Racism and the battle of free speech at Evergreen State College

The school is a case study in our current debate about free speech. Just not in the way you’ve been told.

Racism and the battle of free speech at Evergreen State College

The school is a case study in our current debate about free speech. Just not in the way you’ve been told.

Naima Lowe has spent the last six months recuperating. She still lives in Olympia, Washington, just a few miles from the campus that changed her life forever, but she no longer goes to it.

“Every time I start driving to campus I start breathing heavily and basically have a panic attack,” she told me. “I don’t sleep well. I have pretty intense social anxiety. Things can set me off that don’t make sense — feeling physically ill and anxious and not knowing why. And then I remember that from May to July of last year I was getting death threats almost daily.”

Last December Lowe, who had been a media and documentary professor at Evergreen State College since 2010, resigned after the school, its students, and some of its faculty became the central focus of a national battle over free speech. Or at least that’s how most media outlets described it: In a seemingly endless stream of articles, Lowe and her supporters were described as a free-speech-stifling mob and as anti-white radicals.

Bret Weinstein, a professor of evolutionary theory and biology at the college who had claimed that his free speech was being stifled, was meanwhile lauded by the press and even testified in front of Congress about the First Amendment on college campuses.

But the fight at Evergreen was only tangentially related to speech. In reality, it was by and large about students and some professors demanding more equity for students of color and LGBTQ students on the campus. This fact went ignored by the mainstream press, who reported a sanitized narrative that disregarded the consequences of these clashes: students and professors feeling unheard and even unsafe at their universities, left to battle online and real-life far-righters without institutional support.

Lowe, who is now 39, had come to Evergreen from Temple University in Philadelphia, where she had earned her MFA in film and media studies and begun her teaching career. As one of the few black professors at Evergreen, a liberal arts school of about 3,800 students located in a very white part of the country, Lowe saw firsthand how the college had turned a deaf ear to the various concerns of students of color.

For years, students complained that faculty did not know how to address racial issues in the classroom. Georgie Hicks, a black student who works at the school newspaper, told me it felt isolating to be one of two or three students of color in every class, always burdened with explaining to white people why what they said or did was offensive (Hicks asked to be identified by her pseudonym in order to avoid getting doxxed by right-wingers).

“The most basic example you run into is the kids with white dreads who want to argue with you, other little things,” Hicks said. “You’re talking about race in class and teachers will always just ask the students of color to explain things. Like yes, we do have expertise in this area, but it can get really, really draining to feel like you're having to teach these other students when you also came here to learn.”

Lowe saw firsthand how the college had turned a deaf ear to the various concerns of students of color.

She had tried to engage with the administration several times to address her concerns, to no avail.

“I was basically writing articles calling out the administration, saying, “Hey, this is what we want from you,’” Hicks told me. “But they’re not listening. They’re not reaching out to try to really change anything. It gets to a point where you’re like, they’re not going to listen to us. So what else do you do?”

Eventually, the administration said it was hearing those concerns. During the 2015 to 2016 academic year, the school’s president, George Bridges, reached out to several faculty, including Lowe, and began working on an equity plan for the school. The plan included mandatory racial sensitivity training for faculty, a yearly report on the school’s progress in advancing equity, and the creation of a full-time equity officer position.

It was more than the school had ever done to address race, but by the standards of modern college campuses, it was nothing radical. The plan was released in the fall of 2016 and to celebrate it, the college held a ceremony during which its supporters — students, faculty, administrators — climbed into a metaphorical canoe on a stage as someone from a local Native American tribe beat a traditional drum, to show their commitment to work together. Corny? Yes. Radical? No.

Then the emails started.

Shortly after the plan was released, Weinstein, who is white, sent dozens of emails to a faculty listserv (which also included some students who worked on campus) calling the diversity initiative an “unstoppable train” that would hinder a “silent majority” of professors. Weinstein was particularly concerned about a yearly event called Day of Presence/Day of Absence, in which students of color are typically invited to leave campus for a day and discuss racial issues. That year, the student organizers had proposed reversing the event so that white students would leave campus. Even though the event was voluntary, Weinstein said the proposed reversal was an, “act of oppression in and of itself.”

Even before the emails, tension had been building on Evergreen’s campus. The previous year, a white police officer had shot two black men at a grocery store close to campus, and faced no charges. The incident heightened anti-police and pro-black activism among students and faculty. At convocation for the 2016 to 2017 school year, students walked on stage holding a sign that read “Evergreen cashes diversity checks but doesn’t care about blacks.”

Then, in May, two black students got into a Facebook argument with another student who said PoC-only activities on campus were a form of reverse racism. When the argument got heated, the dissenting student said he felt threatened by the black students and called public safety. The two black students were detained in the middle of the night and questioned by campus police for several hours. A few days later, a small group of student protesters disrupted a public discussion with a candidate for the newly created position of diversity and inclusion chair.

The email exchanges between faculty members continued as the fervor among students built up — everyone on campus had read the emails. For some, it seemed Weinstein represented everything wrong with Evergreen’s brand of liberalism — a theoretically “progressive” intellectual who was totally unwilling to listen to the concerns of students of color.

On May 24, 2017, students occupied the school’s library and administrative building, demanding that steps toward equity be taken immediately and that Weinstein resign. Lowe was among a handful of faculty that joined them, but the only one to vocally and publicly support the students during the occupation.

“We are literally asking for the same shit that students have been asking for since the ‘70s. None of this is new. None of it!” Lowe said outside the library. A crowd of students gathered around her and applauded. People were filming. She continued, obviously exasperated: “I don’t have time for anything else. I’m too tired. This shit is literally going to kill me.”

Then, stressed and overheated, Lowe briefly collapsed. Student protesters who had volunteered to be medics ahead of the occupation surrounded Lowe, gave her some water, and talked her until she felt okay.

Two days later, the college’s president, George Bridges, addressed the school: they wouldn’t fire Weinstein, but they would begin instituting some of the reforms asked for by Lowe and students more quickly than they’d previously planned, including mandatory training for faculty on cultural sensitivity.

Lowe, along with students and a few other professors, felt completely frustrated with the pace at which the administration had moved in the past. Bridges’s promise seemed to at least be a bit of progress. There were no more protests scheduled at Evergreen.

And it’s likely the occupation would have remained a local issue; after all, it was about campus-specific demands mostly regarding students and faculty of color at a small school in the Pacific Northwest. But shortly after the library occupation, Weinstein appeared twice on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. “They imagine that I’m a racist,” he told Carlson. “That I’m teaching racism in my classroom, and that I therefore have no right to speak.”

Right-wing blogs excitedly joined the discussion. Weinstein’s brother, Eric, a prominent conservative and the managing director of Thiel Capital (run by Peter Thiel), began tweeting incessantly about the incident. He called the students fascists and Maoists.

YouTubers made hundreds of videos about the protests and those most closely involved. Many manipulated images of Lowe and other prominent protesters, drawing attention to her race and size. Some professors at Evergreen wondered if Eric, and perhaps even Thiel, were coordinating media for Bret.

The media coverage, from niche to mainstream, was nearly universally negative for the students and Lowe: calling them anti-white zealots (Washington Examiner), and anti-free-speech zealots (The New York Times).

Zoltan Grossman, a geography professor at the school, found a blog post in which Eric Weinstein espoused the benefits of twisting media language to influence people to favor certain policies. “He was almost laying out a game plan for how to do propaganda,” Grossman told me.

Lowe was inundated with emails and social-media messages from people who had learned about her through Fox News or conservative websites. They called her the N-word and threatened to punch her and lynch her. Lowe received 40 to 50 harassing emails a day at the height of the backlash. They included pictures of her body and face made into racist and fat-phobic memes, and photos of lynchings. She forwarded them to the college administration, who did little to assist her. (Warning: The following images contain graphic language.)

Meanwhile Patriot Prayer, a white supremacist group, planned a rally on campus that they called “March Against Evergreen State College,” but which they quickly redubbed “Free Speech Evergreen State College.” Cops in riot gear showed up. Then, on June 1, a man called Evergreen and told an administrator he planned on coming to campus with a .44 magnum to, “execute as many people on that campus as I can get ahold of.”

The campus was shut down and classes were canceled, but students were left in their dorms with no additional security. Some went to local big-box stores and purchased baseball bats for self-protection. When a photo of a few smiling students striking poses with the bats leaked, it was picked up by right-wing websites who used it as evidence of the students’ willingness to resort to violence. Bret Weinstein tweeted the photo and claimed that some unidentified right-wing protesters had already been hit by the students, although he provided no evidence to back up that claim.

Several students who had been central to organizing against racism on campus left Evergreen either because they felt unsafe or were too burnt out to continue studying there after the Weinstein incident.

“There are students who will remember for a long time what it felt like to be totally and completely thrown under the bus,” one administrator, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “Our enrollment is severely down…it’s very scary to me that the backlash is so strong.”

Even after the media firestorm died down, the repercussions for Lowe continued. She resigned from Evergreen that December after agreeing to a $240,000 exit package. Weinstein also left, two months before Lowe, and filed a $3.8 million lawsuit against the school alleging the administration failed to protect his safety and fostered a “racially hostile” work environment. He and his wife, who also taught at Evergreen, later settled with the school for $500,000.

“It’s hard to think about putting myself out there because people used my name and my face against me,” Lowe said. “I got used to being in this state of constant fear. And now I’m supposedly not in that anymore, but the emotional response is still there.”

Lowe was diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She’s not sure what her next career move is. She’s been spending most of her time working on her art, applying to residencies, and processing what happened to her.

There’s a common misconception that college students, special snowflakes they may be, are anti-free speech. According to an extensive survey of students released in march by Gallup-Knight (and oddly with support from the Koch Foundation), that’s not exactly true: 90 percent of students surveyed said they supported free speech. But if they had to weigh speech against inclusion and diversity, slightly more than 50 percent said they would pick inclusion. In other words, what seems to be happening on college campuses is a recognition that speech comes with responsibility and, in order to foster diversity in largely white spaces, that responsibility must be taken seriously.

“We grew up in a culture of sticks and stones, and it’s just not true,” Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University who has written on the psychological and physical effects of harmful speech, told me. “I don’t think people in our culture understand that there’s actual evidence that shows that if you’re exposed to verbal aggression over a period of time, it has an actual effect on your brain and body. We might not like that it’s true. But we're social animals. The best thing for a human is another human. The worst thing is another human.”

Barrett said she always leans on the side of allowing more, not less, speech, but the fact that actual harm can be done to people like Lowe through speech also means that people must take responsibility for what they say. This is of acute importance for relatively homogeneous spaces like college campuses, where research suggests that students of color experience more stress and mental health issues than their white counterparts.

There is a recognition on college campuses that speech comes with responsibility and, in order to foster diversity in largely white spaces, that responsibility must be taken seriously.

And that’s exactly what most student protests have been about: the need to take the lives and needs of underrepresented students seriously. For example, in spring of 2017, students at Middlebury College in Vermont protested a talk by the political scientist Charles Murray not only because they disagreed with his racist ideas, but because they had attempted to get the college administration to be more inclusive of its students of color for years, to no avail. The invitation of Murray to campus felt like a slap in the face to those efforts. The talk went as scheduled, and 67 students were disciplined for disrupting it.

At Reed College in Oregon, students occupied the large lecture hall where “Hum 110” — a required course for all first-year students at Reed where classic works of fiction are taught, almost all of them by white men — was being taught for a year starting in September 2016. The students did so not because they were against free speech (they pointed out to me that mostly they sat silently while classes were conducted), but because they had a list of 25 demands to make the college more equitable that the administration would not listen to (including by diversifying the curriculum of Hum 110). In exchange, they were disciplined by the administration and bad-mouthed to the press. Their detractors said that they were disrupting the learning process and interfering with academic freedom.

“All of a sudden it makes Reed this really hostile place to be,” Addison Bates, who was involved in the campus protests and then left the school, told me. “Any moment I’m on Reed campus, something really stressful could happen to us. The environment started to feel so unsafe.”

Perhaps the most infamous figure in the free-speech victimhood industrial complex is Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor who has made hundreds of thousands of dollars by claiming that his speech, and that of those who disagree with progressives and leftists, is being threatened, and that this could essentially lead to the collapse of Western civilization.

But often left out of conversations about Peterson is that he originally gained notoriety in 2016 after refusing to use the correct gender pronouns for trans students in his classes. He was condemned by many of his fellow professors for the decision, who wrote him an open letter saying that his refusal to use people’s correct pronouns was discriminatory and that his rhetoric about trans students was unacceptable and painful.

“I got used to being in this state of constant fear. And now I’m supposedly not in that anymore, but the emotional response is still there.”
Naima Lowe

In early October of 2016, Toronto students organized a teach-in and protest meant to support their trans peers. But the gathering was crashed by rising conservative media darling Lauren Southern, a less-famous but equally inflammatory version of Milo Yiannopoulos, who pretended she was trans to get into the event. She and Rebel Media (the Canadian Breitbart, more or less) launched an ongoing online campaign against trans rights, focusing on college campuses. A week after the students’ teach-in, she and Peterson appeared at a protest in support of “free speech” at UT’s campus.

Fearing for their safety on campus, a group of trans students attempted to drown out Southern, Peterson, and other speakers at the protest with noise machines. The protest turned violent; several trans students were assaulted by Peterson supporters.

“Two people targeted by Rebel Media’s coverage had various personal information published online,” Cassandra Williams, a trans senior at the university, told me. “One person had to go to emergency housing because of credible threats to their safety. One person dropped out. Some people stopped going to classes. For most students it was just kind of an atmosphere of fear and isolation. When people come from outside the university and assault students and there’s absolutely no recourse…. it just feels like the university had no interest in actually protecting trans students.”

Campus activism has ebbed at Evergreen, Middlebury, University of Toronto, Reed, and virtually everywhere else these battles took place. Lowe and others I’ve talked to say they don’t have regrets about participating, but they do feel worn out.

All these free speech fights, in a roundabout way, end up proving the original points of the activists: At Evergreen, Lowe and students fought for more of a voice for people of color on campus. They were shut down; Lowe no longer works there. At the University of Toronto, trans students fought for their basic safety; they were physically attacked. In most cases, the protesters won concessions from the university, but the media backlash was intense and seemingly endless.

And while students and faculty of color and trans students are doxxed, harassed, and threatened with violence for demanding dialogue and basic decency, those who claimed to have been silenced by them are thriving: Bret Weinstein and Jordan Peterson been profiled extensively by the mainstream media, have Patreons that amass thousands of dollars a month, and get paid, ironically, to speak about their experiences of being silenced. Students and professors like Lowe attempted to call attention to race and injustice on college campuses. And in the end, those they were protesting ended up with the biggest platforms of all.

“The image of this beleaguered white man being punished for his racism is so appealing, it gets regurgitated over and over,” Lowe told me. “Meanwhile, some other people have actually been harmed. And there’s no attention to the harm done.”

Peter Moskowitz is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. They last wrote for The Outline about the phenomenon of “protest fatigue syndrome.”