Protests, Police and Prejudice

Northwestern University students are in conflict with the administration over policing on campus. After protesters held an event at his house, the university president has said he is "disgusted" by them. Many are angered by his response.

October 23, 2020
Northwestern University

On June 3, in the midst of national reckoning and unrest over racial discrimination and policing, a group of Northwestern University students circulated a petition asking their university to cut ties with local police and disband campus law enforcement. Such a petition was not unique -- students at many other universities around the country were asking their administrations to cut ties with public safety institutions.

At Northwestern, that original petition movement developed into months of organizing. After controversial protests, the campus is now embroiled in conversations about free speech, anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism.

The situation escalated and came to national attention last weekend, after a series of protests at the home of President Morton Schapiro. Student protesters were seen vandalizing local chain businesses, smashing a window and placing a burned banner in front of the house, the Chicago Tribune has reported.

“What started as peaceful protests have recently grown into expressions that have been anything but peaceful or productive. Crowds blocked the streets of downtown Evanston and nearby residential areas, disrupting businesses and local families, defacing property and violating laws and university standards,” Schapiro wrote in a message to campus Monday, rebuking the protesters and the movement. “I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the overstepping of the protesters. They have no right to menace members of our academic and surrounding communities. When students and other participants are vandalizing property, lighting fires and spray-painting phrases such as ‘kill the pigs,’ we have moved well past legitimate forms of free speech.”

Schapiro’s strong language to refer to protesters -- he similarly said he was “disgusted” by them -- was coupled with accusations of anti-Semitism.

“Many gathered outside my home this weekend into the early hours of the morning, chanting ‘f--- you Morty’ and ‘piggy Morty.’ The latter comes dangerously close to a longstanding trope against observant Jews like myself,” he wrote. “Whether it was done out of ignorance or out of anti-Semitism, it is completely unacceptable, and I ask them to consider how their parents and siblings would feel if a group came to their homes in the middle of the night to wake up their families with such vile and personal attacks.”

The student group leading the charge against Schapiro and university police, Northwestern University Community Not Cops (NUCNC), takes inspiration from modern-day abolitionism, a philosophical and political movement that imagines a future without prisons and police. The movement received new attention this summer, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent national protests.

Abolitionist thinkers often argue that money divested from law enforcement can go to fund social services that decrease crime through providing a community with resources. NUCNC has advocated that the university, while cutting ties with law enforcement, must invest in Black students. The original petition demanded the university investigate avenues for reparations for slavery, create funds to support students facing legal fees following activism, provide free counseling and donate to activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and the Chicago Bond Fund, among other measures.

Schapiro’s remarks drew criticism from across campus. Faculty and affiliates from the Department of African American Studies at the university wrote a public letter to Schapiro, questioning his choices and priorities.

“Perhaps we are saddest given that this denunciation is the most full throated expression of ‘disgust’ or call for ‘accountability’ that we have heard from you or your office over the last 6 months -- months in which our university and our country have seen so many displays of actual violence against Black people” and other groups, the letter said. “It is only when your own pleasant suburban life was disrupted by student protestors that your expression of outrage and dismay to our university community rose to a level beyond the banal, the tepid and the timid.”

The letter from faculty listed other incidents -- such as a Zoom-related attack on the University Women’s Center and Floyd's killing itself -- that were met with less of a response than the incident at Schapiro’s house. A previous letter from the Department of African American Studies, outlining structural racism at the university and potential solutions, was met with a “pusillanimous response,” they said.

NUCNC responded to Schapiro’s email with a lengthy press release condemning anti-Semitism and apologizing to the Jewish community while also defending protesters' use of the word “pig” and condemning the actions of the president.

“Black people are not safe anywhere in a world with police, including in their homes, a reality that Black students at Northwestern also contend with,” the release said. “As a wealthy white man, Morton Schapiro knows that he holds an immense amount of privilege that those facing impending threats of 'personal attacks' do not, as he mobilized the police to do what they are meant to do -- protect white property and white lives.”

The organization said that members have learned that Schapiro was referencing the “Judensau” trope, seen in European folk art images of Jews in obscene contact with pigs.

“The term 'pig' has been used by Black radical movements for generations to invoke the structural violence that police officers present. In the context of our protests, which are very clearly in response to anti-Black police violence on campus and in Evanston, this was the meaning invoked,” the release said. “We find it absurd for Morton Schapiro to suggest that protestors were invoking an anti-Semitic trope derived from the European Middle Ages and not the word ‘pig’ as it refers to the racist United States police. Regardless of our intent, we apologize to our Jewish community, to individuals both inside and outside of the campaign who may have been harmed by language utilized at the protest.”

The release specifically did not apologize to Schapiro and noted several times he has refused to acknowledge or engage with student and faculty demands around race.

In a subsequent release, the student group Wildcats for Israel commended NUCNC for condemning anti-Semitism but said it is not up to that group to determine what is and is not anti-Semitic.

Some of the conversation between the groups and Schapiro has concerned his willingness to engage with conversations about racism and make real, concrete changes.

“While the protesters claim that they are just trying to get our attention, that is simply not true,” Schapiro said in his email. “Several administrators -- including our Provost, Deans, Interim Chief Diversity Officer and Vice Presidents for Research and Student Affairs -- have held numerous discussions with concerned students, faculty and staff, and I am participating in a community dialogue tomorrow evening that was scheduled weeks ago.”

But both NUCNC and the African American Studies Department have drawn attention to commitments the administration has not met, such as those to invest funds in diversifying students and faculty and providing antiracist training for senior administrators.

At a community dialogue event this week, Schapiro said the faculty letter mischaracterized what he said, what he has done and who he is. Since receiving the letter, Schapiro has offered to meet with department leaders, according to a university spokesperson.

NUCNC said on Twitter that Schapiro told students at the event that he stands by his email. Many students then took to Twitter to post #ResignMorty, referring to the president's nickname.

“Morty does not have the knowledge, tools, or desire to engage with our demands or to address the needs of Black students. he doubled down on his anti-Black email, refused to abolish NUPD or to engage with us directly,” the organization said on Twitter. “he is racist +unfit for his job.”

The organization has said it will hold protests every day until demands are met.


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