Things have changed at Evergreen State College, a bucolic, left-leaning school in Olympia, Washington with a student body of about 4,000. In 2017, the school was rocked by a controversy over racism on campus that brought protests from the left, threats of violence from the right, and made the school a national focal point for bad-faith gripes from conservatives about “free speech.” The situation was fraught enough that Evergreen State campus police successfully used the tension as a pretext to arm themselves with semi-automatic rifles, which they’d made multiple failed attempts at obtaining since 2007.
There was no announcement of the policy change; the greater Evergreen population only learned about the purchase of the new weaponry from the school’s student newspaper, the Cooper Point Journal, in October 2018, a year after they were first purchased. CPJ reporter Forest Hunt told The Outline that he only found out about the AR-15s when another student observed the weapons in a campus police car.
“I don’t know if having more weapons on campus will make anything safer for anybody,” an Evergreen student named Cameron told the CPJ. “I think it will escalate the situation.”
But the school is standing by in its decision to arm its law-enforcement officers. “Across the U.S., mass shootings and threats of violence on college campuses have sadly become more common in recent years,” Allison Anderson, the school’s public relations manager, told The Outline in an email. “Evergreen’s law enforcement officers have the same standard-issue police equipment, including rifles, that their counterparts at the University of Washington and other campus police have at public universities throughout the state. The goal is to keep everyone safe.”
Evergreen’s new rifle policy is only the latest instance of police on college campuses arming themselves with lethal semi-automatic rifles, a worrying trend that has picked up momentum over the past decade.
In December 2015, The Boston Globe reported that Northeastern University campus officers were arming themselves with AR-15s for rapid deployment in the event of an emergency. Campus Police Chief Michael A. Davis told the Globe that their reason for doing so was simple, if you “watch CNN for five minutes.” In the same article it was revealed that officers at nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, Tufts University, and University of Massachusetts Boston also carry semi-automatic rifles.
In a 2016 interview, Indiana University — Purdue University Fort Wayne campus Chief of Police, Julie Yunker, cited a shooting at nearby Northern Illinois University as the reason her officers needed nine AR-15s so as not to be caught unawares. “We won’t run out of ammunition,” Yunker told Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette.
These increases in on-campus weaponry were not isolated incidents, as this 2016 Associated Press report shows. Per the AP:
Florida State bought 26 semi-automatic Bushmaster rifles from private sellers between 2012 and 2014, along with 10 other rifles acquired through the military surplus program. The University of Illinois bought 47 AR-15 rifles in that span. Purdue University received 25 rifles from the surplus program in 2007 and separately bought 17 more, records show.
The University of Wisconsin in Madison spent $11,000 on AR-15s in 2010, plus $6,000 on other rifles over the next four years.
Evergreen spent a similar amount in November 2017, when its president, George Bridges, quietly approved the purchase of seven Colt LE6920 AR-15 rifles, sights, and bullets from police weapon and equipment supplier GT Distributors at a cost of $10,897.76.
The state of Washington has been pushing to arm campus police for at least 12 years. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Washington state lawmakers proposed a number of recommendations to colleges and universities, including arming campus police with semi-automatic rifles.
The motivation for arming police officers — whether on campus or elsewhere — with AR-15s is summed up well by blogger Mike Callahan in a March 2018 op-ed on the police officer news site Police One. “Our first responders should not be sent into kill zones with handguns when their adversaries are armed with devastating high-velocity weapons,” wrote Callahan, concluding, “Political correctness and refusal to recognize reality must be set aside. Nothing less is acceptable.”
When campus police went to Evergreen with a proposal to get the weapons in December 2008 — citing the above directive from the state legislature that Washington colleges and universities arm their security services in case of an active shooting situation — the college created a review board to look into the possibility of purchasing the guns.
After seven months of research, the board rejected the police proposal in early 2009, citing the school’s values. “It comes down to what [Evergreen] stands for,” board chair Tim Markus said in contemporaneous comments about the decision. A similar attempt in 2013 by police to carry arms at Evergreen also failed.
Everything changed in 2017, when emails between (now-former) Evergreen biology professor Bret Weinstein and Rashida Love, the school’s director of First Peoples Advising Services, were made public by the CPJ. In the emails, Weinstein objected to the school’s annual “Day of Absence/Day of Presence” event, which has been a fixture on the campus since the ‘70s, and consists of students of color making themselves “absent” from campus to show what the school would be like without them. Weinstein’s comments led a number of students to confront the professor outside of his classroom in late May, and the professor was portrayed as a victim in two opinion pieces in The New York Times.
The attention from two articles in the nation’s paper of record was followed by a mini-documentary from VICE (above) and an appearance by Weinstein on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, which rocketed Weinstein and the Evergreen situation into the American media stratosphere. That attention translated into threats. That June; a man later identified as Robert W. Kerekes, Jr. of New Jersey, phoned the school and declared, “I am on my way to Evergreen [State] now with a .44 Magnum,” and was going to “execute as many people on that campus as I can get ahold of.” Though the threat turned out to be a hoax, the campus was shut down for two days for public safety purposes, and the school moved its graduation ceremony to Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium some 30 miles away, where attendees had to cross through metal detectors to enter the venue. Changing the venue cost around $100,000, according to The Olympian newspaper.
Patriot Prayer, a right-wing extremist group that operates in the Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington area (Olympia is two hours north of the former and an hour south of the latter) had already planned a rally for June 4 in nearby Portland. Once the controversy over Weinstein went national, Patriot Prayer announced it would focus at least some of the energy from its “free speech” event at Evergreen. Patriot Prayer held a demonstration at the college nearly two weeks later, clashing with anti-fascist counter-protesters.
The state legislature, citing the Weinstein unrest, renewed their drive to arm Evergreen’s police. By then, the school was the last remaining public college or university in Washington at which police were not armed with high-powered rifles. After a Republican-led discussion regarding the alleged quashing of dissenting voices on campus by the left, lawmakers began raised concerns over potential active shooters on campus and recommended to Bridges that he arm his police force.
During the roughly 90-minute hearing, Bridges and the then-campus police chief, Stacy Brown, answered a number of questions from lawmakers about the the tense situation on campus.
One point of agreement between the lawmakers and Brown was that campus police ought to be armed with rifles. Brown informed the committee that the reason the college was the only state university in Washington without AR-15s or similar rifles was “philosophical” and a decision made by the administration. “We should have rifles, in my opinion,” Brown told the committee.
Six months later, campus police got their guns.
Some on campus say that the weapons are just another part of a greater problem. In an interview conducted last summer, the Evergreen Political Economy professor and activist Peter Bohmer told The Outline that the new guns couldn’t be seen in a vacuum. “There’s definitely a history of a critical view towards the police” on campus, Bohmer said. Police treatment of young black men in the greater Olympia community has been a focal point of unrest at the school. A 2008 concert by the political hip-hop group dead prez ended with rioters destroying a police car in impromptu protest in response to police detaining a black man during a scuffle. In May of 2015, an Olympia police officer shot two young black men near a local SafeWay, leading to more protests when it became apparent that the officer would not be charged. Without the historical context for the mood at the school when the Weinstein situation exploded — particularly as a result of the police shooting in 2015 — Bohmer told The Outline, it’s impossible to understand why things happened in the way they did.
Even in light of these tensions, the campus community believes that the situation does not rise to the point of police needing to arm themselves with semi-automatic weapons. This January, an Evergreen student named Nicolas Jefferys told the Cooper Point Journal that adding high-powered weapons to the already uneasy relationship between campus police and the study body could lead to catastrophe down the line. “I worry about other people who look like me being murdered by campus police because the AR-15s,” said Jeffreys.