Letter to the Editor: An open letter to President Susan Herbst - YOU did not do well

Dear President Herbst,

Noted activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali once said: “tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” I am often reminded of these words when approached with events like those that transpired on our campus Tuesday night. In my time as a UConn student, I have replayed this mantra in my head too many times in reaction to frequent injustices. I have watched too many students of color, of different sexualities, of different gender identities, faced with very real threats to their safety and comfort within the white institution that is UConn.

When I learned that Lucian B. Wintrich was speaking on our campus I was both appalled and concerned for the safety of the students whom his hate speech targets. A brief google search of his name will pull up his Twitter, an appalling read from start to finish. For the sake of time I will not divulge every offensive thing he has said in the name of “trolling” however his most recent Tweets include: 

These above examples are from less than ten minutes in Lucian’s feed and are complemented by a controversial Instagram photo where  Wintrich has posed in front of art that clearly includes a swastika. In an article circulated around campus prior to the events of Tuesday night, Wintrich is referred to as “deliberately proactive,” an assessment made apparent from his tweets alone.

I, like many of the students attending his talk in protest walked into the lecture hall unsure of what would transpire but very well aware of the ramifications of his brand of apparent racism, misogyny, and transphobia. It was my intention to peacefully occupy the auditorium not for Lucian or the College Republicans who brought him here, but in solidarity with the students implicated in his hate speech to ensure that these students are supported, that they will be protected, and that this hate does not define our institution.

Unlike you, President Herbst, I was there on Tuesday night when Wintrich called a protester in the back a Tranny. Unlike you, I was there on Tuesday night while black students tried to listen to the words of an openly hateful and racist man in an attempt to understand this hatred over cries of “Go home Nazi,” from the back rows. Unlike you, I was there when Wintrich called all immigrants unskilled. Unlike you, I was there when Wintrich stated that black people have never been oppressed and that white people did not create systems of oppression. Unlike you, I sat in the crowd and watched Lucian Wintrich drink a glass of white milk as a symbol of the far-right.

Unlike you, I sat as a white student, watching a white man share openly racist statements with violent implications on black and brown bodies to an audience that included black and brown students who attend a predominately white institution, led by a white administration.

The dynamic in that room was tense and disorganized to say the least. The College Republicans scheduled the event a mere two days after our return from Thanksgiving Break and I did not see any posters for event until that very day. For the many students interested in standing up against the inherently racist statement within the very title of his speech, it was incredibly difficult to effectively organize a cohesive strategy for protest.

As Wintrich began his speech, those surrounding me, as well as the group that I came with, were interested in listening to potential discourse that may occur so long as that discourse did not become hate speech. As the night progressed, the heckling and shouting only worsened as Lucian was not interested in civil discourse and the crowd became similarly disinterested. As things reached a pique, a student activist Joseline stood up and staged a walkout that many students followed, myself included.

In that moment Joseline and those who followed her out understood that nothing productive was going to come out of that night. Hate speech was being spewed on our campus by a man who hardly knows the university and it was time to leave and join those who were equally outraged by the notion of his presence. In the 10-15 minutes that followed, the now infamous altercation in which Wintrich tackled a woman to “reclaim his property” (a piece of paper) took place after many of the students there to protest had already left.

I present you with this summary of the events of that night, President Herbst, because when your students were faced with the words of a man intending to incite anger, deny the reality of oppression, and ultimately physically assault someone over A PIECE OF PAPER you were not there. You did however, send Dean of Students Eleanor Daugherty who went on to utilize the voices of black and brown students in an attempt to calm the crowd outside under false pretenses, proceeding to assist the police in sneaking Wintrich out the back. While I understand that it was the priority of Ms. Daugherty and the police to preserve safety, this manipulation of students genuinely interested in keeping the peace begs the question of who exactly our University was posed to protect in that moment.

As I stood on, a black female student yelled on at Ms. Daugherty, “You lied!” Her response, despite the fact that all of us at the front of that crowd witnessed apparent deception towards student leaders was “Oh, honey no.”

In the aftermath of this event, I continue to think about that moment and the way that it represents UConn and our reality as a white institution that often overlooks the marginalized groups we should seek to serve. Once again, I find it important to fill you in on the way that your administration was represented in those moments as you were not present.

On Wednesday, November 29th I woke up expecting the typical vaguely political email from you to UConn Students in response to the now viral events of the previous night. While I appreciate your informing the student body in such a timely manner that we now have a new Provost, I wonder if that announcement could have been better timed with consideration to the tension that now exists on our campus?

Today, Thursday November 30th your interview with Inside Higher Ed was brought to the attention of myself and the many students working to organize in the aftermath of Tuesday night. While coordinating with fellow students on our upcoming march I was informed that you felt that WE didn’t do well. That in the end you, “we have to think back to the ‘60s, and it’s going to be about fighting hate with love.”

I don’t know what kind of history books you were raised on, President Herbst, but when I learned about the 60’s and the decades that followed, I saw black and brown bodies still mutilated, still subjected to violence, all in the name of hatred. I don’t have to love anything about that and I don’t have to love a man, or those who brought him here for a speech that has historically been responsible for inciting violence. When my fellow students have to suffer the effects of listening to a man whose audience extends far outside of our campus, informing them that their oppression is not real, love is not the answer.

Violence is also not the answer and you will find that on Tuesday night (or perhaps would have found if you were present) the most violent of actions were not carried out by UConn students. While I understand your concerns of vandalism from broken windows and agree that our protest should have been more cohesive, more targeted, and more productive, the short-notice we received of the event in addition to the rightfully angry responses made for high tensions. I agree that it is important to listen to those whose opinions contradict our own, but only provided this contention does not implicate hatred, racism, and cruelty.

You claim that you “thought we were ready to be tested” in your reflections on these events. So now I ask you, what about the current political environment made you believe that UConn students were ready to be faced with hate speech? What about this event made your administration believe that freedom of speech should be prioritized over hate speech? At what point was it decided that despite the many warning signs prior to and leading up to the events of the other night Lucian Wintrich would serve as a sort of test?

As a student at this University, I am ashamed to read your comments that you believed this to be a “test” our campus did not pass. It is appalling that you see it fit to endanger the safety of students as a test of what we can cope with or rather, how much we can “fight hate with love.” I write this letter to remind students that we must fight hate with nonviolent action but we have no obligation to love those who spew hatred and deny individuals basic humanity.

To President Susan Herbst, I assert once more, YOU did not do well. The students who continue to refuse intolerance on our campus are not your scapegoats. When you prize what you refer to as “free speech” over acknowledging the reality of hate speech (re-iterated in our Code of Conduct), you further signal to those marginalized groups that exist within our white institution that you do not prioritize their safety.

As I write this letter, I have received your email response to these events and am upset to learn that you have employed the same rhetoric as your initial statement. My feelings on your response remain. To quote your email, if “Democracy has to be born anew in every generation, and education is its midwife,” then I would hope that this letter and the upcoming actions and demands of students serve as a midwife to you and your administration.

Sincerely, 

Emily Steck

Class of 2018