A series of racially motivated threats inspires a demand for institutional change

Seven acts of hate speech have been reported on St. Olaf’s campus since September 2016, including racial slurs scrawled on whiteboards, on the walls of Rolvaag Memorial Library study rooms and posted to the doors of Regents Hall of Mathematical Sciences. Recently, the perpetrators targeted two black students specifically, threatening their safety and inspiring campus-wide protests and a demand for institutional change.

At press time, the perpetrators have not been identified. The St. Olaf administration asks anyone with information relevant to the incidents to come forward. Director of Residence Life Pamela McDowell, along with President David Anderson ’74, have said that the college will not notify students if further measures – such as cameras – will be utilized to catch the perpetrators for fear of compromising the effectiveness of such measures.

Students have been notified about the reported incidents via emails from Dean of Students Roslyn Eaton, Public Safety Director Fred Behr and received messages commenting on them from Anderson. Some of the emails have incited debate about the language used to discuss perpetrators – particularly Anderson’s choice to isolate the events to one person or a small group of people; his April 21 email stated, “I say ‘that person’ because I am pretty sure that this is the work of one or a small number of people. (It may not even be an Ole) … This person’s actions don’t define us. We won’t let this person win.”

Many students are concerned that attributing the racist acts to only one or a handful of individuals – or blaming someone outside of St. Olaf all together – diminishes the very real racism that St. Olaf students of color face from the St. Olaf community on a daily basis.

In response to this concern, Anderson said “We are not ‘assuming’ that these acts are being committed by one person. It may be one person, it may be a small group of people, it may be something else. We’ll follow whatever information leads us to the perpetrator(s).”

Don Williams ’18 was one of the students who found a racist note left on his car. In the following days, Williams helped organize sit-ins and community gatherings to provoke the administration into action.

“The event that occurred on Sunday night … I was like ‘wow, out of all three years of being here, I have never been subject to that type of racism before, especially here at St. Olaf.’ I have been here for three years, you would think somebody would be consistent,” Williams said.Sit-ins began on Monday, April 24 in the Buntrock Commons Crossroads. Students of color also created signs to hang around campus, including messages such as “What are you doing to help blacks feel at home,” “I’m sick of white tears” and “liberals are racist, too.” Krysta Wetzel ’18 has also been a prominent organizer in response to the hate speech and spent part of the day touring campus to speak against hate through their megaphone.

“People care about these [hate speech incidents], but a lot of things are going on that aren’t as visible that get ignored. What am I going to do to express this, or vent this, or get people to understand how angry I am and why I’m upset. I was just like ‘You know what, what if I just went around campus yelling at people. That would feel great … I thought, I could disrupt people’s lives so that they understand that this is not just an email and it goes away, because it doesn’t,” Wetzel said. “It stays in the minds of the people that it’s targeted towards.”

“People care about these [events], but a lot of things are going on that aren’t as visible that get ignored,” Wetzel said. “What am I going to do to express this, or vent this, or get people to understand how angry I am and why I’m upset. I was just like ‘You know what, what if I just went around campus yelling at people. That would feel great.’”

Wetzel spoke to groups of students in the Quad, the Cage and Stav Hall during lunch time. Their Stav Hall speech was recorded and posted to Facebook, where it has now received over 36,000 views.

“We as students of color feel unsafe on this campus and we will continue to make noise and disrupt your lives until ours are made safer in a really strategic and structured way. So, how we are gonna do this is interrupt as many sessions of leisure as anyone on this campus has, because we’re not allowed it, you won’t be allowed it until you get your president, your administration to do something to make us feel safe,” Wetzel said, in their address to students.

Later that night, a meeting was held in the Center for Arts and Dance. Williams, Wetzel and other organizers encouraged all students of color to attend and emphasized the importance of having all black students present.

“I had the urge to provide this space for my community, for persons of color, for black individuals. And that’s including anyone,” Williams said. “It erases titles of students, faculty, and staff. Leave those at the door. We are human beings in this community and we’re coming together to address these issues that are so prevalent, and so active, in a way that we can’t ignore them.”

By 8:50 p.m. the Link in the Center for Arts and Dance was filled with students. Williams began the meeting by recounting the hate speech incident that had taken place the evening before. Afterwards, other persons of color shared their experiences and comments. The entire community proposed specific calls to action that included reaching out to alumni, boycotting the Senior Gift Campaign and connecting with national media outlets to publicize campus events. The meeting continued until the building closed at midnight.

In the days following, there were a series of protests in Buntrock Commons, including a longstanding sit-in in the Crossroads. On Saturday, April 29 a racially charged and threatening note was placed on a student’s car outside Skoglund Center. In response, students gathered in Buntrock Commons, first blocking off the entrances to Stav Hall, the Cage and the Pause and then transitioning into an organized protest which lasted through the night.

On Monday, May 1, there will be an all-day sit-in to demonstrate solidarity with the movement in Tomson Hall, beginning at 7:50 a.m. All classes have been cancelled for that day and many organizations, music ensembles and teams are cancelling their meetings as well. Students are currently making plans to have food and water available in Tomson and publicizing the event.

The Manitou Messenger plans to provide live coverage of the event via all our social media accounts. Stay tuned for more information.

Summary of reported hate speech:

Oct. 4, 2016: The N-word was written on a custodial closet white board in Mohn Hall. The hate speech was discovered by an RA, photographed and then erased.

Oct. 7, 2016: The N-word was written on a slip of paper and dropped in a comment box for the “Ask a Muslim Anything” event. The paper was discovered when the Muslim House was sorting through questions for their event.

Feb. 9, 2017: “No [N-word]” messages were left on two doors in the Regents Math building. The messages were left overnight and discovered the following morning by a custodian and a professor.

March 10, 2017: The N-word was found written on the wall of a study room in Rolvaag Memorial Library.

April 20, 2017: The N-word, accompanied with “vile commentary,” was found in multiple study rooms on the fifth floor of Rolvaag Memorial Library.

April 23, 2017: A sheet of paper with the N-word written on it was left on a black student’s car between 11:20 p.m. and midnight.

April 29, 2017: A note typed on a sheet of paper was left on another black student’s car. It addressed the student directly, then read: “I am so glad that you are leaving soon. One less n*gger that this school has to deal with. You have spoken up too much. You will change nothing. Shut up or I will shut you up.”