Editor's note: This story is from our sister paper the Stranger in Seattle.
Administrators at Evergreen State College closed the Olympia school campus and cancelled classes on Thursday after local law enforcement officials received a call with a "direct threat to campus safety." The campus will remain closed today, and administrators are still deciding whether the school will open on Monday, said Zach Powers, a spokesperson for Evergreen State College.
The threats came during a period of unrest on campus that has blown up in the national media. It's still unclear if the two incidents are related.
Tensions at Evergreen have been running high since mid-April when student organizers with POC Greeners decided to make a change to the campus' annual "Day of Absence," an event that dates back to the 1970s. During past events, students of color were given the option to leave campus "for community building around identity and conversations about issues of difference... to highlight how integral people of color (POC) are to the Evergreen community," reported the college's student newspaper, The Cooper Point Journal.
This year, however, student organizers turned the event on its head and invited white students and college faculty and staff to leave campus for the day to "[reaffirm] the value of having POC in higher education and specifically at Evergreen," Rashida Love, the campus' Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services, wrote in an e-mail to Evergreen staff. About 200 students typically participate in the event, she noted. The decision to flip the script followed students of color voicing concerns of feeling unwelcome on campus since Donald Trump's election. Participants in the "Day of Absence" would then return to Evergreen the following day to continue discussions about race and equity as part of a "Day of Presence," the student newspaper reported.
In a now widely-publicized e-mail response to Love, Evergreen biology instructor Bret Weinstein vocalized his opposition to the new "Day of Absence" event, which he described as "a show of force and an act of oppression in and of itself” for asking white students, faculty, and staff to "go away." Weinstein also stated that he would be on campus during the event, called on the Evergreen community "to put phenotype aside and reject this new formulation," and offered to host “a discussion of race on campus through a scientific/evolutionary lens.”
Some students of color perceived Weinstein's comments as ignorant and bigoted and organized protests, calling for his firing.
The national media caught wind of the campus tension after a video surfaced of a group of students confronting Weinstein about his remarks, shouting and drowning out the professor. "Hey hey, ho ho, Bret Weinstein has got to go," the students chant at one point.
Right wing media, like Breitbart and Heat Street latched onto the incident as an example of liberal intolerance and mob mentality on college campuses. A New York Times opinion editor jumped in the fray, criticizing the episode as the "left turning on its own."
Weinstein, too weighed in on the national discussion, appearing on Fox News and submitting an op-ed to The Wall Street Journal. He also offered commentary on social media:
Drawn by my friend Stuart. Really captures the moment, I think. pic.twitter.com/V3QZ8a7b77
— Bret Weinstein (@BretWeinstein) May 27, 2017
Student activists say they've been unfairly maligned. "While it is probably true that some of our strategies were very passionate, they were also peaceful," an Evergreen student, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote in an e-mail. "And while it might be true there was some 'harassment' (a subjective term), it was on the lines of condemnation and scorn, rather than threats and stalking."
One student, who asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns, said death threats to campus activists followed Weinstein's media appearances. "A swastika appeared on campus. Student personal information was published on 4chan channels and other neo-Nazi and violent racist internet communities," the student told The Stranger.
Said another student: "Calling these people 'Weinstein supporters' would be irresponsible of me. These people are mostly organized racists from off campus that use internet presence, anonymity, and misinformation to disrupt a narrative, and the threat of violence to suppress those who would fight back."
Weinstein's e-mail, which he may not have known would be made public, is protected free speech under the First Amendment. Students' decision to organize and call out the instructor's comments are also protected.
On Twitter, Weinstein also claimed that his student supporters were being threatened online by his critics. He subsequently tweeted: "I'm told people are doxing those that protested against me. I don't know if it's true. If it is, *please stop.* No good can come from that." The biology instructor also said that Evergreen campus police warned him that he was "not safe on campus. They can not protect me."
Student demonstrators refuted Weinstein's claims that their supporters had attempted to dox the teacher's supporters. They believe the media’s focus on Weinstein is a distraction from their chief concern: ongoing issues revolving around racism, sexism, and transphobia at Evergreen.
Thursday's Evergreen campus shutdown followed two weeks of students organizing conversations surrounding race and equity on campus, including a sit-in in the campus library to protest the treatment of two Black students at the hands of campus police, the Journal repoted.
On May 26, students met with Evergreen President George Bridges and issued a set of demands to implement equity initiatives on the campus, The Cooper Point Journal reported. Those requests included Weinstein's termination, mandatory cultural competency training for all faculty and staff, a student-review process for updating student conduct codes, establishment of an equity center, and the disarmament of campus police officers. Students also called for Weinstein’s termination.
On June 1, Love released a copy of the original e-mail sent to Evergreen faculty and staff about the "Day of Absence" and her response to Weinstein's message.
"In the decades-long history of this event, it has ALWAYS been and will always be voluntary," she said in a statement. "Furthermore, this is the first year white people have been invited off-campus, as people of color have been asked to participate off campus each year prior. During the antagonizing party’s multi-year tenure at Evergreen, he has not once expressed complaint for the invitation extended to people of color leaving campus."
The idea that any collegiate body could or would force all white people off of a college campus is not only false but statistically absurd. Event organizers secured a space off-campus with a 200-person occupant limit. Evergreen has a white student population of approximately 2800, roughly 70% of the student population, and several hundred white faculty and staff. This year more than 90% of white Evergreen students, staff, and faculty stayed on campus for Day of Absence, and several hundred of them eagerly participated in our Day of Presence programming two days after being invited to attend Day of Absence off-campus.
Evergreen President Bridges also wrote in a statement that he welcomed conversations about equity and free speech while also condemning the online harassment following student protests.
Discrimination of any form is not acceptable or tolerated on our campus. Free speech must be fostered and encouraged. We are an institution dedicated to learning. We must treat each other with respect and care. Every faculty member, student, and staff member must have the freedom to speak openly about their views.
Unless we continually seek to listen and to understand, rather than listening to react, we will not fulfill Evergreen’s mission to learn across differences.
We may disagree with each other. However, disagreement is one thing; dehumanization is another...
This behavior is wrong and must stop. It does not represent us, and we will not allow it to define us.
Tess Riski contributed reporting.