The following article is Healing to Action’s timeline from Monday, Oct. 23, to Wednesday, Oct. 25, as well as our official statement to Vassar College.
Monday, Oct. 23
An H2A member expresses concern about a lecture being held on Wednesday, Oct. 25, entitled “‘Hate Speech’ Is Still Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville” by William A. Jacobson and the threat that it poses to marginalized identities within our community. It is our understanding that the title of this lecture was approved by VSA under the title “An Examination of Free Speech and Hate Speech in the United States today,” was changed to and publicized as “‘Hate Speech’ Is Still Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville” and was later changed to “An Examination of Hate Speech and Free Speech on College Campuses.”
H2A discusses the need to provide a space for people to connect, ascertain the needs of the community, move forward collectively by supporting each other, prioritize safety and resist a narrative that presents free speech as being under attack.
We decide to host a meeting in UpC at 8:30 p.m. H2A begins publicizing the event, reaching out to students, faculty, staff and administration by calling for the community to come together. In the initial email, we declare that “Healing to Action will hold space for folks to come together tonight and discuss our concerns specifically regarding the VCLU’s event on Wednesday.”
H2A sends an email acknowledging the oversight in not including the need to center Jewish people in the discussion.
Students interested in facilitating the meeting arrive in UpC early to discuss the event’s structure and how exactly to provide a space for where everyone can share what they need, get on the same page and move forward collectively.
H2A hosts a gathering in UpC, the second floor of the Deece. It is attended by some faculty members, an administrator and over 200 students.
The meeting prioritizes SAFETY surrounding Wednesday’s lecture.
Those in attendance voice specifically what they need from the other people in the room and from the greater Vassar community.
We brainstorm in small groups and then collectively about how we as a community want to respond to the lecture.
We decide to meet on the following Tuesday, Oct. 24, at 7:00 p.m. in UpC again to continue the conversation and focus on working groups.
H2A members meet with VSA Exec, providing compiled research on Jacobson’s past lectures and online presence, as well as the online platforms that the event in question was shared on and why that was cause for concern. H2A requested that this information be shared by the VSA with President Bradley in a letter later titled “William A. Jacobsen Letter.”
Tuesday, Oct. 24
Two members of H2A meet with President Bradley, the Director of Safety and Security, the Director of Media Relations, the Director of EOAA, other administrators and some members of VSA Exec Board to go over the tentative security measures that members of the community discussed the night before. They discuss how student safety teams and security officers could collaborate. Security officers are invited to attend Tuesday night’s meeting.
An email is sent calling everyone back to create a game plan for the day of the lecture. It introduces the working groups that emerged from discussion at Monday’s meeting and once again emphasizes the priority of safety.
A smaller, core group of people including H2A members, students at large and faculty meet and discuss a time frame for the 7:00 p.m. meeting.
The space is opened with norms and then the group of 100+ members of Vassar’s community break up into three working groups. These three working groups include:
— Library team
— Safety and security/zine team
— Rocky team
From 7:00 p.m. until around 9:15 p.m. these three groups work diligently to create a game plan for the following day. Group chats are formed which allow people to stay in contact about preparing for the event and during the time of the lecture.
Wednesday, Oct. 25
The zine team formats a zine and prints 600+ copies. Printing is provided by the library. These are distributed by 20+ student volunteers and given to Vassar students, staff and faculty.
The zine includes the need to center and protect marginalized bodies, contact numbers for the Community Response Center (CRC)—including a line to EMS, alternative programming in the library specific for self-care, details concerning safety teams stationed across campus and information for attending the lecture itself—specifically detailing Rocky 304 as a safety room and advice for avoiding potentially violent conflict.
Most of the text of the zine is also emailed out to the H2A mailing list under the subject line “Healing ourselves today.”
The student-led safety teams meet on the Residential Quad along with a few Vassar security guards. Glow stick wristbands are handed out so that safety teams can be easily identified, and organizers go over expectations for the safety members.
The importance of protecting the more vulnerable bodies is reiterated, but above all, emphasis is placed on the fact that no student should put themselves in immediate danger and that serious concerns should be handled by trained Vassar security. The CRC phone numbers were announced again and written down by all safety members. The safety members were split up into even groups to cover the agreed-upon stations.
Students attending the lecture gather in Rocky 304 to go over safety measures. They hand out copies of the zine to arriving students and let them know that (1) the event was being recorded by Media Resources at the request of the VCLU and (2) there was a safety and self-care room in Rocky 304 with volunteers should anyone feel the need to leave the lecture.
People attend the lecture. Rocky is packed with mostly students and some visitors from off campus.
Vassar’s security checks the bags of the lecture attendees to ensure no weapons are brought into the space.
People on safety teams keep a look out throughout the night and remain in contact about who is coming on and off campus, and suspicious activities are communicated to Vassar security.
The conversation at the library is centered around how communities can be resilient when there is internal conflict. We discuss how a community can come together across differences especially when harm has been done. It is also a space for people to air their frustrations and express their emotional responses to the events of the day.
While we are proud of the work we do, Healing to Action strives to be conscious of and learn from our mistakes. We feel that acknowledging where we went wrong and holding ourselves accountable is an important step towards healing, and allows us the ability to recognize our strengths as well as weaknesses. We would like to first acknowledge the neglect we showed to two very important at-risk communities. In our initial email about Jacobson’s lecture, we wrote “This is a space for grounding ourselves and centering Black & Brown people, Trans and queer folk who will be targeted by this event and will bear the burden of any actions we take.” In this, we failed to mention how white nationalist and neo-Nazi rhetoric also affects Jewish and Muslim communities. After receiving criticism from our diligent community, we sent an email four hours later recognizing our erasure of Jewish students. At no point did we publicly recognize our erasure of Muslim students in our conversations, and for this we deeply apologize. We strive to be a part of a community of people that hold themselves and others accountable.
We also recognize that although we connected the event’s legitimization of hate speech to the expected presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis on our campus, we should have more clearly explained the links between free speech and white supremacy. Demands for the protection of free speech under the First Amendment are based on the assertion that all voices are given equal weight in society and they all need protection from censorship. This is objectively false in our white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist society. These demands fail to acknowledge systems of oppression that give power to privileged people (those who are white, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy and/or able-bodied) at the expense of the “others” of society. The Constitution was created to justify genocide of indigenous peoples and institutionalize chattel slavery. It is inherently racist, and is currently used to justify modern day acts of racism. Hate speech is a violent tool used by oppressors to preserve white supremacy, the patriarchy, etc., and any rhetoric that serves to protect it is inherently linked to this violence. We wish to alter the framing of this issue altogether. The issue at hand is not about one’s individual, legal right to free speech, but is instead about the collective well-being of all members of our society. Healing to Action is premised on the idea that what affects one individual affects us all. Speech, whether it is legal or not, can be and is violent. We have a collective responsibility to stand up for those in our communities who are harmed or disenfranchised by speech, whether it is technically legally permissible or not.
It must also be stated that the fact that no physical harm occurred on Wednesday was a best-case scenario. We were incredibly lucky, but it cannot be taken for granted. The work of students and members of Vassar’s community was a response to a very real threat of potential danger and violence. The gravity of the threat is exemplified by the violence that was sparked by the presence of the alt-right, white supremacist and white nationalist leader Richard Spencer at the University of Florida in Gainesville as well as violence that ensued at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, this past August.
Last week’s organized campus-wide response to Jacobson’s lecture was not a simple task and the amount of work it required cannot be overstated. Over 200 members of Vassar’s community (including students, staff, faculty and administrators) dedicated hours of labor to collectively outlining what we needed from our campus and how we were going to achieve those goals. For us, this meant mandating the prioritization of safety. Healing to Action may have established the space, but it was thanks to the strategic planning of hundreds of people that a precedent was set for how our school and others in America can and should respond to the threat of white supremacy. These recent events have proved that Vassar does not exist in a bubble and is indeed affected by larger systems like white supremacy. While we were able to demonstrate to ourselves our capacity for collective action, our work is not yet done just because Jacobson left campus.
Healing to Action is more than just a student organization at Vassar College. Healing to Action is an exploration of how we, as dedicated and conscious individuals, mobilize towards our collective liberation from systemic oppression. We all experience oppression to a degree—even the privileged, even the oppressors. Therefore, we all share a responsibility to reimagine what kind of world we wish to live in—a world that resists the isolation imposed on us by systems of white supremacy, the patriarchy and capitalism. The events of last week have only emphasized the need to reimagine our resistance, to reimagine how we can create a restorative and just society that acknowledges and engages with the repercussions of centuries of trauma.
As we envision what we want for our future, it is necessary to ask what will we, not just as members of Vassar College, but as people, do to strengthen to this collective movement.
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