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Many of you are aware of the protests that took place outside of President Morton O. Schapiro’s home on the night of October 17 demanding he divest from the campus police department and reinvest that money in entities which support the wellbeing of Black students on campus. In response to these protests, Dr. Schapiro condemned the protesters in a message sent to the Northwestern community. In turn, the group that organized the protest, Northwestern University Community Not Cops (NUCNC) issued a press release defending its actions, sharing the press release on social media. Several departments and student organizations have since voiced their support for NUCNC and/or criticized the language of Dr. Schapiro’s email.
The following is a critique of the ideology presented in this press release and the behaviors of those who espouse that ideology. This is not a critique of any particular group of people based on their identity.
In his letter, Dr. Schapiro asks the protesters to consider how they would feel if a group of people came to their houses to protest in the middle of the night. NUCNC responds by questioning Dr. Schapiro’s levels of empathy and concern for marginalized communities.
“As a wealthy white man, Morton Schapiro knows that he holds an immense amount of privilege that those facing impending threats of "personal attacks" do not, as he mobilized the police to do what they are meant to do -- protect white property and white lives. Morton Schapiro should consider the terror Black families face amidst the real threat of being killed in their homes.”
I find it telling that this organization, supposedly dedicated to racial equality, justifies harassing an individual based partly on his identity as a wealthy, white man. While it is true that Dr. Schapiro is a privileged man, to suggest that this justifies students showing up at his private residence and intimidating his family is palpably absurd. It seems as though Dr. Schapiro’s outrage over having signs burned in his yard and lewd comments hurled at him by students takes on a different meaning to the student-activists at NUCNC. To them, Dr. Schapiro’s email is tacit approval of racial injustice and racially-motivated violence, both of which Dr. Schapiro has condemned countless times.
Next, we see NUCNC condone anti-Semitism, explain their use of the word “pig” to describe our university’s president, and apologize to anyone on campus who may have been offended by it. First, NUCNC suggests that the word “pig” has been used primarily to describe Jews in a 14th-century context. This is not entirely true. While the Judensau stereotype originated in 14th-century Europe, the fight against it continues in European communities today.
I have no doubt that the protesters did not knowingly incite this imagery when they used phrases like “piggy Morty.” I understand the history of activists using the word to describe police officers. The organization’s attempt to defend its comments after its members became aware of the Judensau stereotype, however, is incredibly hypocritical. A similar lapse in judgement on behalf of Dr. Schapiro would not be met with any kind of understanding from student-protesters or department chairs; it would be met with calls for his resignation.
As evidenced above, it would seem as though NUCNC’s apology to any members of the Northwestern community who were offended by its use of the word “pig” to describe a Jewish man was an empty statement. Its members might be sorry that it offended some people unintentionally, just not sorry enough to apologize to the person who explicitly said that he was. I am confused as to why the members of NUCNC think they have a monopoly on deciding what is and isn’t an offensive statement to anyone but themselves.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the members of NUCNC fail to provide the context of the response delivered by the university’s Board of Trustees to the Bursar’s Office takeover in comparison to Dr. Schapiro’s statement. They write:
“Many students, both inside and outside this campaign, have recognized that this email utilizes the exact anti-Black violence used against protesters involved with the 1968 Bursar’s takeover.”
The 1968 sit-in was a peaceful protest designed to raise awareness about injustices on campus. Despite the letter NUCNC shows in their press release, in which the university’s Board of Trustees condemned the actions of the peaceful protesters, the sit-in was a success for Black students on campus. While there was still work to be done to achieve racial equality on campus, the takeover resulted in an agreement between the protesters and the administration. This agreement established spaces for Black students to discuss and raise their concerns with university officials for the first time, paving the way for the founding of the Black House and the African American Studies program.
This recent event, on the other hand, can more accurately be described as a group of students showing up at an individual’s home and harassing him and his family under the guise of social justice. I wasn’t at the sit-in in 1968, but I do not think that the incredible strides made that day were achieved through the use of morally-questionable ad hominem attacks at the opposition’s private residence. I imagine the Bursar's takeover to have been a place where Dr. Schapiro could have come and talked to the protesters without being verbally accosted. This illustrates an important distinction between the two events, one a well-coordinated protest with clear demands, and the other an inciteful act that did not promote dialogue.
Simply because breaking the law sometimes leads to a fairer society, as it did in the case of the Bursar’s takeover, does not mean that breaking the law is morally justifiable in all cases. Simply because you criticize one aspect of a protest does not mean you condemn the objectives of the movement as a whole. Dr. Schapiro was not condemning racial progress, calls for change at Northwestern, or even the protesters’ right to have their voices heard. He simply rejected, in the context of a nighttime protest outside of his home, the means by which students attempted to achieve their goals.
Whether or not you think Dr. Schapiro has done enough to fight for racial equality on our campus is a debate that must be had and should be revisited frequently. After reading a letter distributed by the African American Studies department and watching a town hall between NU administrators and several Black students, I understand that many people of color do not agree with the ways in which President Schapiro has responded to these events or repeated calls for change in 2020. While I do not agree with every recommendation posited in the letter or the town hall, I encourage members of the Northwestern community to take a look for themselves; we must always ensure that the voices of people of color are being heard.
However, slandering Dr. Schapiro’s character, or anyone else’s character for that matter, and attempting to eliminate their opinions from the realm of conversation simply because they disagree with the means by which you seek to achieve the equality you desire does not make you a brave individual in the fight against an unjust system; it makes you a tyrant. All of us should be wary of any movement that tries to make itself immune from criticism.
As a recent graduate and a student of political science, it has been both fascinating and disturbing to watch the people who claim to be fighting for equality, fairness, and kindness often behave as the most unjust, unfair, and unkind individuals on this campus. In seeking to destroy “interconnected” and “cyclical” forms of oppression, the voices behind NU Community Not Cops have, in many ways, become oppressors themselves.
I do not have the answers to racial inequality on this campus or in this country, nor do I think I would ever be able to understand the lived experiences of Americans of color. As a straight, white man who grew up in an upper-class family in suburban America, understanding my own biases and recognizing the multitude of ways in which my lived experience does not resemble the average American experience is something I wish I had started to do much earlier in my life. What I do believe, and what I am willing to say without reservation, is that the only way we can progress is by working together, black and white, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. We must stop listening to people who try to divide us, making our race, religion, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation the primary means by which we evaluate each other’s arguments.
Ultimately, I think our campus needs to demand more empathy from all parties involved, whether it be from Dr. Schapiro, the protesters, the readers of this op-ed, or myself. In a world where it seems as though we are forced to pick a side in all political battles, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to have meaningful discussions about a host of highly contentious issues.
To my classmates and professors, I urge you to challenge anyone who wishes to prevent these inclusive discussions from happening. There is a disturbing amount of tyrannical behavior in this country right now; our nation’s current president is the prime and most dangerous example. Only through the pursuit of truth via civic dialogue can we rid this nation of its tyrannical elements, from both the right and the left. That pursuit is the sentiment from which our university derives its motto, and this nation derives its political identity. All of us should do everything we can to preserve it.
Carter Rothman graduated from NU in 2020 with a degree in political science and international studies. He also studied Arabic at NU. He is available for dialogue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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