Smear campaign against a Trinity professor

June 26, 2017

Eric Maroney reports from Connecticut on the latest target of the right's strategy of complaining about so-called threats from the left to cover their own abuse and violence.

THE RIGHT-wing campaign against left-leaning professors and academics took aim at another educator last week.

Trinity College, a small liberal arts college in Hartford, Connecticut, announced it would close, with all employees and guests evacuated on June 21 following a storm of threats received by Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a tenured professor of sociology who teaches on race and racism.

The smear campaign was in response to an article Williams shared on his personal Twitter and Facebook accounts. As Inside Higher Ed explained, the article, written by someone else, was taken out of context to accuse him of threatening violence.

The Trinity professor, John Eric Williams, last week shared a link to a Fusion piece called "Bigoted Homophobe Steve Scalise's Life Was Saved by a Queer Black Woman." It points to the fact that Scalise, the Republican congressman who was recently shot at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, has previously opposed extending protections to LGBTQ people and reportedly once spoke at a meeting of white supremacists, while one of the Black law enforcement officers who rescued him is a married lesbian.

Williams shared the article through an embedded link in Medium, accompanied by commentary from an author called Son of Baldwin, entitled "Let Them Fucking Die."..."Saving the life of those that would kill you is the opposite of virtuous," Baldwin wrote.

In sharing Baldwin's link to the Fusion article, Williams also used [Baldwin's] "Let them fucking die" comment as a hashtag and wrote that it is "past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be 'white' will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system."

Professor Johnny Eric Williams
Professor Johnny Eric Williams

Far from being a call for violence against white people that right-wing media outlets like Campus Reform, the Washington Times and The Blaze made it out to be, Williams comments were a reference to the rise of racist terror and continued state-sanctioned violence against Black and Brown people.

"I never intended to invite or incite violence," Williams wrote in an e-mail addressed to Trinity College. "My only aim was to bring awareness to white supremacy and to inspire others to address these kinds of injustices."

ON THE other hand, it is clear that violence is coming from the other direction: the far right.

In just the past month or so, Richard Collins, a Black college student, was stabbed to death on the University of Maryland campus by a known white supremacist; two people were murdered and another severely injured on a Portland train when they tried to prevent white supremacist Jeremy Christian from harassing two young women of color; and 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen was abducted and beaten to death as she returned for all-night prayers at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society center in Sterling, Virginia.

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During the same time period, the police officer who murdered Philando Castile outside St. Paul, Minnesota, as he sat in his car at a traffic stop was acquitted; there was a second mistrial in the case of University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing shooting unarmed motorist Sam DuBose; and protests erupted in Seattle after police shot and killed pregnant 30-year-old mother of four, Charleena Lyles as her children listened nearby.

How can anyone dispute Williams' comment about the continuing racist violence experienced by African Americans?

By slandering left-wingers like Williams, the right tries to point the blame in the other direction, but it is clear that bigots have been emboldened by the crackdown on left-wing protesters, the laws designating police as a group protected under hate crime legislation and the ongoing vitriol from the White House.

As Elizabeth Schulte wrote for, hate crimes, particularly against Muslims:

have only increased since Donald Trump took the White House, where he has reinforced every bigoted anti-Muslim idea in society--not only with rhetoric, but with action, like attempting to ban citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

But while skyrocketing anti-Muslim attacks are staring law enforcement officials in the face, they won't take them seriously, preferring instead to focus on what they consider to be the "real" threat--Muslims themselves...Media bias contributes to the toxic climate of Islamophobia--but by whipping up fear and hysteria, it helps create an atmosphere where more attacks are possible.

WILLIAMS IS one of a number in a series of left writers and academics facing the increased threats and harassment of the far right--among them, Syracuse Professor Dana Cloud, Princeton Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, University of Iowa Professor Sara Bond and Drexel University Professor George Ciccariello-Maher.

Often enough, the issue isn't anything these victims have said, written or done, but views ascribed to them by others.

For its part, the Trinity administration has failed to show significant support for Professor Williams. In her statement to the campus community, President Joanne Berger-Sweeney briefly upheld the College's commitment to free speech and a diverse college community, but then characterized Professor Williams' remarks as "hate speech" and "calls to incite violence," while promising to "explore all options to resolve this matter."

Berger-Sweeney said further action against Williams could come, before concluding with a lecture: "I told Professor Williams that in my opinion his use of the hashtag was reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment. No matter its intent, it goes against our fundamental values as an institution, and I believe its effect is to close minds rather than open them."

Two Connecticut Republicans and Trinity alumni took a step further to call for Williams to be fired. State Sen. George Logan and state House Minority Leader Themis Klarides wrote a letter calling Williams' social media posts "outrageous and racist" and calling for his removal.

In response, the Trinity chapter of the American Association of University Professors issued a statement:

It is important to remember that there is currently an organized effort to intimidate academics and especially those who speak out about issues of race and white supremacy, as Johnny did...We should not entertain the positions of those to target, distort, intimidate and punish an individual based on a (mis)reading of a few posts.

We all have an interest in protecting free speech for writers and academics. If Williams is harassed, intimidated or bullied out of the job, it would set a precedent for anyone who seeks to speak out against right wing bigotry.

But another outcome is possible. In Syracuse, supporters of Professor Dana Cloud built a campaign defending her against a very similar smear campaign by the right, and the solidarity expressed for her contributed to University Chancellor Kent Syverud taking a very different tone than Berger-Sweeney in his a letter to the campus community:

I have received messages to this effect, some of which are hard to interpret in any way other than to encourage violence. They insist that the University--and that I--denounce, censor, or dismiss the professor for her speech.

No. We are and will remain a university. Free speech is and will remain one of our key values. I can't imagine academic freedom or the genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech. Our faculty must be able to say and write things--including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable--up to the very limits of the law.

Those committed to fighting bigotry and censorship must respond to the attacks on Dr. Williams and others. A petition calling for the Trinity administration to stand by Williams is circulating--and we need to look for other ways to show our solidarity.

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