On Thursday, October 22, concerned Williams students, along with student organizations organized a demonstration against hate crimes and a vigil to honor the late Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was a victim of a hate crime in Wyoming.
On October 6 two high school dropouts brutally beat twenty-one year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard and tied him to a fence. Shepard died a few days later while on life-support in the hospital of a skull fracture so severe that surgery was impossible. Shepard had been studying international politics in hopes of working to defend human rights.
His death has caused an outcry from citizens all across the nation. Wyoming, the first state to pass women’s suffrage laws, is one of ten states in the union that posses no anti-hate crime legislation. President Clinton is among the people requesting changes to prevent further incidents of hate crimes.
Among the outraged citizens was a group of concerned Williams’ students, alumni, faculty and staff. After Shepard’s death, Dena Zaldua,’98, and Carina Vance ’99, one of the heads of VISTA, put up fliers in Baxter to announce a meeting to plan a response. Matthew Sandoval ’99 sent his ideas for a response through the BGLTU listserver. His ideas prompted a meeting at which the BGLTU discussed a response. Susanne Wall ’01, who helped in planning the events, commented, “I was so personally touched by the death of Matthew Shepard that I wanted to have a vigil that would honor him in a human way, because before he was the martyr, he was a man.”
On Thursday members of VISTA, along with faculty, staff, and Mt. Greylock students, staged a protest event in front of Baxter. Students dressed in white and labeled as hate crime victims lay on the ground by poster-board “grave stones.”
Vance explained that the purpose of this demonstration was to bring home the reality of hate crimes and make people aware that anyone can become a victim.
She said that she received positive feedback about the event. Students felt that this demonstration was appropriate and some students were even moved to tears. Zaldua also participated in the demonstration on Thursday and she was pleased with the student response.
Vance continued, “It was great that people walked amongst the gravestones as if it was a real cemetary. They were taking it very seriously.” Zaldua said that it was meant “to make them think, to ponder, and to have some quiet time to themselves.”
Following the example of students at the University of Wyoming, Williams students wore armbands during the day on Thursday.
Professor of Art Carol Ockman said of the demonstration, “As an art historian I found the noon event very effective on the visual level and the conceptual level. I thought it was great that the labels on the tombstones did not necessarily correspond to the labels people were wearing and there were just bodies. I thought it was a powerful way to question identity.”
There was also a candlelight vigil in front of Chapin Hall on Thursday night in honor of Shepard. Vance estimates that more than 100 people showed up at the vigil and there were many speakers. She said, “It was very solemn. A lot of people wanted to make it clear that we can’t only think about it when these things happen.” Wall said, “The vigil brought out the human side of the issue without the media and reporters waiting for reactions.”
Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Women’s Studies, Jana Sawicki attended the vigil and described it as “ a moving and important event for the students, faculty, and administrators who participated in it.” She also said that for members of groups that are being constantly harrassed, such as homosexuals, Jews, and African Americans, the vigil acknowledges the pain, reminds them of past incidents, and shows them that they need to come together.
Ockman commented on the vigil’s effectiveness. “I was very moved by what the students said in particular. I hadn’t heard them speak in the context of promoting tolerance. I also liked the fact that the candles the students were holding during the vigil were later placed on the tombstones as a testimony to victims of hate crimes.”
According to Sandoval, the most important reason for having the demonstrations is to “make students think about the nature of hate crimes, to make them consider what it is that differentiates a hate crime from murder.” On the differences between hate crimes and murder, Sandoval said, “Hate crimes are unique in that they degrade and minimize the victim. Hate crime killers rarely seek to simply kill their victim; they try to erase them. The excessiveness and perversity of this violence is striking and in a word, terrifying.”
Sandoval noted that this event “polarized the [queer] community and brought it together in a way I haven’t seen in some time.” He said he was upset that events such as this one are necessary to unite queer students on campus and he is using this recent sense of community to challenge “the queer students on this campus to not forget the lessons of the past two weeks and to not let the sense of community that these events engendered go to waste.”
Robert Buckwalter, the college chaplain, attended some of the demonstrations on Thursday. In his opinion, “The demonstration and vigil were constructive ways to draw attention to outrageous injustices that have been motivated by hatred. Such acts, while extreme, are not isolated. I felt the demonstration/vigil gave expression to the feelings of concerned persons about that reality.”
In response to the death of Shepard and the student activities on campus, Dean of the College Peter Murphy commented that he likes to see people’s right to protest exercised when an issue like this arises. “I think that this repression is unjust, and hence believe that activism in this area is necessary, and good for us as a college and a community.”
Murphy also said that he understands why students and student groups such as the BGLTU are upset about this incident.
“I know that it feels very close to home for them,” Murphy said. “I also agree with them that it should feel close to home for all of us, and that the legally sanctioned repression of American citizens for the reasons of sexual orientation contributes in no small way to the atmosphere in which such things happen.”
Although he said that he couldn’t classify any recent events on the campus as hate crimes, Murphy did admit, “Hatred exists here as elsewhere, and people in our community suffer indignities every day.”
Over the weekend, some of the gravestones on Baxter lawn were vandalized. Signs reading, “Stop Your Whining” were taped to the gravestones and credited to the Williams Free Press. Jennifer Geiger, a member of Amnesty International, said, “It saddened me that people would reduce what was being done to whining.” Williams Free Press editor Matthew McCulloch ’01denies all involvement with the incident saying, “We had nothing to do with it. We only have a staff of seven or eight people, all of whom are friends of mine, and I can assure anyone that they didn’t do it. It was someone pulling a prank at our expense.” He said that in his opinion the demonstrations “seemed like a positive response to a really unfortunate event and a good thing for the campus.”