What happened at Evergreen State?

Patrick Edward H. writes from Washington on the events at Evergreen State College that led to a right-wing media crusade and threats of violence from the alt-right.

Students rally against racism at Evergreen State College (The Cooper Point Journal)Students rally against racism at Evergreen State College (The Cooper Point Journal)

EVERGREEN STATE College in Olympia, Washington, made national headlines at the end of the school year over student protests that provoked violent threats from the far right, leading to a three-day campus shutdown in June.

Much of the media depicted the controversy as a story of political correctness gone haywire, with student demonstrators attempting to stifle a professor's harmlessly stated opinions. But there's more to the story than what the press chose to focus on.

The facts need to be made clear, not only to set the record straight about what happened at Evergreen, but because the events of the spring raise questions that the left needs to discuss: about how we take on the growing threat of the far right and what methods can best challenge racism--for example, calling for firings and suspensions or confronting and politically defeating reactionary ideas.

Evergreen is a small alternative college known for its progressive faculty and its founding goals of changing the dynamic of higher education towards group learning, ecology and social justice. Not surprisingly, it has long been a target of the right wing and regularly faces threats of defunding and privatization from the Washington state legislature.

Tensions between students and the administration have been high for some time, with, just in the past, women on campus protesting how staff conduct rape investigations; Black students objecting to inadequate training and over-arming of the campus police; and LGBT students challenging the understaffing of the trans and queer center. A majority of students has been sympathetic to these grievances.

These tensions came to a head following the night of May 14, after two Black students were woken in their dorm by officers at 11 p.m. and taken to campus police headquarters, where they were questioned until 2 a.m.

The interrogation stemmed from an online Facebook debate about what many people perceived to be a racist comment--and, later, an in-person argument in the cafeteria, though many witnesses stated it "was very far from physical." Police singled out the Black students involved in the debate for hours of questioning, yet never formally detained the two or charged them with anything.

The following day, 100 protesters assembled near the campus administration building to stand up against this act of police harassment.

"Students involved cited the general distrust and dislike for police services, the administration and the general treatment of [people of color] on campus as reasons for gathering," read a report in the Cooper Point Journal, Evergreen's student-run newspaper.

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MEANWHILE, BRET Weinstein, a professor of biology at Evergreen, wrote an e-mail that would dominate media coverage of the Evergreen controversy afterward.

Weinstein's e-mail objected to a change in a campus tradition called the "Day of Absence," in which, in the past, staff and students of color left campus and congregated separately. This year, organizers of the Day of Absence instead called for whites to leave campus and discuss race issues separately.

Though participation in the Day of Presence has always been voluntary, involving several hundred students at most, Weinstein called this year's plan "a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself." Weinstein said he wanted to lead a "discussion of race through a scientific/evolutionary lens"--a proposal taken by many as intentionally provocative, given the shameful history of pseudo-scientific explanations to justify racism.

Weinstein is also known on campus for, late last year, publicly opposing a recommendation from the college's Equity and Inclusion Council, designed to encourage diversity, for a formal "equity justification/explanation" process for all new faculty hires.

Protests around the previous questions, and now incorporating outrage at Weinstein, continued to build through May 24, when students occupied an administration building and demanded to be heard.

During the occupation, Weinstein and some of his supporters attempted to block students from passing through the building. Students say this wasn't the first time Weinstein tried to confront students--throughout the previous week, he had approached protesters to engage in yelling matches, they say.

A coalition of students of color leading the occupation developed a wide-ranging list of demands that included disarming of Evergreen police and a ban on any expansion of their facilities or powers, along with numerous measures to add staff and services for LGBTQ undocumented and other groups of students.

The coalition also called for Weinstein to be suspended without pay, along with the suspension of an Evergreen police officer who had acted aggressively during the previous week's protests, and the firing of an administrator involved in student conduct.

The protests continued outside the administration building until May 26, when Evergreen President George Bridges held a six-hour discussion with students to air their grievances with the administration. By the end, he rejected the demands involving the disciplining of staff and disarming of police, but agreed to meet the other demands. After Bridges' concessions, protests continued, but were smaller.

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IN THE meantime, Weinstein made himself a prominent figure on Fox News and other right-wing media with his claims that he was the victim of persecution by student "mobs" intent on a "witch hunt." Always on the lookout for a right-wing cause to promote, Fox News compared Weinstein's treatment by students to the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Right-wingers began to focus on Evergreen, subjecting students to online harassment. On YouTube and Facebook, there were comments calling for "a new Kent State"--referring to the National Guard shooting of antiwar protesters in 1970--and other threats against the campus.

On June 1, following Weinstein's claims of persecution being publicized on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal, the local county hotline received an anonymous call saying, "I'm on my way to Evergreen University (sic) now with a .44 Magnum. I'm going to execute as many people on the campus as I can get ahold of."

The local "alt-right" moved into action when the group Patriot Prayer announced what it called a "Free Speech Evergreen State College" rally for June 15.

The day before, several dozen people turned out in downtown Olympia to show community support for the college. The next day, about 120 counterprotesters gathered to oppose Patriot Prayer, which finally arrived an hour after its announced starting time.

The two groups were kept separate by a line of state troopers in riot gear. Patriot Prayer's chief organizer Joey Gibson and others were sprayed with Silly String, but that was the extent of the confrontation.

Ironically, President Bridges used the June 15 protest and counterprotest as an excuse to call for more police on campus. "Our hard-working law enforcement officers need the training, equipment, and staffing levels necessary to ensure their continued ability to protect all on our 1,000-acre campus," Bridges said in testimony to a state legislature committee. "I will be seeking help from the Legislature to meet the challenges of campus safety."

So a sequence of events that began in part with protests against the police presence on campus ended up being used as a justification for more police.

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OBVIOUSLY, FOX News and various right-wing organizations jumped at an opportunity to push their claim that right-wingers are being persecuted, especially on college campuses, just for expressing their opinions. They twisted the facts to suit their crusade against the left.

But students and activists could have responded to the right differently.

For example, when Weinstein started pushing his claims in the media, the reports on Fox and elsewhere included clips of students heatedly denouncing him. While highly edited and lacking context, some of the statements made by students in those clips were counterproductive to the goals of the protesters.

Likewise, the demand that Weinstein be suspended only lent credence to the idea that protesters were attempting to limit his "free speech"--for certain, it made it easier for Weinstein to play the victim. Plus, there is the long history of authorities using rules and laws intended to control the right against the left instead.

Activists could have focused on challenging Weinstein's statements and exposing them as leading to reactionary conclusions. As students have shown in recent protests, they have plenty of evidence to show the existence of racism on campus and the need to challenge it.

Even the idea for the Day of Presence, while well intentioned, tended to lead toward the conclusion that students want "free speech" to be restricted or segregated. By focusing on this largely symbolic day, Weinstein successfully diverted attention from the many legitimate student demands driving the protests.

To raise these points is not to condemn the demonstrators, but to ask how we can strengthen our movements and avoid playing into the hands of the right. We know from all that has taken place since Trump's election that the right wing and its media mouthpieces have found a new organizing strategy by claiming to be victims of left-wing oppressors who want to stop them from speaking out.

The controversy at Evergreen will die down over the summer, but since administrators are talking about adding more police and other student demands have gone unmet, the discontent is sure to surface again. In the meantime, the summer break provides an opportunity to reflect on what happened and strategize as to next steps.

Evergreen student Jacqueline Littleton--who received numerous racial slurs, and rape and death threats, and had her personal information posted online after defending the protests--reflected on the experiences of the spring in a New York Times op-ed article:

While recent events may have brought negative attention to my school, I am proud of students here who found a way to create change. In the movies, protests always look heroic, but they tend to be messy in real life. Weren't the protests of the 1960s unpopular and messy sometimes, too?...

Mr. Weinstein's story about Evergreen's regressive campus culture fit neatly into many misconceptions about the "new left," so it seemed to go unquestioned. However, for many students, staff and faculty at Evergreen, the harassment that came after the negative coverage of the protesters was a shocking and bitter twist. It is not lost on us that students of color are the ones who have been disproportionately targeted.

Littleton's comments show the commitment of those who demonstrated at Evergreen not to be intimidated by the right, but to continue the struggle.

Alan Maass and Leela Yellesetty contributed to this article.