Gravestone desecration ignites protest

The desecration of several gravestones placed on Baxter lawn in protest of hate crimes ignited controversy on campus over the last week.

On October 26 signs which read “Stop Your Whining. . .sincerely the Williams Free Press” were discovered on the gravestones.

The incident inspired a series of chalkings around campus, messages in the daily advisor and a demonstration in Baxter mailroom. Replications of the signs removed from the gravestones were taped together and displayed on a wall in Baxter, with a large letter ‘X’ drawn across the writing. In addition, the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Union laid ‘body bags’ by the gravestones.

Susanne Wall ’01, one of the co-organizers of the BGLTU, said the purpose of the bags was to indicate that the dead have not been respected and that victims of hate crime have been treated like trash.

Editor-in-Chief of the Free Press Matthew McCulloch ’01 sent a letter to all students early last week, stating that the Free Press was in no way involved in the desecration of the grave stones, and condemning the vandals.

McCulloch stated in his letter that he was disappointed by the action.

“Honest and open debate at Williams is already tenuous, and reckless incidents such as this make it even harder to achieve,” McCulloch wrote. “To express an opinion, and then attribute that opinion to another, is as cowardly as it is antithetical to the traditions and principles of Williams.”

McCulloch also voiced his sympathy for the BGLTU.

“The Williams Free Press empathizes with the BGLTU during this time,” the letter said. “The tragedy in Wyoming is awful enough. Ruining a display in memory of Matthew Shepard’s life only adds insult to injury. To think that those responsible would use this occasion to achieve some political goal is disgusting.”

The Minority Coalition (MinCo) also wrote a letter to students voicing concern over the desecration.

After quoting the text on the fliers, the letter stated: “These flyers appeared on several gravemarkers. Although the name of the Free Press was attached to the flyers, its editors have denied any involvement in the matter.”

The letter later read: “We feel that it is necessary to emphasize the significance of this spiteful incident. The desecration of the gravestones shows a blatant lack of respect and violates the integrity of the exhibit. The purpose of the exhibit was to foster awareness and empathy, and the attaching of fliers to symbols of peace goes beyond apathy.”

Members of MinCo presented the letter to College Council last Wednesday, but the College Council declined to support the letter by a vote of 12-8.

Sharmistha Ray ’01, a co-leader of the BGLTU who spearheaded the organization of last week’s demonstrations, said she was disturbed by College Council’s decision.

“I was disappointed that College Council would not support the letter,” she said. According to Ray, College Council did not support the letter because a scattering of council members did not agree with some of the wording.

Some members of the College Council did sign the letter as individuals.

Julian Fang ’01, the MinCo representative to College Council, said his reasons for signing the letter were two-fold.

“My constituents supported the letter so I felt it was my obligation to support it,” he said. “I also personally support it.”

According to Fang the three major arguments against College Council supporting the letter were that the wording was too strong, that the letter would exacerbate tensions, and that it placed the blame on a specific group of people (the Williams Free Press).

Fang said he was disappointed with the decision, but he does understand some of the reasons behind the objections.

Co-president Will Slocum ’99 said he chose to sign the letter despite some reservations.

“I believed that a public statement was necessary to both express the anger of the campus at the defacing of the exhibit and to support the efforts of the Minority Coalition to create greater dialogue about hate crimes on campus,” he said. “Although a letter may not have the most effective long term impact, I feel that it is the first step in showing that we take the issue seriously.”

However, other Council members were critical of the letter.

Secretary Bert Leatherman ’00 said he condemns the desecration of the graves and supports campus protests, but he disagreed with some of the wording in the letter.

“I felt the MinCo letter portrayed an isolated incident as a campus problem,” he said. “To make that extension, in my mind, is to place too little confidence in the moral capacity of the people I represent.”

College Council Co-president Kate Ervin ’99 said she chose not to support the letter because of its partisan nature. But she added that she believes the desecration was a “highly inappropriate way to engage in dialogue.”

George Anthes ’00, a member of College Council, objected to signing the letter because he disagreed with the tone.

“The tone did not seem aimed at stimulating honest or intelligent debate,” he said. “I was discouraged and saddened that someone chose not to respect the statement being made with the grave markers.” But he added that College Council should not sign a letter “which claimed to encourage openness while its tone discouraged it.”

Petition debate

Over the past couple weeks, Amnesty International, with the help of the BGLTU, VISTA, and the other organizations, has asked students, faculty and members of the administration to sign petitions encouraging Congress members to vote for a hate crime bill that President Clinton has proposed.

This effort was also met with mixed responses.

Elisa Beller ‘01, a member of Amnesty International, said petitions were sent off to between two-thirds and three-fourths of the national senators. She added that some of the petitions had as many as 40 or 50 signatures. She stressed the importance of hate crime legislation.

“Hate crimes target a particular group and are intended to create fear, not just to hurt the victim,” she said. “This may violate the civil rights of members of that group as they are denied the basic feeling of safety and security.”

Although many people on campus signed these petitions, there were some objections.

Jon Kravis ’99 suggested that hate crime legislation threatens free thought.

“The problem with this distinction [between hate crimes and all other crimes], in my opinion, is that it penalizes some criminals for their beliefs, which flies in the face of constitutional principles protecting free thought,” he said. “There has to be a better way to solve this problem than punishing people for their beliefs.”