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Paresky Defacer Coverage, Part II

Second part of a close reading of Record coverage by Lauren Bender about the Paresky Defacer. Start with Part I here.

Dave Boyer, director of Security, said that the College is working in tandem with WPD on the investigation of the incident. Because the investigation is ongoing, he could not reveal any details about how it is progressing. However, Boyer did say that the College has not yet determined how to classify the crime.

“Generally, an incident has to be thoroughly investigated before a determination can be made on how it’s classified as a crime,” Boyer said.

1) As discussed yesterday, if the College/WPD/FBI have not yet determined whether or not this is a “hate crime,” then the Record should not use this terminology in its article titles.

2) Boyer is a smart guy who has been around the block more than once with these sorts of incidents. He is well aware that many (25%? 50%? 75%?) of the reported hate crimes at elite schools are either hoaxes or have nothing to do with racial/religious animus per se. These quotes sure make it seem like Boyer/Williams are hedging their bets.

3) “Thoroughly investigated?” It has been a week! How much more investigation is there left to do? Paresky is open to the public, so there are not a bunch of electronic records to go through. There is also no video surveillance. (As always, campus readers are encouraged to correct these claims.) What, exactly, is Security investigating today. Did the Record ask?

4) Sure would be nice if the Record had some anonymous sources in security. I bet than rank-and-file security offices take a fairly dim view of these moral panics. If you are an aspiring first year reporter, go say Hello to the officers you see at the next campus party.

My guess: Boyer/Williams has determined that there is no there there. Either the vandalism was a hoax or it was a once-off driven by other factors. They don’t think that anyone is in danger or that this is going to happen again. But they can’t say that! So, they will string out the “investigation” until December and then drop the whole thing.

“We felt concerned about one another, more than for ourselves,” Firas Shannib ’15, a member of the Muslim Ephs, said. “I don’t think anyone felt overly fearful. It felt like a moment of strong community. People weren’t really afraid or angry … It was lovely to see everyone come together and make a show of support.”

Good stuff. Kudos to Shannib and the other Muslim Ephs for such a level-headed response.

Cesar Roman ’15, president of the Interfaith Group, said he was concerned by the student body’s seemingly ambivalent response.

“We had a meeting on the subject of how we respond to violence,” Ronan said. “As the Interfaith Group, it was important to acknowledge violence and how it doesn’t have a place here … it’s a difficult question, a difficult conversation, and people don’t necessarily want to have those conversations.”

Allow me to explain to Roman why many of his fellow students are “ambivalent.”

First, there is a good chance that the entire thing is a hoax. Until we know more, it is hard to get worked up.

Second, even if it is not a hoax, it does not seem to be a big deal. Of all the tragedies in Williamstown, much less in the wider world, a defaced poster of an alumnus, seems relatively unimportant. No worries if you want to get all worked up about it. Tastes differ! But you have no business telling me what I should be spending my time on.

Third, it is hard to take Roman et al serious when they insist on using words like “violence” for an act which was non-violent.

Fourth, I think that there are lots of “difficult conversation[s]” that we could be having at Williams, starting with affirmative action. But those probably aren’t the conversations you want to have.

According to College Council (CC) co-president Erica Moszkowski ’15, CC will hold a “Community Matters” discussion this evening on the hate crime.

Were any readers at this meeting? What happened? Discussion is good and a smart CC co-president would create an atmosphere in which students from a variety of viewpoints, including ambivalence, would feel welcome. Alas . . .

“This is about basic humanity,” Moszkowski said. “The whole idea of the ‘I am Williams’ campaign is that we are all unique and incredibly complex and fascinating individuals and we all belong here, and we can all claim Williams. This was a direct denial of that, and it should matter to every single person. So [CC] represents the entire student body and should do something active.”

“Basic humanity?” Uhhh. Really? Again, if a studio art student created a similar poster of, say, an alumnus who was the CEO of a coal mining company, and defaced it in the same way, thereby expressing her concerns about global warming, would Moszkowski be using terms like “basic humanity” and “direct denial?” I doubt it, but corrections welcome.

“[S]hould matter” and “should do something active” is perfect expression of the busy-body student goverment weenie who wants to order her fellow students around. Maybe Moszkowski, instead of spouting off to the Record about what her peers “should” do, could try talking to some students who disagree with her. She might learn something, mainly that many (most?) students find this PC scaremongering boring.

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Record Coverage of Paresky Defacer

Is “Paresky Defacer” a good name for our fall scandal? Reader suggestions are most welcome! In the meantime, below is the first part of a close reading of Record coverage by Lauren Bender.

College works to investigate hate crime

I am not sure if I like this title. (Normally, I would not blame the reporter (Lauren Bender) for the title, but, since she is the Managing Editor, some blame may be appropriate in this case.) As the article makes clear later, neither the College nor the local police have classified the defacement as a hate crime yet. Since “hate crime” has a specific legal meaning/implication, a better title would have used “vandalism” or “poster defacement” instead. Of course, this is a quibble, but I try to hold the Record to very high standards.

Also, imagine that the poster was of a white male alum — Well, actually, Williams classifies Arab students as “white” in its racial bean-counting, so a better counter-factual would be white, blond male alum — and that the same defacement occurred. Would the Record consider that vandalism a “hate crime?”

Anyway, back to the article.

On Oct. 1, Campus Safety and Security received a report from a student regarding a vandalized poster found in a service staircase in Paresky.

This is not a bad start, and I realize that space in the printed paper is limited, but there is a lot of missing information.

1) Who was the student who reported the poster? If CSS did not release his name, then why not? Did the Record even ask? I doubt that this student was anything other than an innocent bystander, but we need more information to be sure. In particular, why were they in a “service staircase?”

2) Where exactly was the poster found? (And when?) A current student told me that he thought the poster had been in a Paresky classroom. We need more details to make a better judgment. I don’t know the layout of Paresky as well as I should, but where is there a service staircase?

3) Where did the poster come from? In particular, was the poster already on the wall, and defaced in place, or did someone bring the poster to the stairwell. I assume that the poster had been up in this stairwell for quite some time, and that it was not the only poster in the stairwell, but clarification would be good. In particular, we are trying to figure out if this was random anti-Williams vandalism — local youths have been vandalizing things at Williams for generations — or whether this vandalism was specifically directed at this poster, presumably because of the student’s race/religion.

The photograph on the poster, part of the “I Am Williams” campaign, is a portrait of an Arab Muslim student who had already graduated when the poster was found.

Who was the student? If there was some reason why the Record did not want to publish his name, then Bender should explain that clearly. Perhaps the Record has a policy against reporting the names of “victims?” Even in that case, we should know the student’s class. Or, if the Bender does not know the student’s name, she should explain that. Did she ask Williams? What did the College say in return?

A good paper would find out and publish the name of the student in the picture, unless there was some compelling reason not to. Facts are facts, and it is Bender’s job to get the facts for her readers. Moreover, the student’s name/class is relevant because, as discussed yesterday, we readers are trying to determine if the act was directed at this student in particular or at Muslim students in general or at Williams students in general. If the student graduated in, say, 2012, there is unlikely to be anyone on campus who hates him enough to go to this trouble. If he graduated in 2014, then there might be.

The portrait’s eyes were gouged out, the throat was slit and a cross was etched onto the forehead.

We need a picture of the vandalized poster! I assume that Security took a photo of it. Did Bender ask for a copy? Was she given one? If not, then why not?

The reason this is relevant is that we now have competing descriptions of the vandalism. Bender described the eyes as being “gouged out,” which sounds like something that could be done with a pen, by repeatedly stabbing the eyes. Bolton/Klass reported that the deface included “cutting out the eyes of the picture using a sharp object.” That sounds like someone with a pen knife making careful incisions around the eyes.

Those are very different scenarios! Which is it?

I assume that Bolton/Klass are correct and that a pen would not have been a delicate enough tool for the defacement. And that provides some hints about motive (not a drunken spur-of-the-moment act) and timing.

Also, “cross was etched” (Bender) is different from “a cross was marked on the forehead of the image using something that makes a dark mark.” A pen could have etched something. But a dark mark — like the cross that Catholics put on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday? — requires material and planning.

512px-Crossofashes

This image is from Wikipedia. (Apologies for not getting the citation to work.) If the mark on the poster really looked like this, then this is “defacement” is looking a lot more like “speech.” (Again, the eyes/neck vandalism, make this much less likely, but that is why we need to see a photo of the poster.)

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Poster Defacement in Paresky

Below the break is the second all-campus e-mail sent out with regards to last week’s poster defacement. Read the whole thing. (Apologies for the formatting and many thanks to the student who sent it to me.) I will pull out some highlights and provide my commentary.

We write to update you with some additional information regarding the events of last Wednesday night.

Have there been further e-mails about this event? (We posted the initial e-mail here.) If so, please paste them in the comments. Future historians will thank you! Also, we need a name for this controversy. Suggestions?

Now that we’ve had the opportunity to do a first round of investigation and to speak with the student whose image was defaced, we can provide further information about the defacement itself. The description that follows is very disturbing. An “I am Williams” poster depicting a recent alumnus, which included both text in Arabic and a statement that the alumnus is Muslim, was the target of
the defacement.

Which exact image was it? I can’t figure out a way to search the archive. Can you? The subject of the e-mail indicates that the poster was in Paresky, but we need some details as to its exact location. Was it in a well-trafficked hallway or in some third floor corner? Also, was it the only I am Williams poster in that area or was it one of many? (The former would suggest that the defacement might have been just (?) anti-Williams sentiment rather than specifically anti-Muslim.)

The defacement consisted of cutting out the eyes of the picture using a sharp object, and making a cut all the way across the throat in the picture, apparently using the same sharp object. In addition, a cross was marked on the forehead of the image using something that makes a dark mark. This appalling defacement appears to be both a crime and a very serious violation of our code of conduct.

1) Creepy!

2) A crime? Give me a break. I had some military posters defaced back in the day. The last thing that I would have done is to go running to the police. Moreover, it is not clear what the exact ownership is in this case. Let’s say that a student goes to the I Am Williams archive, prints out one of the images, defaces it and then hangs it in Paresky. Is that a crime? No! In fact, it is protected speech! Williams students are allowed (even encouraged) to put all sorts of posters up all over campus.

Now, more likely, the poster was already there and did not belong to the defacer, but even then it is not clear if a criminal complaint is possible, much less reasonable. Students have been writing things, often obnoxious things, on posters at Williams for decades. If the College or Williamstown has never prosecuted such cases in the past (have they?), they open themselves up to charges of selective prosecution if they were to try to do so in this case.

More importantly, the College has a sad history of over-reacting to these situations, at least in the last ten years. So, why even talk about this as a crime? The Code of Conduct provides the College with all the tools it needs to punish this act, if it should choose to do so. Leave the police out of it.

3) The painstaking nature of the defacement is very interesting. First, it makes it much less likely that this was a spur-of-the-moment (drunken or otherwise) attack. Someone had to plan this. Moreover, how many student walk around with something sharp (and pointed?) enough to for this sort of work and/or with dark material for the cross. Round numbers: None. So, someone knew that the poster was there, got the materials needed to deface it together, went to the location (when they knew (how?)) that no one would be around), and carefully did the defacement. Tricky!

Or, someone who works in that area (and thought that Williams was ignoring Muslim issues) performed the vandalism to raise awareness. Hmm. Does Williams have someone on staff who holds that view? Someone with private access to the area?

If we’re able to determine who’s responsible, they’ll be accountable to both the college code of conduct and to the law.

Who did it? As I highlighted when discussing this event on Monday, there is a good chance that this vandalism was done by a student or staff member (possibly Muslim himself) who thinks that Williams is hostile to Muslims and wanted to bring attention to the issue. That is what happened in the case of Gilbert Moore ’94 20 years ago.

A second possibility is that the act was driven by animus to someone associated with the poster and not by any animus to Muslims per se. This remains the most likely explanation for the Willy E. N-word controversy of last decade. Did someone have a beef with the student in the picture? (Doubtful, but it would be helpful to know who it was. If they graduated more than a few years ago, then this is highly unlikely.) Or was the poster part of a display on someone’s office and someone did not like that person and used defacing the poster as a way to get to them? (The Willy E. N-word case, the most likely cause was students who disliked a female first year because she ruined their parties. They attacked her race/gender, not because they were racist/misogynist, but because they thought that this was a good way to attack her. If she had been white and male, they would have attacked him just as viciously, but in some other way.

My guess: This was done by someone with no animus to Muslims who wanted to raise campus awareness. By the way, this is also the most likely explanation for the graffiti in Prospect several years ago.

This act does harm to every member of our community, and also appears to particularly target the Williams Muslim community. For many students, staff, and faculty this event also recalls other incidents of discrimination or hatred at Williams, either public or private.

Yeah, right! Williams College is just a hotbed of “discrimination or hatred.” Give me a break. Can anyone provide concrete examples of discrimination and hatred at Williams over the last few years? Is Williams a perfect place? No! But there are places in this world which can fairly be described as rife with “discrimination” and “hatred.” Williams College is not one of them. To pretend otherwise is to cheapen the experiences of those people unfortunate enough to live in much more trying circumstances.

By the way, the entire e-mail is beautifully crafted. Primary author? My money is on Steve Klass, the smoothest operator at Williams. Not that that is a bad thing!

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Defaced in a Violent Manner

An all-campus e-mail from last week.

To the Williams Community,

We are appalled and saddened to report that earlier this evening a student reported to CSS that an “I Am Williams” poster of a recent Muslim graduate had been defaced in a violent manner, including with what appears to be a cross on his face. The poster was found in a remote area of Paresky.

The college notified Williamstown police and is cooperating with their investigation. Anyone with information that might aid this investigation should call the WPD at 458-5733 or CSS at 597-4444.

Chaplain Rick Spalding is in his office on the second floor of Paresky this evening and available to speak with any students in need of support. Students can also reach the dean on call through CSS.

Horrific acts of this kind have no place on our campus and are profoundly incompatible with the fundamental values of our community.

It is deeply disturbing to us that such an act would occur at Williams. As we consult with students and others on the ways we’ll respond as a community, we’ll be back in touch.

Adam Falk, President
Sarah Bolton , Dean of the College

I will post the follow up e-mail later this morning. In the meantime, some comments:

1) I hope/trust that security is looking closely at the student who reported this. People who start fires (and/or fake hate crimes) are often the first ones to report the news.

2) I am glad that Falk did not overreact in the same absurd fashion — canceling classes for the day — that he did after the Prospect House graffiti of a few years ago. Even theoretical physicists can learn from experience.

;-)

For those who don’t recall, racist graffiti — “All Niggers Must Die” — was found on the top floor of Prospect after a Saturday night party three years ago. Falk cancelled all classes and athletic practices for the following Monday.

The cynics among you might draw the lesson that the College cares much more about the feelings of African-Americans in the Williams community than it cares about the feelings of Muslims. But I am not a cynic! Instead, I hope that Falk has decided that paying too much attention to these actions will only generate more such actions in the future.

3) “defaced in a violent manner” is a strange phrase. As opposed to a non-violent, Ghandi-esque defacement?

4) “Horrific acts”? Please, a little perspective. Imagine that a student, for a Studio Art project, had done the exact same defacement to a poster of, say, former President Bush. Would the College object in any way? Of course not! (Nor should it.) Such a poster would be proudly displayed by the College on College property and as a part of a College-sanctioned showing of student work.

5) What makes these events fun, from a philosophical point of view, is the search for meaning. What was the intent of the poster-defacer? And how should his intent — and, odds are, the defacer was male — affect the College’s interpretation of the event.

6) How should Falk handle this event? Ignore it. Or, rather, let Security deal with it in the most boring, bureaucratic way possible. Take down the defaced poster, put up a replacement and make a (public) description of the event in the security blotter. The President of Williams has better things to do than deal with poster vandalism on campus.

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