedly, publicly criticized the Evergreen campus’ equity plan, which aims to increase recruitment and retention of students and faculty of color. In March of this year Weinstein also set off an email discussion among faculty and staff after he criticized the college’s plans for their 2017 “Day of Absence, Day of Presence” events. These events have taken place at Evergreen since the 1970s and are aimed at addressing and discussing issues around race. However despite concerns raised by Weinstein, the events took place in mid-April without major controversy.
However according to professor Elizabeth Williamson, on May 23 a group of student protestors decided to visit one of Weinstein’s classes to offer concern and support to any students who felt they had experienced racial discrimination from the professor. A conflictual interaction took place between Weinstein and the student activists, and what appears to be heavily edited video of that interaction was aired on Fox News.
In the video one student tells Weinstein that he needs to apologize for racist statements. Another states that Weinstein needs to stop telling students of color that they are worthless. Other student activists tell Weinstein that he should resign from his position at the school.
The day after the encounter, when demands were being ultimately formulated by student protesters, they asked for Weinstein to be temporarily suspended. College President Bridges announced on May 26, the same day that Weinstein appeared on Fox News, that he would not agree to this demand.
During Weinstein’s appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, Carlson played video of the interactions between student protesters and Weinstein, and then referenced the year 1975 in the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Through this reference Carlson compared Evergreen student activists arguing with Weinstein, to the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime and its 1970s campaign of mass murder that killed between 1.5 and 3 million people. Carlson also suggested that the Evergreen students had threatened Weinstein, an accusation that is not supported by the video Carlson played. Weinstein did not challenge either of these characterizations by Carlson. Carlson also characterized the Evergreen student protesters as a “mob,” a characterization that Weinstein then also used himself. The following are a series of sound excerpts from Weinstein and Carlson’s exchange.
TUCKER CARLSON: Now professor, first of all, thank you for coming on. That looks like something, you know, out of, Phnom Penh, 1975. What exactly was going on there? What happened?
BRET WEINSTEIN: Well, what happened is that fifty or so students decided to disrupt the class that I was holding that morning and demand my resignation. … They imagine that I am a racist, and that I am teaching racism in the classroom, and that has caused them to imagine that I have no right to speak, that I am harming students by the very act of teaching them. …
TUCKER CARLSON: …George Bridges is supposed to be running this school. Why is he allowing a mob to threaten one of his professors? …
BRET WEINSTEIN: … Dr. Bridges is allowing this mob to effectively control the campus.
DAN YOUNG: Four days after appearing on Fox News, Weinstein also had an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal titled “The campus mob came for me, and you professor could be next.” Twitter posts by Weinstein seem to suggest that he believes the student protesters are led by people he refers to as “black supremacists.”
Twitter attacks on members of the Evergreen campus community have also been mounted by Weinstein’s brother Eric. Eric Weinstein is a Managing Director at Thiel Capital. Thiel Capital is a San Francisco based firm founded and run by Peter Thiel, a billionaire libertarian activist and former member President Trump’s transition team executive committee.
Bret Weinstein did not respond to a request for an interview for this report.
Along with public statements by Weinstein and his brother, the right-wing media has produced a steady stream of hit pieces about Evergreen. The narrative pushed in these media accounts centers on the idea that the demonstrations at Evergreen were not aimed at improving conditions for students of color and LGBT students, but that they centered around attempts to silence Weinstein and interfere with his “freedom of speech.”
At the same time, many right-wing voices have also suggested that the protected political speech of students, staff, and faculty at Evergreen should be curtailed by authorities through crack downs on campus protests and dissent. Inspired by these reports, and apparently impatient that there has not been a crackdown, right-wing extremists have also sought to silence Evergreen students, staff, and faculty through a deluge of violent and terrorist threats.
One terroristic threat issued against the entire campus resulted in Evergreen being evacuated and shut down for several days. The following is a recording of that threat, which was received by a local emergency dispatcher on June 1.
ANONYMOUS CALLER: I’m on my way to Evergreen University now with a 44 magnum. I’m going to execute as many people on that campus as I can get ahold of. You have that? What’s going on there, you communist scum bag town. I’m going to murder as many people on that campus as I can.
ANONYMOUS CALLER: Just keep your eyes open, scum bag.
DAN YOUNG: After this terroristic threat and evacuation and campus shut down, Evergreen administration chose to spend $100,000 to rent a stadium to hold their 2017 college graduation ceremony.
Perhaps due to the fact that many Evergreen student protesters who have been publicly identified have faced death threat campaigns, I was unsuccessful in my attempts to arrange an interview with a representative these students.
The Evergreen campus was shut down again on June 15 when a far right organization called “Patriot Prayer” descended on Evergreen for a so-called “free speech protest.” Past demonstrations by “Patriot Prayer” in Portland, Oregon were attended by Jeremy Christian, the self-proclaimed white nationalist who allegedly murdered two people on a Portland commuter train after they confronted him while he was in the middle of a racist verbal attack on two young women of color. Christian has allegedly stated that he also committed these murders in defense of his “freedom of speech.”
On June 15 the “Patriot Prayer” event at Evergreen brought out demonstrators carrying signs and flags with symbols of the so-called alt-right movement. Many members of the so-called alt-right are self-identified neo-nazis, while others do not identify as nazis but still seek to create a so-called “whites-only ethno-state” in north America.
Meanwhile Washington State Republican congressman Matt Manweller has responded to the protests for racial equality at Evergreen by calling for the defunding and privatization of the college. With this intense pressure from the right-wing, Evergreen professor Elizabeth Williamson said that she is concerned that the school administration may try to backtrack on their promises to students. However Williamson also said that there are many faculty members committed to holding the school’s feet to the fire on issues of racial equity.
Reporting for KMUD, this is Dan Young.