I am no free speech absolutist. I do believe in the right to say exactly what you want, but not when people exist in their communities with constant threats to their safety. Language on the surface may be neutral, but when it is followed up by action, especially action that intentionally disregards others’ humanities in an attempt to intimidate and ostracize them, there’s a problem.
Last week, the whiteboard outside the room of a Mexican-American Scripps College student was defaced with the phrase #Trump2016. No other room was targeted. The individual act was not some random occurrence, nor was it an attempt to start intellectual discourse—just graffiti on a single door in the entire building, that belongs to a minority individual. This weekend, at Pitzer College, the Free Wall was graffitied, as well as a tree, the Pitzer clock tower, and another piece of art not connected to the Free Wall. While the Free Wall displays many images urging students to vote for political candidates, only the murals for Bernie Sanders and Pitzer Student Senate presidential candidate Elijah Pantoja PZ '17 were defaced, the word “vote” written over with “Fuck.” Another permanent mural, depicting a silenced black man, was written over with “Make America Great Again.” Without context, these phrases may seem neutral, but words exist with connotations that contribute to social standings of groups. Messages like the ones seen at Pitzer are deliberate attempts to scare members of the community.
Rather than denouncing the acts, the Claremont Independent criticized students for making much ado about nothing. They accused students of overreacting and silencing others for their beliefs. Rather than having a substantive debate on the issue, the CI accepted the degrading graffiti as a passing for “debate.” But we cannot have open and honest debate with those in the dark, hiding behind the rhetoric of a political candidate.
If I disagree with the belief that we should freely be able to insult individuals for nothing other than who they are, I am readily okay with silencing other people. If someone simply exists, they do not represent an ideal, but rather humanity. What we are being told by the political right is that many try to “silence” others because they have disparate ideas. But these on-campus cases were not about ideas—they simply involved hateful language and a bigoted political slogan that carries with it the weight of structural racism.
An anonymous attack on a candidate for an elected position is not taking some moral stand against “the PC police.” It undercuts open and honest debate. Rather than addressing their issues with someone in person, the vandals decided to intimidate. The debasement of murals for either pleasure or power is more harmful to our campus community than any “safe space” that has been denounced by the Claremont Independent. Yet rather than denouncing the messages on the murals, the Claremont Independent sees them as “open debate.”
The other important aspect to these recent events is their racial component. It has been said that #Trump2016 is somehow a peaceful statement. This is simply not true, as events across the country have shown. For example, a homeless Latino was beaten up by two brothers because the perpetrators were inspired by Donald Trump. Trump's words are not neutral—they incite violence.
Trump has yet to denounce his campaign manager’s assault of a reporter, and his initial campaign speech delineated how he feels about minorities. He believes that “Mexicans” are rapists and criminals. How do you expect a Mexican-American to feel when they wake up with his slogan written on their wall? The prescription of someone else’s beliefs to something that is factually incorrect and something that is demeaning to the person targeted is not about interacting with their beliefs. It’s about being told that you are not welcome. In the same way, writing #Hitler2016 on the white board of a Jewish student or #DavidDuke2016 on the white board of a black student will make them feel unsafe. This is not about a docile candidate who is simply conservative. This is about a man who has made minorities the target of hate and animosity to try and win elections. But his words, the words that are supposedly neutral, spur beliefs and they spur action. If someone tells you that they feel unsafe, it is most likely because they do. It’s most likely because the supporters of Donald Trump and the man himself believe that they are less than human. So by telling them that they are “overreacting,” you are telling them they don’t belong.
In terms of having a debate on the issues, targeting minorities with graffiti is not the way to do it. If someone truly believes in Donald Trump and disagrees with Bernie Sanders, that’s a debate for a classroom. It’s not pretense for a cowardly act. Rather than take credit for their beliefs, whoever defaced Pitzer and Scripps hides behind a shield of anonymity and defense from “Free Speech Activists.” Open, honest debate is key to a strong society that is able to right our wrongs and move forward together. And higher education should provide space for the issues come to the forefront. We are supposed to be the next generation of great thinkers, not the next generation of cowards. We need to be better. We should not brush off the fact that candidates carry connotations, and that what they say can be violent and hurtful. We should be able to discuss beliefs with educated opinions, rather than in the dark of night. It is truly cowardly to not defend your beliefs openly. Their actions should no longer be defended nor idolized. This is not freedom of speech. This is fear mongering, and it has no place in Claremont.
J. Camilo Vilaseca CM '16 is from Berkeley, CA and is an International Relations and Economics major.