By Ja’Loni Owens
Six months ago, the Jefferson Has Gotta Go! (JGG) Campaign galvanized the Hofstra community after gathering to protest anti-black racism and its manifestations on our campus, specifically the presence of a statue of slaveholder and rapist Thomas Jefferson in front of the Student Center on Friday, March 30.
One week prior to the demonstration, I circulated a Change.org petition calling on the University to relocate the statue. In just under four days, the petition received over 1,000 signatures. As the petition made its rounds across the state of New York and beyond, media became interested in the organizing activities on Hofstra’s campus. Conservative media, including Fox News, soon got hold of the story. My academic email address appeared during a segment that aired that week and in the article published to their website. Not only was my academic email flooded with rape threats, death threats and other forms of harassment, but so was my personal email, Twitter, Facebook and the comment sections of articles I had written as far back as several months ago.
I imagined that this would move administrators to reconsider their position on the location of the statue. Instead, the administration responded by asking that I forward threats to Public Safety and then criticized me for a “lack of transparency” regarding the harassment. I suppose they could not understand why I felt it would be useless to disclose the extent of the harassment to the same administrators complicit in bias and discrimination on campus.
Several days after the protest, JGG was invited to meet with President Stuart Rabinowitz and other higher-level administration members to further discuss why the presence of the Thomas Jefferson is so deeply re-traumatizing and harmful to black students and students of color. This meeting was scheduled for April 18, 2018. On the evening of April 17, 2018, Dean Sofia Pertuz emailed JGG a list of ridiculous stipulations that attendees must adhere to at this highly anticipated meeting. JGG declined to attend this meeting in effort to preserve the campaign’s integrity and to avoid once again having to occupy the same space as students and administrators who have either encouraged or have been complacent in our ostraciation and marginalization. We expected our declination to attend this meeting to be met with compassion, and even an invitation to meet again under different circumstances. Instead, we were met with, “This meeting will continue as planned.” Our attendance did not matter.
It soon became clear to us that we did not matter. Organizing made us targets among our peers and our professors. Last semester, a professor with an extensive history of making statements that can be categorized as anti-black and anti-immigrant used the same policy designed to protect me from bias and discrimination to punish me for speaking out about bias and discrimination. I was also not welcomed back into the Peer Alliance program because my advocacy “complicates things.”
I cannot report any of this to the institution because these things are everything that this institution and those like it are. While the demands of this campaign are centered around Hofstra University’s campus, our goals extend far beyond the willful obtuseness of President Rabinowitz, the unchecked racism of white faculty, the complacency of “allied” faculty and this campus community. Hofstra University is a microcosm of the same Euro-cisheteropatriarchy that launched genocide of native peoples; stole land from modern day Mexico; enslaved, raped and lynched Africans; murders transgender women without flinching; poisons mothers and children in Flint, Michigan; and spends more money than any of us can fathom bombing the “global south.” Hofstra University is just one of the many institutions in this country that believes if enough statues of the most disgusting pieces of American history are erected, those whose subjugation upholds this illegitimate nation will be forced into submission and to stop fighting back.
Students on campuses across this country have shown time and time again that nothing can ever silence us. JGG will continue turning outrage into action. It is just our hope that colleges begin to understand that these statues may be brought down with or without their approval.