Students and community activists described Western Washington University’s response to racist threats as inadequate and said the university should have done a better job of protecting students who were threatened, including supplying police protection.
BELLINGHAM — In a packed news conference in downtown Bellingham on Wednesday, students and community activists described Western Washington University’s (WWU) response to racist threats posted on social media as inadequate.
They said the university should have done a better job of safeguarding those who were threatened, including offering round-the-clock police protection.
Organizers expressed disappointment in WWU President Bruce Shepard’s actions since the threats came to light and thought he should have sent out a campuswide alert.
Events were put in motion Sunday night and Monday when WWU student- government President Belina Seare encountered a series of malicious comments and racially charged threats on social media. The threats were to all students of color, but many also targeted specific students on campus — including Seare.
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Examples passed out at the news conference included references to lynchings and included a photo of Seare, who is black, along with the words, “This is one of the [expletive] who started this whole thing” — using an offensive epithet for African Americans.
Shepard could not be reached Wednesday for comment; a spokesman said he was not in his office.
Seare did not talk about the genesis of the comments, but they appear to have been sparked by a student-government discussion about whether the Viking mascot is an inclusive symbol for the university.
She described the hate speech as “not an isolated incident. Threats were being made against me as a black female student and are reflective of our campus climate and the continual violence against black and brown students in communities around the world.”
The incident at WWU is unfolding against a backdrop of tension on campuses nationwide about racial equity and attitudes, security and freedom of speech.
Seare said she went to the WWU campus police but was told there was not much they could do. She questioned why threats to students of color are often dismissed, or labeled as overreactions.
After Seare spoke, she declined to answer questions. She left the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center, where the news conference was held, escorted by adults and other students.
Junga Subedar, who works for Whatcom Civil Rights and whose group is helping Seare, said many of the threats were aired on the anonymous social-media site Yik Yak. She said police told Seare she would need to make a statement, and a warrant would have to be issued to get Yik Yak to turn over the names of the users posting threats.
But Subedar said Yik Yak’s posted policies do not refer to the need for a warrant for information to be turned over to law enforcement.
Maru Mora Villalpando, with Latino Access, said it took Seare and other students who were at the news conference several hours Tuesday night to come to a decision to talk about their experiences to reporters.
“The students are so frightened,” Villalpando said. The group is amassing “hundreds of screen shots on social media” that make threats to the students’ lives and safety, she said.
Subedar said some of the threats have been made to students’ family members, as well. She called them “specific threats, threatening to punish people. That’s not First Amendment speech.”