Racist manifesto lands on Syracuse students’ phones, deepening crisis

Racist activity in past two weeks at university include graffiti, swastikas, hate speech
Syracuse University students stage sit-ins in response to a string of racist incidents in Syracuse, N.Y., on Nov. 19, 2019.
Syracuse University students stage sit-ins in response to a string of racist incidents in Syracuse, N.Y., on Nov. 19, 2019.

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SYRACUSE — It was an ordinary cram session, around midnight, when the screed appeared on students’ phones. A racist manifesto, sent to a small clutch of people sitting at a Syracuse University library Tuesday morning, warned of “the great replacement,” a right-wing conspiracy theory that predicts white genocide at the hands of minority groups.

It was just the latest example of racist activity that has left the private university besieged, with officials confronted by student sit-ins and harsh critiques from faculty members and federal agents crawling the campus.

The episodes, which began less than two weeks ago, have included racist graffiti, swastikas and hate speech hurled at black and Asian students.

On Sunday, the university suspended all social activities at fraternities for the rest of the semester, after a group of students, including members of one fraternity, accosted a female African American student Saturday night and used a racial slur.

But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday that the university’s response was not enough. He called on its board of trustees to hire an independent monitor to investigate, harshly criticizing the chancellor, Kent D. Syverud, and other officials for their reaction to the crisis.

“They have not been handled in a manner that reflects this state’s aggressive opposition to such odious, reckless, reprehensible behavior,” the governor said of the racist episodes. “That these actions should happen on the campus of a leading New York university makes this situation even worse.”

And on Wednesday, in response to the events at Syracuse, State University of New York system Chancellor Kristina Johnson announced that the state’s public university and community college system would create a task force charged with hearing from students, faculty, campus leaders and others “to develop and any necessary changes we need to campus policies, trainings, and how we respond to future incidents.”

Johnson also promised to convene all of SUNY’s campus presidents in Albany “to address these issues and uncover ways to ensure that all campuses remain safe.”

SUNY Schenectady in a statement Wednesday commended Johnson’s “firm stance against hate speech” and welcomed a chance to provide input in how to keep SUNY campuses safe for all students.

In Syracuse, the sudden spasm of hate speech and racist vandalism has shattered the ordinary rituals of autumn, including basketball and football games, and left many of the roughly 22,500 students on campus frightened for their safety and the reputation of the university itself.

On campus, the disruption was noticeable. Teachers canceled class. Students, afraid to leave their dorm rooms, phoned parents, asking to come home. Inside the esteemed S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, typically bustling with students, hallways were largely empty.

“This triggered a panic,” said Chandler Plante, a third-year magazine journalism major. “We can’t sleep. We can’t think.”

On Tuesday, state and federal law enforcement officials descended on the university, just east of downtown, looking for evidence as to who had sent the manifesto, an anti-Muslim screed previously circulated by the suspect accused of a mass killing at two New Zealand mosques in March.

The manifesto was posted online late Monday night on a forum geared to those interested in Greek life at Syracuse University, according to the city’s police chief, and was then sent or shared via a file-transfer service to the phones of several students who were in Bird Library.

In a midday news conference in Syracuse, the police chief, Kenton T. Buckner, said there was “no credible threat” associated with the manifesto, though both the State Police and the FBI were investigating. The university’s public safety department doubled patrols around campus and residence halls.

In a lengthy “response to student concerns” that was posted on the university’s website Tuesday, Syverud did not directly address the manifesto or Cuomo’s criticism, but said university officials were aware of “concrete concerns related to the environment for diversity and inclusion on our campus.” He also promised action, outlining plans in an 11-page memo that accompanied the statement.

“We face real challenges here and we operate in a fraught national climate,” Syverud wrote. Buckner said the dissemination of the manifesto was being investigated as a crime, as was an earlier episode in which a swastika was drawn in a patch of snow.

As news of the manifesto spread, at least one faculty member, Genevieve García de Müeller, who is Mexican and Jewish, reported a direct threat, received in her work email, calling her a Jewish slur and telling her to “get in the oven where you belong.” She canceled class for the day.

But university officials emphasized the campus was open, and classes were taking place.

Bobby Maldonado, the chief of the public safety department, said this week that an anonymous Syracuse supporter was offering a $50,000 reward for information that would lead to identifying who was responsible for the various racist episodes. The university, he said Tuesday, “is really not immune from larger societal ills.”

“But the people of this university, they love this university,” Maldonado added.

According to university officials, the rash of episodes began Nov. 7, when graffiti targeting minority groups was discovered on two floors of Day Hall, a dorm. Since then, nearly a dozen others have been reported.

Students have been unhappy with the administration’s response, which has prompted days of sit-ins at university buildings and a flood of online critiques, marked with the Twitter hashtag #NotAgainSU.

Inside the Barnes Center at the Arch, the university’s new $50 million student wellness center, hundreds of students have splayed themselves on the floor over the past week.

They have been clamoring for the university to meet a long list of demands, including the expulsion of those involved in the hate speech and more systemic changes like diversifying the faculty and reforming the curriculum to educate students on racism.

For some students there Tuesday, the demonstration was an act of protest and self-protection.

“Right now, it’s where I feel most safe,” said one student, who requested anonymity in the wake of anonymous threats made against students of color in the past week.

Syverud visited the sit-in Tuesday night and said he would hold a community forum Wednesday to address protesters’ concerns.

Faculty members have also expressed disappointment with the administration: On Monday, a group of 19 nonwhite faculty members wrote a letter to the editor in The Daily Orange, Syracuse’s independent student newspaper, calling the university’s response “inadequate.”

Müeller, an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric, echoed that sentiment, saying the university had yet to fully respond to demands for more support for nonwhite students.

“I consistently see this narrative on campus that’s trying to diminish what’s happening,” she said. “I don’t see a plan, a very clear plan, for any sort of systemic change. And I think that needs to happen.”

Buckner, who is African American, also expressed empathy for what the students, particularly those in minority groups, had been going through in recent weeks.

“No student should have to go through that,” he said.

He also acknowledged that the damage done to the students’ sense of safety, and acceptance, could take time to repair.

“You don’t fix this kind of stuff overnight,” he said.

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