The president-elect exploits a tragedy

December 12, 2016

Pranav Jani, a longtime contributor and associate professor at Ohio State University (OSU), writes about the climate on campus following the horrible attack on November 28 and the determination of students and faculty to resist the tide of hate and scapegoating. OSU students Maryam Abdi, Stu Edgecombe, Andrea Guttman Fuentes and Yashna Panda contributed interviews and additional comments.

DONALD TRUMP surprised many students, faculty and staff at Ohio State University last week when he announced he would visit our campus on December 8.

Trump's stated goals seemed innocent enough: to meet victims of the November 28 car and knife attack by an OSU student that left 11 people injured and the assailant dead. But Trump obviously had other motives. This was clearly a public relations stunt to ramp up the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and specifically anti-Somali rhetoric he spewed during the campaign.

The attack was committed by Abdul Razak Ali Artan, who drove a car into a crowd of people on the OSU campus and attacked several individuals with a butcher knife. Artan was shot and killed within two minutes by Alan Horujko, an OSU police officer. The campus went into lockdown for a few fearful hours as announcements were made about an "active shooter" at large.

As soon as it became clear that the attacker was a Muslim and of Somali origin, both the mainstream and right-wing media started politicizing the incident as "Islamic" terrorism by a member of a refugee community. Trump joined in, tweeting: "ISIS is taking credit for the terrible stabbing attack at Ohio State University by a Somali refugee who should not have been in our country."

Protesting Trump at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Less than two weeks after the attack that, like any violent incident on a college campus, left students, faculty and staff shaken, Trump and the far right have made Ohio State ground zero for their campaign against Muslims, immigrants and refugees.

On campus, those who showed compassion for Artan or attempted to understand what could have driven him to such a terrible act have been harassed and threatened.

And this is in the context of a post-election climate that had already created great anxiety at Ohio State, as it has nationally--especially for the right's main scapegoats.

At Ohio State, there have been incidents of harassment and white nationalist flyers posted around campus. Tensions at post-election rallies have been high, with police having to separate Trump supporters from protesters. In one incident, a well-known socialist organizer was assaulted by an onlooker as he spoke at a campus rally.

But on December 8, some 75 students, faculty and community members defied the bitter cold and the threatening political climate for a demonstration called on short notice to protest Trump's visit.

The slogans of the rally, called by the International Socialist Organization-Columbus and co-sponsored by the Interfaith Coalition, Socialist Alternative-Columbus, the Student Farmworker Alliance and other groups, included "Don't turn tragedy into hate" and "Immigrants are welcome here."

This demonstration and other actions at OSU and around Columbus are important in challenging the xenophobic backlash that has followed the November 28 attack and Trump's use of a tragic event for advancing his personal and political agendas.

EACH OF us at Ohio State, regardless of background or political ideology, felt anxiety and fear that Monday morning--emotions and reactions that are far too common experiences in the U.S., given the frequency of violence at primary and secondary schools, colleges, churches, mosques and temples, shopping malls and night clubs.

But just as we saw earlier this year in the aftermath of the police murder of Tyre King, a 13-year-old African American youth, the media and police immediately seized the narrative to reinforce mainstream ideas that paint Muslims and Black people as violent, immigrant communities as criminal and backward, refugee communities as outsiders, and police as heroes.

Mainstream accounts described what happened in lurid terms, and none hesitated to speculate about Artan's as-yet-unproved relationship to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS claimed through its news agency that Artan had acted as a "soldier" of the organization, but as of this writing, there was no concrete evidence of any communication between Artan and ISIS, much less that he was inspired to act by it. The media had to resort to quoting "experts" to make a link--like USA Today reporter John Bacon, who wrote, "The SITE Intelligence Group, a Bethesda-Md.-based company that tracks online activity of potential terror organizations, said the attack mirrors some the instructions that ISIS has issued."

Even when the media offered more in-depth reporting, its articles were shaped by an Islamophobic bias. For instance, a Washington Post reporter interviewed me at length and fairly represented my viewpoint--but the headline and lead of the resulting article, focused on ISIS claims about Artan, buried the reporter's portrayals of Muslim students' fears at Ohio State.

IT WAS the campus newspaper, The Lantern, that took the lead in explaining something about Artan, capturing what it means to be a person of color, a Muslim and an immigrant on this campus--and how, in the words of a queer South Asian OSU undergraduate who spoke to Socialist Worker, "fear of experiencing discrimination is an everyday aspect of studying on this campus."

After the attack, the Lantern republished an August 25th interview with Artan conducted by reporter Jay Panadikar as part of a series called "Humans of Ohio State." A successful student at Columbus State, the local community college, Artan had just arrived at Ohio State--and the interview captured his anxieties and fears:

I wanted to pray in the open, but I was scared with everything going on in the media. I'm a Muslim, it's not what the media portrays me to be. If people look at me, a Muslim praying, I don't know what they're going to think, what's going to happen. But I don't blame them. It's the media that put that picture in their heads, so they're just going to have it's going to make them feel uncomfortable.

If Artan was feeling this scared and isolated before the election, one can only imagine how hopeless and distraught he felt afterward, when crowds of celebrating Trump supporters marched down Woodruff Avenue the night after the election. Or when racist posters from an "alt-right" group--reading "Love who you are. Be White."--were hung up in Hagerty Hall, the building where many foreign language departments are located.

To repeat: We don't know why Artan did what he did. There is no definite link between his religion and his race and his actions. The vast majority of people who feel alienated and oppressed on this campus don't resort to acts of violence--which can only produce fear, leading to further backlashes against minority communities.

But the media and the OSU administration are, by and large, unconcerned with the conditions that gave rise to Artan and his actions. While the media have resorted to scaremongering rhetoric and speculation about Muslims, Somalis and "outsiders," the administration has sent out lukewarm memos about diversity that minimize the scale of the racist backlash.

Trump and far-right individuals and organizations are taking advantage of this to capitalize on the climate of fear that was already taking hold on campus.

THE WASHINGTON Post published a follow-up article on Muslim reactions to the attack and its aftermath, including interviews with leaders of organizations on and off campus, as well as contributors to this article.

Their words reveal the general sense of fear and anxiety; a redoubling of the alienation already prevalent after Trump's open assault on the presence of Muslims in the U.S. and his explicit condemnation of Somalis; and, in some cases, efforts to bend over backwards to explain that Muslims and immigrants denounce Artan's actions and that the actions of an individual shouldn't be used to smear a religion or whole groups.

Two Muslim students--Rooney and Layla, who have been active around political issues such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, protesting anti-Black racism, and defending campus democracy--talked to us in interviews about how they experienced the attacks and the aftermath. Their responses were similar to the sentiments of the broader OSU campus left, as expressed at a December 7 speakout organized by the OSU Coalition for Black Liberation (OSU4BL).

Neither Rooney nor Layla was on campus at the time of the November 28 attack, but they were, of course, concerned about friends and classmates.

Both registered a sense of familiarity with another case of violence. As Rooney described her reaction to the initial alert about an "active shooter": "Gun violence here in the States is at such a fever pitch that events like this aren't abnormal. Yet having it so close to home did throw everyone for a tailspin."

Both students were angered by the immediate rise of Islamophobia and the response of Trump supporters that seemed almost gleeful. "I even saw a photo of someone's dorm window decorated with a sign reading, 'I was right. Trump 2016,'" Layla said. "That was really appalling. How can you say 'I told you so' over a tragedy?"

Clearly, said Rooney, Artan's Muslim faith was the reason "he automatically got the label of an extremist, and with that, Islamophobia follows...I was still a bit taken aback by how many looks I get walking around campus wearing a scarf. Hyper-visibility as a Somali-Muslim woman has absolutely changed the way I navigate campus."

The Somali Students Association and the Muslim Students Association at OSU released statements condemning Artan's attack in the hopes of deflecting some of the Islamophobic rhetoric. Both Rooney and Layla said they understood the purpose the statements, but were sad that the organizations felt the need to distance themselves from an assailant with which they had no direct connection apart from religious and ethnic identity.

Rooney said the aftermath of November 28 worsened the hateful climate since the elections. Within the Somali community, people talk about instances of harassment and abuse that aren't reported to authorities for fear of further reprisals.

For example, after the OSU attack, Rooney said, "I heard stories of young Somali girls who had their hijabs ripped off and tossed around by a couple of older white men, and they were urged by their families to not report these hate crimes due to fear of questioning and police interference."

What's happened at OSU has had had a larger impact on the Somali community in Columbus, the second largest in the U.S. "It's devastating," said Rooney, "to know that the election and the actions of a lone attacker have caused so many in the community to keep a low profile."

Rooney says she fears that "the government will...transform this tragedy into a citywide surveillance program against Somalis-Americans in Columbus"--much like the Countering Violent Extremism program established by the Justice Department in three cities, including Minneapolis, the city with the largest Somali population in the U.S.

FORTUNATELY, MANY individuals and groups, in the city and on campus, have stepped up against the right-wing tide since the election.

Thousands of people came out to protest Trump and the far right in Columbus, as in cities around the country. New organizations like Columbus United have sprung up overnight, holding planning meetings that bring together dozens and dozens of organizers, new and old.

At Ohio State, the growing community of left student groups has continued to mobilize. Several demonstrations to oppose the climate of fear and bring together targeted communities with others in solidarity have drawn hundreds of people, taking over intersections and central campus locations.

In their infinite wisdom, OSU administrators allowed an "open carry" group to hold an "educational tour" through campus a week after the attack--the right-wingers, of course, saw this as an occasion to call for Ohio's "open carry" gun laws to apply at Ohio State as well.

The racial and political double standards weren't lost on left-wing activists, who live in a state where there have been three cases of African Americans killed by police for the "crime" of holding toy guns: John Crawford III, Tamir Rice and Tyre King. When the pro-gun group came through OSU, different groups of activists organized events like a march to the office of OSU President Michael Drake and "GunFree Study Group" to galvanize opposition.

In addition, faculty and staff have begun organizing beyond the usual confines of academic departments. An open letter stating that faculty and staff "stand united in opposition to the recent wave of intimidation and violence on campus" now has well over 900 signatures.

Faculty moderated a town hall meeting on campus after Election Day--called for by Black, Asian, Latino organizations in response to fear and anxiety--that drew more than 1,000 students to the Hale Black Cultural Center over the course of the evening.

And on December 8--the day of Trump's visit--faculty and staff organized a teach-in called "Teaching in Troubled Times" that brought out about 150 people to address how faculty and graduate student teachers can challenge racism, xenophobia, sexism and racism.

Students who attended the protest against Trump's opportunistic Ohio State visit earlier in the day indicated their determination to "resist everywhere," as one put it.

One student connected the fight against the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant backlash with the larger struggles to come for a society we really want to see: "I came to protest because it is more important than ever to show support and solidarity with all oppressed groups of people. Building solidarity will benefit everyone who is against Trump, racism and sexism, and help push our movement forward to build a society that benefits all people."

No one dealing with the fear caused by an incident of campus violence should also have to worry about their safety from racists and Islamophobes. It will be crucial in the coming months to make the connections between every protest to defend the oppressed and build the larger struggle against the rise of the far right.

Maryam Abdi, Stu Edgecombe, Andrea Guttman Fuentes and Yashna Panda contributed to this article.

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