This week in Williams history: Mission arson, Coming Out Week, fecal cleanups

“This Week in Williams History” is a column dedicated to looking back at memorable moments in the College’s past through articles in the Record. This week in history, the College dealt with an act of arson in the Mission parking lot, celebrated National Coming Out Week, and cleaned up a series of bio-crimes.

Oct. 25, 1988: ‘Police search for Mission arsonists

On Oct. 19, 1988, an arsonist tried to destroy 85 cars in the Mission parking lot. Three cars caught on fire; the car used as a fuse was burnt to a shell. The gas tanks of eight cars were punctured, and the arsonist attempted to puncture others. One jeep, which sustained fire damage, had a propane tank inside.

“If it had blown up it would have been shrapnel,” said Edward McGowan, who was fire chief at the time. “It would have killed firemen.”

The arsonist also hotwired a bus and parked it near the entrance of the parking lot, presumably to block access for the firefighters.

By Oct. 25, the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) said they believed they knew the identity of the arsonist. “We have our thoughts and beliefs but lack that one piece of evidence that will convince a judge,” then Williamstown Chief of Police Joseph Zoito Jr. told the Record.

The WPD was reasonably certain that the arsonist was not a student at the College and that the motive was retaliation against the College for unknown reasons. The WPD cited knowledge of the lot layout as evidence of extensive planning.

Oct. 15, 1994: ‘Coming Out Week raises campus queer awareness

During the week of Oct. 9 through Oct. 15, 1994, the College celebrated National Coming Out Week with a variety of events hosted by both the Queer-Straight-Alliance (QSA) and the Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Union (BGLU). Queer comedian Georgia Ragsdale performed a set for students, and the QSA and BGLU hosted meetings and social events designed to raise queer awareness.

Large banners reading “Come Out” and “Queer” decorated Chapin Hall. Another visible celebration came in the form of phrases such as “Queer first years” and “homo erotica” written in chalk on the sidewalk — but these chalkings were not sponsored by the QSA or the BGLU. They were done by members of the queer community by their own initiative, according to Kyle Roberts ’95, who was programming director of the BGLU at the time.

These phrases were met with mixed responses from the student body. Some students told the Record that these phrases felt like an attack on straight students. Brent Wilson ’97 said that by focusing a lot of attention on sex diluted the value of expressing queerness. 

Other students, such as Pete Traube ’96, felt that the chalkings were an improvement from previous years. “They chalked my freshman year and a lot of it was really offensive and annoying,” Traube said. “This year it seems that more of them are more positively oriented and not aimed towards grossing out. It seems to me a lot better this year.”

Oct. 17, 2007: ‘Fecal cleanups continue

For the whole month of October 2007, the Record ran various articles and op-eds about a series of “bio-crimes” (incidents involving vomit, urine, or fecal matter on College property) that plagued the campus. By Oct. 17, there had been a reported 24 bio-cleanups — six of which were excrement-related. Within the week, the count would tick up to 27 bio-cleanups, according to a Record article from Oct. 24.

In response to these incidents, Doug Schiazza, director of Campus Life at the time, questioned “students’ levels of ‘human decency.’” Bea Miles, then director of Facilities, expressed particular concern about the widespread nature of these crimes. “These have been in every neighborhood in every kind of building,” she said in the Oct. 17 article. “I can’t say that there’s a pattern, because it’s been all over campus, which in some ways is more disturbing.”

Unlike many members of the College community, janitorial staff had to clean up of these incidents during their bio-cleanups. “The worst is carpet,” custodian Saroeuth Chhuon said in a Record article from Oct. 31. “You have to get really close to it and dig in there. It’s disgusting.”

The consequences of these bio-crimes — especially the fecal incidents — stretched beyond the Purple Bubble. In another Oct. 31 article, the Record reported on rising concerns over a “wave of bad press” revolving around the bio-cleanups. Such “bad press” included an article titled “Williams’ War on Errant Poo” run by a U.S. News-affiliated site and “similarly unflattering articles in venues as varied as the North Adams Transcript and the Web site”

After a month of heated discussion and bio-crimes, Matt Roach ’08 wrote an op-ed in the Nov. 7 issue of the Record criticizing the campus’s “overreaction” to the rash of fecal and fecal-tangential incidents. “The sad thing about all this panic is that it means that the attacker has won,” he wrote. “He has made us question our way of life, and has undermined the trust we have in each other.”

And maybe Roach was right. After publication of his op-ed, the Record did not run another article about bio-crime or bio-cleanups for the rest of the year.