October 19, 2020; Daily Northwestern
Last week, the season of protests for Black lives boiled over on the campus of Northwestern University. As reported by the Daily Northwestern, six straight days of protest culminated on October 17 when about 300 students, led by members of NU Community Not Cops, gathered to demand the abolition of University Police. Wearing masks, they marched through Evanston, Illinois, and “spray painted abolitionist messaging on neighborhood sidewalks and buildings, including Whole Foods Market.” The Northwestern reports, “As some students wrote anti-capitalist messages on the building’s exterior, at least one individual smashed a storefront window.”
Taking to the streets was the next step in a student-led effort that began on June 3 with the delivery of 8,000 signatures on a petition demanding Northwestern University become part of the effort to improve Black and Brown lives by abolishing the campus police. It called, mirroring the demands of protestors across the country, on the university to “redirect the funds to institutions that serve Black students’ wellbeing. It also called on the University to sever ties with Evanston PD and Chicago Police Departments.”
The petition outlined several opportunities for the University to invest in and commit to the health and well-being of Black students, such as the allocation of funds and resources to activist groups involved in the pursuit of justice for the Black community.
The university’s response was to delay and deflect. It committed to studying the issues raised by the students, and it hired two consultants to do that work. But it made no commitment to any specific steps to improve the campus’ culture nor to make BIPOC students feel more welcome.
According to one student, it was time to increase the pressure on the University: “We started the daily marches to show them that a lot of students care about it. It’s easy to ignore a petition, but it’s harder to ignore 60 people walking through Evanston shouting. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.”
Rather than see this week’s demonstrations as a sign that a different response was needed, University President Morton Schapiro reacted angrily. Schapiro went on the attack and tried to delegitimize the protest. In a strongly worded note to the campus community, he focused on the protest tactics and not the issues being raised. He, in words reminiscent of President Trump, accused outside agitators of taking over the student-led movement. He threatened punitive action. And, in a time-worn tactic designed to divide those challenging the University, he brought out the canard that protestors were anti-Semitic.
When students and other participants are vandalizing property, lighting fires and spray-painting phrases such as “kill the pigs,” we have moved well past legitimate forms of free speech…chanting “f— you Morty” and “piggy Morty…” comes dangerously close to a longstanding trope against observant Jews like myself. Whether it was done out of ignorance or out of anti-Semitism, it is completely unacceptable, and I ask them to consider how their parents and siblings would feel if a group came to their homes in the middle of the night to wake up their families with such vile and personal attacks. To those protesters and their supporters who justify such actions, I ask you to take a long hard look in the mirror and realize that this isn’t actually “speaking truth to power” or furthering your cause. It is an abomination, and you should be ashamed of yourselves.
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If you, as a member of the Northwestern community, violate rules and laws, I am making it abundantly clear that you will be held accountable…. I am disgusted by those who chose to disgrace this University in such a fashion…. I refuse to engage with individuals who continue to use the tactics of intimidation and violence.
NU Community Not Cops responded quickly to point out the hypocrisy of the University and its leader. His statement made spray-painting and flag burning out to be a greater evil than police violence.
“As a wealthy white man, Morton Schapiro knows that he holds an immense amount of privilege that those facing impending threats of ‘personal attacks,’” they write. “Morton Schapiro should consider the terror Black families face amidst the real threat of being killed in their homes. He should reflect and consider the family of Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean and the families of countless other Black people who were murdered by police in their homes.”
“False claims of anti-Semitism have been used throughout Northwestern’s history to shut down student activists,” they note. “As we have been saying for months, we envision a world without state-sanctioned violence: from Evanston to Lagos to Bethlehem, cops have got to go.”
In their own open letter, NU Jewish Students and Alumni directly challenged the use of anti-Semitism to smear those protesting racism, unequivocally rejecting “Schapiro’s accusations of anti-Semitism and standing in solidarity with the abolitionists leading NU Community Not Cops.”
We lift up the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh, which states that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any law, and even demands violation of law when life is at stake. We see through President Schapiro’s attempts to distract from the holy work of abolition and ask that our Jewish community and allies continue to show up for daily actions until Northwestern abolishes its police.
In this moment, when the reality of racism and its impact are impossible to ignore, it is disappointing to have the leader of a respected university react as President Schapiro has. It illustrates how difficult it is to undo the white dominance baked into our institutional realities. It tells us that business as usual is no longer acceptable. The urgent need to finally address what 400 years of white dominance has caused requires organizational leaders to step forward and step out of their personal comfort zones. It requires hearing demands like those of NUCNC from a differing perspective, one that understands the life reality of those who have been and remain oppressed. It sadly brings back images of the brutality on the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma as police rioters responded to their march as the crime and looked away from the brutal reality that brought them there.
For this writer, it is even more disheartening to have one evil—that of anti-Semitism—used to deflect and minimize the evil of racism. The safety and security of one community can never be allowed to be used as a shield for the harm being done to another. The security of one cannot be achieved by leaving others at risk and vulnerable. President Schapiro should be ashamed of himself, and the entire university leadership alongside him.—Martin Levine