Petition to remove Jefferson statue ignites discourse
Students protest in favor of the removal of the Thomas Jefferson statue outside of the Student Center. Photo Courtesy of Genesis Ibarra/ Hofstra Chronicle
Hofstra students protested both for and against the relocation of the Thomas Jefferson statue that stands outside the Sondra and David S. Mack Student Center on Friday, March 30. The protest comes after a student-made petition circulated via social media during the past several weeks. The statue, which was donated by David Mack, is familiar with controversy, as Hofstra student-activists made a similar attempt in 2004 to remove it.
The university put out a statement on Tuesday, March 27 that said, “The right to peaceful protest and assembly is at the core of our democracy. Hofstra supports our students’ right to engage in peaceful demonstrations about issues that matter to them. We look forward to continuing a civil exchange of ideas and perspectives on the subject.”
Despite the fact that Hofstra claims to have “an architectural connection to Jefferson” as stated on the university’s official website, many feel that it incites tension and discomfort among students and community members where it stands in front of the Student Center, a hub for life and activity at Hofstra.
Ja’Loni Owens, a junior public policy and public service major, created a Change.org petition in mid-March to move the statue, and since then its dissemination it has garnered national attention.
Soon after the petition’s inception, student groups joined together to organize a protest in support of removing the statue. This included Campus Feminist Collective, Collegiate Women of Color, Democrats of Hofstra University, Hofstra History Club, Hofstra NAACP Chapter, Peace Action Matters, Queer & Trans People of Color Coalition (QTPOCC), Student Advocates for Safer Sex, the Gender Identity Federation, the Pride Network and Young Democratic Socialists of Hofstra. Since the petition has been published, it has received over 900 signatures.
The Hofstra Chronicle covered a similar demonstration in 2004. Independent People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, a former student club at Hofstra, listed reasons for the statue’s removal that closely reflect the criticisms activists on campus are citing today.
Karla Schuster, the assistant vice president of University Relations, said that this effort prompted the addition of the Frederick Douglass statue in front of Monroe Lecture Hall.
“In response to these requests, a committee was formed to select a sculpture that should be added to the campus to address diversity and the accomplishments of people of color,” Schuster said. “Ultimately, Frederick Douglass Circle was chosen based on recommendations from students, the provost and the director of the Hofstra University Museum.”
Following the recent petition to remove the statue, freshman history major Richard Caldwell penned the counter petition that began to circulate online. According to Caldwell, he chose to write the counter petition after he and several others commented respectfully on the Facebook page for the original petition and were met with accusations of white supremacy. “We were called all these different insults just for disagreeing with them. I felt that this was being more of a one-sided conversation and the other point of view wasn’t being expressed in it.” The counter petition has over 1,400 signatures.
Three days before the protest, Fox News picked up the story, which resulted in broadened media coverage from outlets across the country. Political commentator and former Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly added to the conversation when he criticized the protest, tweeting: “As predicted, radical left students are now attacking Thomas Jefferson. This Friday (Good Friday) at Hofstra University on Long Island, a Black Lives Matter person will lead a demonstration demanding that the statue of Old Tom be removed.”
The original Fox News article included a link to the Facebook event in addition to the event poster, subjecting Owens and other organizers to hate mail. Owens has since become a target of many death threats online. During the Student Government Association (SGA) meeting on Thursday, March 29, Owens expressed her unease.
“Bill O’Reilly, who was recently ousted from Fox News for literally being a rapist, Tweeted about me and [referring to me as only a ‘Black Lives Matter person’] and from that so many violent people decided that because I have dissenting opinions on this statue on campus that I should die, or be punished, or deported, or punched in the face or expelled or that I do not have the right to take up space on this campus,” she said.
Owens told The Chronicle that they grew nervous over a reply Tweet that read “Where’s the bombers when you need them.”
Owens said “…that’s not just a direct attack on me – if someone were to do anything, it would harm so many other people, whether they supported us or not.”
Schuster said that the Division of Student Affairs is working in conjunction with Public Safety to follow up with the student organizers of Friday’s demonstration on the issue. “The organizers have been sharing any communications (emails, social media posts, for example) that concern them so that Public Safety can follow up as appropriate.” She explained further that the university “encourages all students who receive communication that contains language that makes them feel unsafe to contact Public Safety immediately.”
For this reason among others, organizers and activists found it difficult to effectively execute the demonstration. The protest was originally scheduled to take place outdoors on the south side of campus, but due to safety concerns, Hofstra administration instructed the organizers to hold the demonstration in the Plaza Room of the Student Center.
Michelle Boo, protest organizer and vice president of QTPOCC said, “They were not being upfront with what they wanted us to do. When we were talking about having it in the Plaza Room, it had just been a suggestion and then they told us we were doing it there.” Boo speculated that the Admitted Students Day event that occurred simultaneously seemed to be another reason why Hofstra wanted the protest moved indoors during the planning process.
Mary Ann Trasciatti, professor of rhetoric and advocacy, felt that the protest should have been allowed to disrupt the normal flow of traffic to make people stop and think. “It’s just too bad that the university forced them inside where they would be non-disruptive,” Trasciatti said. “I mean [the students] are doing all the right things. I see the university’s position, I just think it’s unfortunate and wish they would [be] a little more flexible [and allow] for a protest to really be a protest.”
Students who attended the protest titled “Jefferson Has Gotta Go!” eventually moved outside.
Participants held signs with phrases such as “COLONIZER” and other political expressions while others held up counter paraphernalia including the colonial flag.
Inside the Student Center, protestors packed into the Plaza Room where students were encouraged to share their perspective.
“I am disappointed in Hofstra for ignoring us,” said junior public policy and political science major Carissa Ramirez when she went up to speak. “Thomas Jefferson was a racist. Hofstra doesn’t support racists and yet the statue still stands where it is right now. Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. Hofstra educates every incoming freshman about consent, about rape, about sexual assault and Hofstra apparently stands against that, and yet the statue is still out there where it is.”
Junior history and women’s studies major Lola Solis also said, “He wrote the Declaration of Independence … I wasn’t a part of that. As a Mexican woman, they weren’t advocating for me. They didn’t want me to own land. They didn’t want me to be free and live in liberty and happiness ... I don’t give a shit about the Declaration of Independence.”
Tess Griffin, a fourth-year women’s studies major, said, “I’m out here to support my peers, specifically the black students and the black community on this campus to move or remove this statue because it is basically a spit in the face of this community. As a school that is a PWI [Predominantly White Institution] that tries to advertise that we are diverse and that we respect and love our diverse students this completely contradicts that.”
Secretary for Hofstra Republicans Nicholas Zotto, a junior political science major, had a different take on the statue. Several members of the Hofstra Republicans attended the protest to counter what they felt was a one-sided conversation. “In response to the protest to take down the statue, we are here offering a counter protest giving reasons why to keep the statue,” Zotto said. “I definitely understand the concern for the abuse of slaves and the sexual crimes he committed, but we’re here to remember the legacy he gave for the country, the Declaration of Independence, his contribution to the Bill of Rights and several things that they haven’t spoken about.”
Outside, the group split in two and lined the walls near the entrance of the Student Center, wielding protest signs and chanting things like “3-4-7-9 sexual violence is a crime!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Jefferson has got to go!” The demonstration concluded when administrators told the group they were blocking traffic to the entrance.
“People can exist with multiple identities at the same time and we have to recognize that people aren’t just one sided. We aren’t asking people to forget about Thomas Jefferson as a Founding Father. We’re just saying please understand and see what other parts of him exist,” Griffin said.
Organizers will meet with President Stuart Rabinowitz the week of April 9 to discuss the fate of the statue.
Pictured is a reply tweet to Bill O’Reilly’s post regarding Hofstra student protesters and a reply tweet posted in response to a Fox & Friends segment about the petition.