A community forum on recent hate incidents on campus was held at the Center for Identity and Inclusion Wednesday evening.
The forum was primarily a response to the March 9 incident when Matthew Urbanik, 21, of Schaumburg, IL, was caught putting up racist and anti-Semitic posters around campus. Urbanik is also allegedly responsible for similar posters that appeared on campus in December, and appears to be affiliated with a militant neo-Nazi group.
Representatives of the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), the Provost’s Office, the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and the Organization of Black Students presented their takes on what the poster incidents meant for the campus environment. Representatives from the Diversity Advisory Council, the Graduate Student Union, and Student Counseling Services were also present to respond to audience questions.
Moderating the event was Michael Dawson of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. No members of the University Jewish community presented, although Dawson said some had spoken at an earlier forum following the December incident.
The forum got off to a rocky start when an audience member, who declined to give his name, stood up after the representative of the Organization of Black Students’ opening speech and said it was unacceptable that a UCPD officer was present.
“We’re here to speak out against racist terrorism. We have to organize against that stuff, but we also have to understand who our enemies are,” he said, pointing at UCPD representative Joanne Nee.
Dawson attempted several times to get the man to sit back down and wait until the audience question portion of the event to speak, but he refused. Eventually, the man walked out of the meeting. As he left, he shouted, “I can’t meet with a goddamn cop. Remember Tamir Rice!”
The man declined to comment further when approached by a Maroon representative.
The forum resumed with speeches from the remaining campus representatives. Nee, the UCPD officer, explained the judicial proceedings against Urbanik. The Cook County State’s Attorney charged Urbanik with felony property damage because the poster adhesive he used damaged University property.
Nee said that the State’s Attorney’s office declined to prosecute Urbanik on hate crime charges due to a lack of evidence.
“Although the subject matter of these posters was very intolerable, very hate-based, very intimidating, we did not get a hate crime charge on the evidence that we had compiled,” Nee said. “The element of targeting an individual group was missing from that requirement in order to get a hate crime.”
Susan Gzesh, the executive director of the Pozen Center for Human Rights, questioned the State’s Attorney’s decision and said that in her legal opinion there were grounds for a hate crime charge.
“Illinois does have a hate crime statute, and I’m not sure why they turned [the UCPD] down on it, because it’s not like you have to pick one group,” Gzesh said. She then held up photocopies of two posters found on campus. One of the posters showed the text “Follow your fellow faggots” over a photo of a man on a gallows, and another read, “Black lives don’t matter.”
“In my reading of the Illinois hate crimes legislation, those [posters] target groups based on race and sexual orientation at least, and I don’t understand why they wouldn’t be enough for a hate crime,” Gzesh said.
Gzesh reminded audience members that State’s Attorney Kim Foxx had been elected after the previous attorney’s refusal to prosecute the Laquan McDonald case, and linked this to Foxx’s current refusal to press hate crime charges.
“We need to think, as residents of Cook County, about how our State’s Attorney is and is not responsive towards things that may be happening on our campus,” Gzesh said.
According to a tentative program for the event obtained by The Maroon, a representative from State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office was invited to the forum. However, no one from the office attended.
Following the presentations, several audience members said they felt the University had failed to adequately inform the community about recent hate incidents. Others linked the incidents to a long history of discrimination against marginalized members of the University community.
“We’ve had these types of conversations in these types of rooms with similar people before,” said an audience member who identified himself as a graduate student. “There is a painful sense of Groundhog Day over and over again.”
Free speech also became a flashpoint in the discussion. Anton Ford, an assistant professor of philosophy, said that the appearance of anti-Semitic posters cast a negative light on the University administration’s free speech rhetoric.
“I, as a faculty member, was extremely disturbed to hear our president say that he would welcome Richard Spencer to speak on campus,” Ford said. “And he said this on the same day that the JCC was evacuated in our neighborhood.”
Other audience members agreed. “Free speech is not an excuse to spew hatred at other people,” said Kathy Scott, an administrator at the Pozen Center.
Michelle Emerick, a representative from Student Counseling Services, closed the meeting by encouraging people to seek help if they were troubled by the aftermath of these incidents.
“The idea of sustained threat is very fatiguing.… That takes a toll,” Emerick said. “We’re available if you want someone to talk to.”