[Sept. 4, 2018, Editor’s Note: At the request of one of the authors of the article, their name has been redacted.]
The Vassar Community Mural Project was erected in the College Center amid a highly political and emotionally charged campus environment, following the interrogation of four Black teenage boys from Poughkeepsie who were making too much noise in the library one Sunday evening. The mural was an attempt to create a public space for the Vassar community to use art as a form of resistance and healing: a space to visually represent current campus climate issues and to publicly demand that we do not forget about Vassar’s long history of institutional racism and profiling.
Despite the intention, the mural immediately became a space for white guilt, with anonymous posts such as, “This mural is disrespectful. VC should be ashamed,” and white critique, including, “#abolishharmlesswhitegirls2k14.” The morning the mural was supposed to come down, two white male-identified Vassar freshmen entered the College Center at 4 a.m. with a bag containing two hacksaws. We know this because one of the perpetrators told us.
Although several students watched as the two men proceeded to saw the community mural in half, the investigation was deemed inconclusive, according to the Office of Safety and Security: “The video did show two males in the area of the mural, and a bag which we believe contained the saw…I am very sorry that we could not determine who did this to your project” (Kim Squillace, Email Correspondence, 6.5.14).
While they were sawing the mural, the student explained, a white Vassar security officer approached them and asked them what they were doing. Rather than immediately reporting the two students for the destruction of the mural and the possession of a violent weapon, the Vassar security officer talked to the students for 40 minutes and debated with them about whether this was a violation or “political statement.” As the security officer looked the mural up and down, he pointed to a section that read “white privilege” and remarked, “Well, isn’t that racism?” to the two students. At that point, the security officer left and went to check in with his supervisor and then returned, declaring that they were “all good,” letting the two students continue sawing and even making a crude joke about giving them scissors because they were going to ruin their hacksaws. The security officer left without recording their names or asking for their Vassar IDs.
Two white men walked around the College Center with saws and no one questioned their presence or asked for their IDs. Meanwhile, Brown and Black men and women doing laundry, going on a run, working in their faculty offices and hanging out with their friends on the quad are routinely asked to prove that they deserve to be here and that they are not a danger to this campus.
After the mural was destroyed—and with three all-campus emails from President Catherine Hill already in our inboxes calling for “respectful debate” regarding Israel-Palestine dialogues—we waited patiently for Cappy to publicly address and take responsibility for the violent destruction of this form of “respectful debate,” as well as the racist profiling of the boys in the library.
We are still waiting.
Cappy, however, is not the devil: This institution, its faculty, staff, students and community members are also responsible for the over-policing of Black and Brown people, who must constantly justify their existence and actions on this campus.
When the police were called on four teenage Black boys and students walked by casually, knowingly, we told Black cis and trans men and women exactly what we thought about them. In an act of solidarity, student activists flyered the campus with “Racial Profiling Happens Here.” When the flyers were taken down and some were graffitied with, “They got what they deserved,” we told our Black and Brown peers that we refuse to implicate ourselves in this violence. When Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) filed a report about the “Wall of Truth” erected in the College Center that inaccurately debunked “myths” about the genocide in Israel and made racist accusations about Palestinians, the Administration’s silence reminded us which bodies matter.
Cappy speaks about racism when it suits her political agenda, keeping white wealthy donors happy. The first time President Hill spoke to condemn racism was after SJP issued a public apology for a racist graphic that had been posted on their Tumblr. Cappy sent an all-campus email notifying everyone of the event, commanding an investigation into the bias incident and requesting a full review of their pre-org status. Cappy’s condemnations of racist, hateful speech have consistently ignored the realities of Black and Brown people on this campus.
As they took our flyers down, we put them back up, and on May 20, we invited President Catherine Hill, Interim Dean of the College Eve Dunbar, Director of Security Don Marsala, Dean of Students D.B. Brown and Director of the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence (CIE) Kiese Laymon to answer our questions about racial profiling.
The panel was inconclusive. While President Hill and Dean Dunbar did not admit to the racial profiling, Marsala and Brown did their part. Clearly uninterested in the conversation, Marsala and Brown said virtually nothing, stopping their daydreams only to regurgitate what had already been said. Fortunately for us, they listened well: “Uh, yeah racial profiling happens here,” said Marsala as he passed the mic to Brown. Within a couple months, Marsala and 67 other staff and security members were given incentive packages to leave.
In the meantime, racism continued, and Vassar was doing everything they could to hide it. Enter “Lord” Margolis Healy, the catch-all solution to Vassar’s issues with racial profiling and, as we were told, sexual assault and anything else students complained about. In a meeting with Dean Roellke about the way security handled a domestic violence incident, Roellke excitedly assured us that Margolis Healy would be coming and that they had “women and people of color” on their team.
Margolis Healy came. They set up meetings with small groups of students and held a conversation in the Villard room. Curiously, they didn’t bother to reach out to Dunbar, Laymon or Associate Professor of Political Science Luke Harris, three Black professors who have been extensively involved in confronting racial profiling on campus.
Thinking that venting to Margolis Healy was finally our chance to be listened to and heard, we told stories about injustices faced by students in a multitude of marginalized positions. We talked about the fact that no Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) coordinator had been hired, we recounted the stories of Black and Brown friends and the ways they had been profiled, we talked about endless meetings behind closed doors with senior administrators who always made promises that were never fulfilled.
We told them that student activists have to carry the burden of this work when administrators fail to because this work is about survival. We told them we were running on a treadmill. They asked for our suggestions and we told them to do their job. We wanted administrators to think and stop asking students to figure it out for them.
A couple of months later, Margolis Healy issued their report. It states, “There is absolutely no doubt that many members of the Vassar College community believe that the Safety and Security Department routinely engages in racial profiling. It is troubling to note that these complaints appear to be consistent over the years, which implies that the Department has not changed the way it engages with traditionally underrepresented groups and that the College has not held those responsible for enacting change accountable.”
Students and select faculty members have been screaming these words for decades. We have said to them over and over again: Racial Profiling Happens Here. Black and Brown bodies have been targeted, have been victim to hateful crimes and have been revictimized when reporting their stories through this Institution’s puppet policies. The number of hate crimes remains “zero” on Vassar’s website, because when the Institution is responsible for the worst of it, who’s going to hold them accountable?
Even then, if Vassar makes some substantial change, what does that say to Black and Brown students? Your lives don’t matter until a professional firm tells this school they do.
A Timeline of Racial Profiling at Vassar College, 2014*
Note: In 2011-2012 The Committee on Inclusion and Excellence proposed to Dean Roellke that policy changes be made due to issues of racial profiling. Dean Roellke said the administration was in the middle of an investigation about racial profiling and that CIE should not make recommendations about policy change. The next year, CIE submitted a 13-step action plan to Dean Roellke, addressing policy and practice to reduces the perpetration of racial profiling. During 2012-2013, Dean Roellke and Interim President Chenette accepted the recommendation and moved it to an action plan. By spring of 2014, nothing had been implemented.
- Feb. 27: President Catherine Hill calls for “respectful debate” around the politics of the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
“Whether we are on campus or in the broader world, we need and seek to model respectful learning and discussion at a time when public debate is so often inflamed and unproductive” (Office of the President, Email, 2.27.14).
- March 1: 39 faculty members write an open letter supporting ASA academic boycott of Israel.
- March 3: International Studies trip to Israel conversation in CCMPR sponsored by the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence. White woman professor yells at a student of color and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) member during meeting, but still calls for “civility” from students.
- March 7: President Hill emails campus before spring break about lack of “respectful discourse.”
“Some in our community have felt distressed with a lack of respectful discourse, and some have felt that their views are marginalized” (Office of the President, Email, 3.7.14).
- March 26: Fairness to Israel, a group of alumni and parents, publishes article in The Miscellany News condemning faculty’s letter in support of the ASA boycott, stating,
“Rather, faculty and student supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel have hijacked campus discourse and imposed an anti-intellectual atmosphere in which professors are ranting activists, not scholars, and students who disagree with the prevailing ‘progressive’ ideology are intimidated into a deafening silence” (“Faculty letter squelches campus voices,” The Miscellany News, 2.26.14).
- April 11: President Hill emails campus again about the value of “civil” discourse.
“Our Statement on Civility and Responsibility in an Academic Community, in stressing the importance of both free speech and an environment ‘free from intolerance, disrespect or harassment,’ ends with the powerful statement that ‘genuine freedom of mind is not possible in the absence of civility’” (Office of the President, Email, 4.11.14).
- April 27: Security is called on young Black boys making noise in the Vassar Library. Poughkeepsie Police is called when boys cannot produce ID. One of the boys is visited later that week at school to be questioned about stolen iPods at Vassar. He knows nothing about the iPods. He is told not to return to campus.
- May 2: Students meet with Director of Security Don Marsala and Assistant Director of Security Kim Squillace. Students of color share their stories. Squillace will not say the school has an issue with racial profiling.
- May 7: Student erects Community Mural.
“The Vassar Community Mural gives students the opportunity to visually represent the issues that matter most to them in a public space”—Charmaine Branch ’14 (“Students to define Vassar experience through joint mural,” Miscellany News, 4.30.14).
- May 8: VSA is notified of a Vassar student being paid by a Zionist organization to contribute to inflammatory discussions regarding Israel and Palestine.
- May 9: Community Mural sawed in half at 4 a.m. by two white male freshmen on the day it is scheduled to come down. Security files a report.
- May 13: SJP tumblr posts graphic with anti-Semitic iconography.
- May 13: SJP issues a school wide apology acknowledging the post does not reflect the beliefs of the organization and was posted solely by an individual.
- May 14: Interim Dean of the College Eve Dunbar sends an email regarding Security policy changes. The policy changes were an adaptation of recommendations made by the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence the year prior, which the school had not implemented by May 2014. No other senior administrators endorsed the email.
- May 14: President Hill condemns racism for the first time, in response to anti-Semitic graphic:
“I am writing to condemn a racist, anti-Semitic graphic posted to the Tumblr online site affiliated with the Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). I also request that the SJP Vassar membership take responsibility for its actions and cease representing itself as an official Vassar group, pending these investigations. Vassar College is committed to free speech and academic freedom, but we condemn racist, hateful speech” (Office of the President, Email, 5.14.14).
- May 15: Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union erected the “Wall of Truth,” a pro-Israel mural challenging claims of abuse and apartheid in Palestine. The mural is taken down because it was put up “illegally.”
- May 16: Student activists flyer the campus with “Racial Profiling Happens Here” and pieces of the mural. Flyers are taken down immediately.
- May 17: Hundreds of students send a form email to President Hill, Dean Dunbar, Dean Brown and Director of Security Marsala, demanding their presence on May 20 to answer to students about recent events on campus.
- May 19-29: Julian Williams interviews students regarding SJP incident.
- May 19: President Hill endorses Dean Dunbar’s Safety and Security Advisory council email and confirms her attendance at the “Does Racial Profiling Happen Here?” panel.
- May 20: “Does Racial Profiling Happen Here?” panel. Over 400 students attend. All panel members admit that racial profiling happens at Vassar, except President Hill and Dean Dunbar.
- May 27: Williams emails students regarding an investigation of the library incident.
- Aug. 7: President Hill emails campus an update about next steps school is taking regarding racial profiling. Announces that Margolis Healy, a consulting firm that specializes in Safety and Security, will audit policies in the fall.
- Aug. 26: President Hill emails about retirement incentives. 71 staff members (including Marsala) take buyout. Squillace assumes position as Director of Security.
- Aug. 27: The investigation into the sawing in half of the Community Mural is deemed inconclusive and closed.
- Sept. 15: Margolis Healy begins interviews with groups of students, security and faculty/staff. Three Black professors involved in confronting racial profiling on campus submit written statements but were never interviewed as part of the audit.
- Nov. 25: President Hill sends out email about Ferguson and Wilson verdict. This is the first time the school has addressed murder of Mike Brown. Additionally, this is the first time President Hill states she wants to end racial profiling at Vassar. She doesn’t say how this could be made possible, other than that Margolis Healy will be helping the school implement new policy based on the report.
“First, we must make changes to guarantee that no racial profiling occurs on our campus and that all members of our community and visitors to campus feel welcome” (Office of the President, Email 11.25.14).
*This timeline does not include all of the incidents of racial profiling, micro-aggressions or hate crimes during 2014, and none before.
Compiled by students [Name Redacted] ’15, Shivani Davé’ 15 and Emma Redden ’15.