Race, Graffiti and an Arrest

U of Wisconsin police pull black student from class to arrest him for allegedly spray-painting anti-racist messages across campus, prompting criticism that university cares more about graffiti than bigotry.

April 18, 2016
University of Wisconsin Police Department

This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that relate to various messages discussed in the piece.

Prompting widespread anger from faculty and students, University of Wisconsin at Madison police on Thursday pulled a black student from class and arrested him for allegedly spray-painting anti-racist messages across campus.

The arrest, which comes at a time when the university is dealing with a number of racist incidents on campus, led more than 700 students, staff and faculty members to sign a letter accusing the university and its police department of caring more about the graffiti than the issues to which the writings were drawing attention. The graffiti arrived amid growing protests on campus, including minority students flooding social media with complaints of racism and creating banners that depict the university's mascot, Bucky Badger, as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“The university is more interested in protecting the symbols of UW as a progressive institution, like their buildings and Bucky, rather than the students who are actually fighting for social change, and apparently their lives,” Johanna Almiron, the Wisconsin professor whose Afro-American Studies class was disrupted by police, said in the letter. “The way UWPD officers entered my class was very aggressive, with bulletproof vests and guns visible. I cannot believe they humiliated and terrified my students.”

University officials denied that the officers acted aggressively, pointing to videos of the incident that seem to depict the officers calmly entering the classroom and talking to the student.

University of Wisconsin police had been searching for the student behind the graffiti -- which the university says caused about $4,000 in damage -- for six months, the department said in a statement. The messages, often written in red and black spray paint and signed “God,” were found scrawled on several buildings across campus. “Racism in the air,” one message stated, “don’t breathe.”

Other messages stated, “White supremacy is a disease” and “fuck the police.”

According to Almiron, two officers entered the classroom Thursday and, ignoring the professor, asked the student to step outside of the room. The student, a senior named Denzel McDonald, was then arrested on 11 preliminary counts of vandalism and one count of disorderly conduct, for allegedly threatening to kill someone who saw him painting the graffiti. Prosecutors have not yet formally charged the student, who was released on bail Thursday.

Almiron and some of her students said that one officer told the professor that McDonald “sent his message,” and “now we are sending ours.” University officials denied that the officer said this.

The university later released four videos related to the incident (which are found here and one of which is embedded below).

After the arrest, Almiron and other faculty members wrote an open letter condemning the arrest for occurring in the middle of class. They asked that McDonald be “given immunity from expulsion,” and said that the police’s response to the graffiti was overzealous.

“Even the rash of violent crimes on campus such as rape and sexual assault have not received this kind of response,” the faculty wrote. “This charge was for vandalism. To arrest him in his Afro-American Studies classroom, in front of his professor and his classmates goes well beyond the call of duty. We can only wonder if the content of the graffiti under question, which challenges police violence and racism on campus, serves as a rationale for UWPD’s use of such a public display of force.”

The university’s Teaching Assistants’ Association also criticized the arrest, saying in a statement that “at a time when we are witnessing an upsurge in racist backlash against movements for a more inclusive university, officials acting on behalf of the university will respond aggressively to the victims of that backlash rather than to its perpetrators.”

On Friday, Susan Riseling, the university’s police chief, released a statement apologizing for the officers’ behavior. Riseling said that the department had attempted to contact McDonald for two weeks and visited the classroom as a last resort. When the officers entered the room, she said, they mistakenly believed that the class had not yet started.

Promising a review of the department's practices, Rebecca Blank, the university’s chancellor, said in a statement that the officers entering the classroom was not appropriate, though she also stressed that the student is facing criminal charges.

“I know there is a lot of frustration on campus about the climate for students of color,” Blank said. “I share that frustration. The string of incidents last fall and this spring have highlighted that we have a long way to go to be the community we need to be. We are a university made up of some wonderfully intelligent, caring individuals, and working together we can do better.”

The university has experienced several racist incidents in recent months, including students finding graffiti of a man hanging from a tree in a campus restroom.

In January, a student taped swastikas and photographs of Hitler on the door of a Jewish student’s room. In March, three students interrupted an event about Native Americans who were victims of sexual assault by yelling “war cry” noises. Later than month, a student spat on a group of black students, calling them “poor and here on scholarship.”

Earlier this month, someone slipped a note under the door of a freshman who is biracial and identifies as African-American. “Fuck you nigger bitch,” the note read.

Patrick Sims, the university’s vice provost, released an unusually frank video response after that incident, saying the note was “the kind of hatred we haven’t seen since Jim Crow.” In the video, Sims also addressed minority students who have used the hashtag #TheRealUW to argue that officials have not done enough to prevent such incidents.

In March, Sims and Lori Berquam, the university’s dean of students, announced a number of initiatives meant to tackle the issues.

“You’re tired of us talking, you’re tired of us trying to listen, you want to see action,” Sims said in the video. “I’m with you. I want action just as badly as you do. But let me be real with you. Anything that we put up overnight, in one day, can be taken overnight, in one day.”


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