[Trigger warning: racist and anti-Semitic hate speech.]
On Saturday, Feb. 25, just over a month after Donald Trump’s inauguration and a day after the second of two consecutive incidents of racist hate speech at Vassar, more than 100 people gathered in the College Center Circle at noon for “Rally, Resist, Rise,” a solidarity event hosted by a new preliminary organization called Healing to Action (H2A).
One of H2A’s co-founders explained the rationale for the group’s creation in an interview, saying, “H2A came out of us feeling as though there wasn’t an outlet for our grief, an outlet for our healing, an outlet for us to come together—especially in the first year class—to discuss the issues that were affecting us.” After three consecutive police shootings of unarmed Black men in September and after President Trump’s election in November, this co-founder and two other collaborators joined together to find an answer to the question, “‘How can we support each other in this community and how can we break the silence that so often happens in this Vassar bubble?’”
As one of them added, “The most important tenet on which H2A was founded was that what affects one individual on campus affects all of us.”
Before the rally began, H2A members handed out informational zines entitled, “Read, Resist, Rise: A toolkit for collective resistance during the Trump administration.” The zines included explanations of phrases such as “executive order” and “sanctuary city,” summaries of executive orders and presidential memorandums President Trump has issued and contact information for Poughkeepsie’s congressional representatives. They also included a list of Vassar’s identity organizations, on-campus resources, local groups to get involved in and trustworthy news sources.
Though the rally was planned weeks before they occurred, the recent bias incidents on Vassar’s campus were featured prominently in several speeches. In both cases, each occurring during the previous week, anti-Black graffiti was found in the library, reading, “Kill all the Blacks” and “Negro is the disease of our society. WHITE PRIDE,” followed by three swastikas.
One of the co-founders commented that though the content of the rally changed somewhat in response to these incidents, the intention behind it—to create a platform for the voices of those who feel marginalized, unsafe or silenced—stayed the same.
A student speaking on behalf of the Asian Students Alliance (ASA) criticized the Admissions Office on its handling of tours for prospective students the day before, when there had been a solidarity gathering in front of the library. He said, “Admissions, you neglected to show what campus life is truly like for some people when you steered the tour groups away from the library … They told tour groups that there was a protest, but they didn’t say why. I recognize the hard choice they had to make, but ultimately, they chose silence. They prioritized prospective rich white applicants who don’t even go here yet over our Black students.”
Another student read a poem he wrote entitled “Surprise,” about erasure of non-white students on Vassar’s campus. In it, he condemned the fact that Interim President Jonathan Chenette had failed to use the word “Black” or to address that the hate speech specifically targeted Vassar’s Black community in his email to the student body responding to the incident. He concluded, “Vassar is not a bubble where racism doesn’t exist. Vassar has never been a bubble for people of color.”
While the bias incidents were on the forefront of many people’s minds, the rally featured speakers discussing the struggles of a variety of marginalized groups and the importance of coming together.
The ASA representative addressed Vassar’s Asian community later in his speech, saying, “Let us not forget that we have been here before in history. Last Sunday was the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which FDR signed, sending some 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps. We can never forget that America will always perceive us as the ‘other,’ until further liberation of the other ‘others,’ whom we should always be looking to stand with.”
Associate Professor of English Molly McGlennen, who helped found Native American Studies at Vassar (a correlate sequence in the American Studies Program), called on the audience to remember indigenous people like the Wappinger tribe of the Hudson Valley. She remarked, “I want to center indigenous peoples today in our resistance, because we cannot create these spaces to gather and organize without recognizing indigenous people’s histories of colonial violence and continued presence on this continent and on this very tract of land.” She then read a poem entitled “Vigilance” that she wrote for “The World After Jan. 20, 2017,” an exhibit at Vassar’s Palmer Gallery.
The student president of the Disability Rights Coalition pointed out that many spaces at Vassar, including some dorms and academic buildings, are inaccessible to those with certain types of physical disabilities. She also said that although the treatment of mental and psychological disabilities available at Vassar has improved, it is not perfect. Disability is not talked about much on campus, but she argued that it is a vital concern. “Disability affects everybody, regardless of their other identities,” she said.
Another attendee read a poem he had written about the importance of gender-neutral bathrooms, a particularly poignant subject after the Trump administration’s Feb. 22 repeal of protections for transgender public school students. The protections, implemented by President Obama, allowed transgender and gender non-conforming students to use the bathroom of their choice. He read, “Waiting in line, I look down. I don’t belong here, but I don’t belong there, and there’s nowhere in between but violence … I walk into a women’s bathroom, but I am not a woman … I’m only here because the line is shorter, because I can’t wait safely on the other side, because womanhood is actually a shield for me, although I hate to use it as protection, because we live in a world where femininity usually means oppression.”
Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Jasmine Syedullah spoke about the nature—and difficulty—of intersectionality itself, observing, “Part of the challenge of these particular confluences of intersecting struggles is that we get really siloed. We think that our own individual interest and investment in our own injuries and harm and risk to our bodies is what should be our reason for being present … We are all in crisis, the crisis is pervasive. It has no borders. The more we respond to instances of harm as if they are individuated, the more harm we’re going to create … Instances of violence that target particular people have immediate impacts on particular groups and are not equally felt by everyone in the same way, but they are felt by everyone.”
Chair of the Bias Incident Response Team and Associate Dean of the College Edward Pittman noted the importance of student activism. “As an administrator, I have an obligation to justice and fairness. If I can’t fulfill [that obligation] through the means provided by Vassar College, then we have to find other means to do that work,” he commented. “[The student body is] the best judge of that. When the systems are not working on campus, it is important for you to stand and to voice that.”
A little after 1 p.m., H2A concluded the rally by inviting the audience to a tabling event directly afterward, at which they could speak to representatives from Vassar’s various identity organizations. They concluded, “This is a continuation of active solidarity. We did not start this work, and this is not where it will end. We must work together and never stop.”
Discussing where H2A hopes to go in the future in an interview after the rally, the pre-org responded that its members are still figuring it out, but that they are committed to ensuring that H2A survives the next four years and beyond, unlike some past activist groups at Vassar that have dismantled. As one of the co-founders added, “We’re hoping to make activism something that’s sustainable on this campus and that builds on the work of others.”
Another co-founder echoed the group’s closing remark at the rally, saying, “This work isn’t done. Even on this seemingly progressive, liberal campus, we still have so much work to do. It’s really going to take everyone—everyone risking, everyone sacrificing, everyone willing to put the work in to dismantle oppression in our community. This is hard work. It’s taxing emotionally, physically and mentally, but if we can come together like we did today, it can be powerful, it can be healing and it can be active.”