On Tuesday Nov. 17, 2015 two messages on an anonymous social media platform known as Yik Yak, which allows user to post and read messages by other members nearby, ignited a firestorm at Lewis & Clark. One post stated that it was time to “bring back slavery” and the other said, “I just want to hang you ignorant black people.”
As information about the posts spread, a sense of fear and paranoia washed over the students, particularly those from African American and other minority backgrounds.
The posts sparked an ardent protest the next day as African-American students called on the school administration to take action to bring more diversity to the faculty, staff, and student body, add more diverse viewpoints to the curriculum, and make the students feel secure in their learning environment.
Four days after the initial Yik Yak posts, early on the morning on Friday Nov. 21, Tanguy Muvuna, a 26-year-old student from Rwanda and a Dallaire Scholar at Lewis & Clark, was attacked by three white, college-aged males as he walked back to his dorm following a workout.
The assailants asked him, “what’s up” and called him an offensive racial slur. Muvuna, thinking it was a joke, laughed it off until one of the men approached him and slapped him hard across the face. When Muvuna tried to fight back, the men surrounded him, with one man holding his arms from behind while the other two beat him, making racial threats, and telling him “you will die tonight.” Muvuna eventually broke free, ran back to his dorm room, and contacted campus police.
He was able to give the police a description of the men who assaulted him, and police began an investigation into what they classified as a potential hate crime.
“It is important to distinguish between actions that are not protected by free speech and actions or statements that are but might be discriminatory,” stated Elliot Young, a professor of History and Director of Ethnic Studies. “When someone is threatening bodily harm against someone else, that is no longer free speech according to the law.”
After the Yik Yak posts, Portland police did not take steps to determine who made them, given that the statements did not threaten immediate, violent action and were protected under the First Amendment.
“The Yik Yak posts are an outlier of an extremely racist and violent sentiment that are in not in any way indicative of the sentiments of the Lewis & Clark community. The students, in particular, feel unwelcome and often experience what they call micro-aggressions,” Professor Young also noted. “It is the constant cycle of not feeling welcome on the campus that then makes these Yik Yak posts that much more serious.”
Following his attack, Muvuna issued a statement saying, “I’m not angry. I’m not upset. I love everyone here. I love the white people. I love the black people here…Many white people here, they are not racists…I’m safe. I’m safe here.”
Mayor Charlie Hales also issued an impassioned statement following the attack, explaining, “While we are a city that prides itself on the broad protection of free speech, no matter how abhorrent the content may be, I am calling on all of us to stand together against the use of ugly, disturbing language that inexcusably threatens or otherwise creates fear in any other person.”
Following the attack, the Lewis & Clark Black Lives Matter group established a buddy system protocol to help African-American students feel more secure in their movements around campus. On Nov. 23, the BLM group staged a sit-in at the Frank Manor House, the college’s main administrative building, occupying the first and second floors.
Lewis & Clark’s president, Barry Glassner, came briefly to address the students but subsequently left, leading many students to feel that he was rejecting their emotions, demands, and calls for actions. On Nov. 24, Glassner issued a statement, asserting his solidarity with the students and the school community.
“If there has been any good since that dreadful morning of the 21st, it has been seen in how quickly our community came together to support our fellow students and to condemn hateful comments on Yik Yak,” wrote Glassner. “We are demanding that Yik Yak make the posts available to law enforcement investigating the two attacks on our students the identities of those who made threats against our community. We are working actively with legal authorities to bring the assailants to justice.”
The next week, many of the student protestors left campus for the Thanksgiving holidays, but some remained on campus to continue the occupation of Frank Manor House and began drafting a “vision statement” which consists of a list of proposals for changes that students see as needed to make Lewis & Clark a more tolerant and accepting community, including hiring more professors and staff of color, training and employing students as sexual-assault response advocates, creating a campus safety committee, and appointing more students to a Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.
Following Thanksgiving break, large numbers of students continued the sit-in. On Monday, Dec. 7, a forum was held on the Lewis and Clark campus to discuss the recent events and the racial tensions on campus. During the forum, a large group of students who were unhappy with the way the event was organized went up on stage, took the microphone, and walked out.
“The forum was supposed to be one of unity, but it wasn’t at all. Instead, it served as a divider between students and the administration,” Professor Young noted.
As of Thursday, Dec. 10, students were in their 16th day of protests, refusing to leave until the administration takes clear action to ensure students of color felt safe attending classes, interacting with their peers, and moving around campus.
The protests remain relatively civil, with neither Glassner nor his administration issuing ultimatums or using force to end the sit-in. However, the campus remains on edge as students continue to request a response from Glassner to the requests made in their vision statement.
Other than putting forward palliative projects to increase campus safety including committing to adding more lighting on campus, the administration has yet to take any concrete action. According to Professor Young, the administration is focusing more on the long-term goals that align more closely with the demands of the protestors, including “increasing faculty diversity and making life on campus feel more safe and secure.” Professor Young also emphasized the action that the students are requesting cannot be accomplished overnight.
The situation at Lewis & Clark is linked to other incidents and protests across the country. Students at Portland State University recently held a “speak-out” to talk about racial tensions and violence on campus. Other protests relating to race, free speech, and acceptance have occurred colleges and universities around the country, including at University of Missouri, Princeton, Yale, Amherst, and Dartmouth. The events and circumstances that have precipitated the protests at each school differ but all have featured students, sometimes joined by faculty, protesting the underrepresentation of people of color on faculties, the racist histories of the schools, and the insensitivity of the university community to the needs of minority students.
Professor Young noted that the difference between the events at Lewis & Clark and those at other colleges around the country is that, “The dialogue has been very polite. The students occupying the administration building have been respectful and the administration has not called campus police to try to get the students out.”
On December 15, the Portland Police Bureau announced that it was suspending its investigation of the assault at the request of Muvuna. The Portland Police Bureau released a statement asserting, “Portland Police Bureau Bias Crimes Detectives have suspended an investigation into the assault of a Lewis and Clark student after the victim has indicated that he does not want to participate in the investigation or any subsequent prosecution, should a suspect or suspects ever be identified.”
According to authorities, Muvuna said that he had already forgiven the perpetrators of the crime and felt that pursuing it further would only lead to greater tensions. He did not want his time at Lewis and Clark to be defined by this single moment.
Although the unity Lewis and Clark community has been challenged by this controversy, students, faculty, and administrators alike seem committed to moving forward. As Professor Young eloquently summarizes, “What the students are waiting for is a concrete commitment from the institution to devote resources, time, and energy to actually make changes that we have been talking about for a long time and haven’t come to fruition.”