The disappearance of posters last week, including materials for student activism and for an anti-gun violence event organized by Joy James, the Francis Christopher Oakley third century professor of humanities, sparked conversations about campus climate toward materials advocating for civil and human rights. In a campus-wide email, “Creating a healthier campus culture,” sent on Monday, President of the College Maud Mandel called for the campus community to “treat each other with respect when differences inevitably emerge.”
“Love and Justice,” which was financially supported by the political science and Africana studies departments, Converging Worlds and the Feminist Collective, featured Dorothy Holmes and Shapearl Wells, two Chicago-based Black activist mothers who had lost their children to gun violence. On the morning of last Wednesday, the day of the event, students who helped put up posters for the event informed James, Holmes and Wells of the disappearance. James then relayed the information to Director of Campus Safety and Security (CSS) Dave Boyer and Director of the Office for Student Life Douglas Schiazza. Schiazza and students put new posters back up that day. Boyer told James that CSS had not approved the posters’ removal. No student, faculty member or administrator that the Record contacted said that they knew how, why or by whom posters were removed.
James informed senior administrators of the posters’ disappearance in an email that day, expressing concerns with campus climate and articulating a need for the College to affirm efforts that promote civil and human rights. She told the Record that she believes dissident voices need to be respected despite political disagreements.
“This event was very distinct because academic departments were supporting it and because of what the topic was,” James said. “I know we’ve had political debates, but I thought this was a no-brainer in terms of the need to abate violence and to listen to people who had personally had these losses, to see how they negotiate their pain but also to build community and social justice activism from that pain.”
Eli Cytrynbaum ’20, one of the students who helped James put up posters, said he believes that their removal was deliberate.
“I have no idea who took down these posters, but I do think that it is significant that I’ve never heard of this happening for any other things and that this was a highly political event,” Cytrynbaum said. “So it seemed to me that all of the posters were pretty intentionally removed.”
Mandel, in an all-campus email sent on Monday, addressed “breakdowns in campus relations,” describing “evidence of prejudice, insensitivity and disrespect,” including that, according to Mandel, “someone tore down posters” for last Wednesday’s event. She told the Record she did not know who was responsible for the posters’ disappearance.
“There’s no conceivable justification for trying to undermine such an event,” Mandel wrote in her all-campus email. “I’ve now learned that other posters and banners with political and social messages were also torn down or damaged this weekend. During a turbulent year especially, these acts seem symptomatic of bigger problems.”
Cytrynbaum said that he believes some posters calling for CSS accountability that were placed in campus buildings were removed. He said that he was not involved in putting the posters up and did not say how he knew they were removed. “I’m pretty sure some were removed in Sawyer, Hopkins, Chapin and Schapiro,” he said.
The Record was unable to verify whether all posters that were put up remained. Some posters were in Hopkins, Sawyer and Schapiro on Tuesday night, but none were found in Chapin. The Record was unable to determine whether any were replaced or in which buildings they had initially been put up.
In addition, wind caused a large poster that read, “Where’s my safety?” to rip and flip over Paresky balcony, where it had been recently hung, on Thursday around 6:30 p.m. Boyer said that he was told that wind had caused the poster to become loose, and two Record board members who were present confirmed that the wind blew the poster over the balcony.
According to CSS’ files, at 2:14 p.m. on Friday, a student reported “vandalism to a 15×3 sign that was hanging off of Paresky balcony, previously reported as wind damage.” In an email to the Record on Monday, Boyer wrote, “Because of the previous information regarding the wind, CSS has not taken any action to investigate the damage.”
Mandel told the Record that students informed her that “certain social justice-oriented posters have been removed from various spots on campus” but that she did not have any additional details.
Mandel’s email called for mutual respect across differences in opinion. “Our goal shouldn’t be to avoid disagreement or dissent, but to develop ways of engaging in it without losing respect for each other as people… The way each of us acts affects the community as a whole,” she wrote. “If we’re intolerant and harsh, it sets a norm for how we’ll be treated in return. To make Williams instead a place where everyone is valued, we’ll need to treat each other with respect when differences inevitably emerge.”
James expressed hope for the College to work toward establishing a common commitment to promoting human rights discourse on campus and that the College “can reaffirm that civil rights and human rights are the template and the foundation of education.”
“I think the email that the president sent out was a first step,” James said. “I think it would be great if people could actually walk together on some common journey in which social justice wasn’t seen as a distraction – and I’m not saying this is the view of the administration – but I think in the culture at large that people who organize for social justice are sometimes seen as irritants rather than contributors to community… You have to understand the value of those voices that may annoy you or destabilize your norms, but that’s because they want a better world.”