The University of Washington is looking into allegations that members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity made racist comments and obscene gestures to black students during a February protest march.
Black students at the University of Washington are alleging that members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity called African Americans “apes” and made obscene gestures and booed as marchers passed the frat’s house during a campus Black Lives Matter protest last month.
The fraternity’s president says SAE members heard comments, too, but the fraternity has conducted its own investigation and doesn’t believe its members were involved.
University officials said they are investigating but do not yet know what happened or who was responsible.
A group of young men allegedly made “grossly insensitive comments and rude gestures aimed at the marchers,” said Denzil Suite, vice president for Student Life. “The behavior described is completely inconsistent with the university’s values and expectations.”
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He called such behavior “unacceptable.”
UW officials are asking anyone with photos, recordings or videos of the incident to email them to the Student Life office at OFSL@uw.edu.
Earlier this month, the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma was abruptly closed by the fraternity’s national organization after a video surfaced of SAE members reciting racist chants on a bus. The university later expelled two students. On Thursday, the investigation spread to SAE chapters on other campuses.
The UW’s Black Student Union (BSU) has asked for a formal apology from SAE and plans to seek sanctions against the fraternity from the UW Interfraternity Council, the governing body of the university’s off-campus fraternities and sororities.
During the Feb. 25 march, which was organized to raise awareness about racism, student Dirir Abdullahi said he heard several white men shouting racial slurs from the front yard of the SAE fraternity house while he and hundreds of others marched by.
“There were several students who were screaming out loud, ‘You apes, why are you here on our campus,’ ” said Abdullahi, 21, a senior majoring in neurobiology.
Several other protesters also heard the slurs, Abdullahi and others said Wednesday, but the march continued to Gerberding Hall, where protesters delivered demands to the UW president’s office.
Zane Suarez, another student who participated in the march, said he witnessed four or five men on the second-floor balcony of the fraternity who were booing and making obscene gestures.
But some students who participated said that while they observed some men near the fraternity acting disrespectfully toward marchers, they aren’t certain they were fraternity members.
In a statement, Michael Hickey, president of the UW’s SAE chapter, said the offensive comments came from nonmembers who were standing on the sidewalk near the chapter house. He said he did not have any information about students yelling from the balcony.
Hickey said the fraternity members were “concerned and shocked by these allegations, as we pride ourselves in the diversity of our chapter membership and racism is against the moral ethics of our local and national organization.”
He said the fraternity is committed to working with others “to help hold those accountable for their offensive behavior on February 25.”
The alleged incident occurred as the protest march moved onto the UW campus at 17th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 45th Street, directly across from the SAE fraternity house. By that time, the march had dwindled to about 100 people.
SAE was the only fraternity that marchers walked past.
Members of the BSU hope to meet with UW interim President Ana Marie Cauce on Friday about the allegations.
It’s unclear what kind of sanctions, if any, the university could impose on a fraternity if it were proved to have insulted students because of their race or political beliefs.
Abdullahi said the young men’s shouts appeared to be part of an organized counterprotest against marchers.
Shortly after the protest march, Abdullahi said, he recounted the incident to march organizers and fellow BSU members. More witnesses raised allegations later that evening, during a BSU meeting to discuss the march.
BSU President Maggie Negussie said Thursday the fraternity also sent a representative to the meeting, which upset BSU members.
“They sent one of their only black male fraternity members,” she said. “A lot of people saw that as disrespectful. He’s one of the only black males in their house and he actually didn’t even hold a position (of rank) in the fraternity.”
Aside from Abdullahi, several other students also witnessed “disturbing behavior” from white men in front of the SAE fraternity during the protest march, Negussie said.
Such behavior included young men at the house shouting slurs, flipping off protesters and jeering marchers as they came by, she said.
Many of the students who’ve made the allegations don’t want to speak out publicly about what they witnessed for fear they’ll be targeted, Negussie said.
During the incident he observed, Abdullahi said, several Seattle police officers who were escorting marchers intervened to tell the young men who were shouting slurs to quiet down.
A Seattle police spokesman said Thursday he could find no record documenting that incident.
Suarez said his first reaction was anger when he heard the men booing on the SAE balcony, and giving protesters the finger. But because the march was winding down, he put it out of his mind.
After the video emerged of the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma chanting racist slogans, Suarez and others in the BSU began thinking about the SAE incident here and decided to take action.
“I know individuals who are part of this fraternity — they are nothing like this,” he said. “But it is concerning when you see something like this come up.”