Spring quarter at Evergreen State College is coming to a rocky close. After videos of heated student protests went viral and made national headlines, local law enforcement officials received two threats against the college, prompting Evergreen administrators to close and cancel classes for nearly three days. Soon after the campus reopened, Evergreen President George Bridges announced the college’s graduation ceremony would be held at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium, rather than its traditional location on campus.
Two other ceremonies, Lavender Graduation, a ceremony for LGBTQ+ students, and First People’s Graduation Recognition Ceremony, which celebrates graduates of color, were cancelled. In an e-mail to students announcing the cancellation, faculty said they “cannot, in good conscience be aware of these threats and host a graduation ceremony that gathers trans, queer, gender non-conforming, intersex, LGB, and people of color into one space. It would be irresponsible to continue with ‘business as usual’ knowing that our offices are actively being targeted.”
The maelstrom of national attention on Evergreen State College didn’t appear out of nowhere, according to Rashida Love, Evergreen’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. Rather, the campus shutdown marked a chilling climax to a series of events beginning with students’ activism and growing discontent over what they view as inattention from administrators to issues of race at the college. Love, who has worked at Evergreen for about nine years, says the protests at Evergreen fit in a wave of campus uprisings across the country.
“Our country is going through some growing pains right now and race and equity are at the forefront, unfortunately,” she said. “I think all of that plays into how things have happened on our campus.”
The police shooting of Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin during a response to a shoplifting and assault call in May 2015 marked a turning point for racial tensions in Olympia. The shooting left Chaplin partially paralyzed. The men were later found guilty and the white police officer was not criminally charged. Some Evergreen student activists rallied around the two men during court proceedings and protests, said Love.
In the following years, students repeatedly called on Evergreen administrators to address longstanding equity issues on campus. Student protests began last September when two student activists stood before the podium at the college’s convocation ceremony with a sign reading, “Evergreen cashes diversity checks but doesn’t care about blacks,” reported student newspaper The Cooper Point Journal. Subsequent demonstrations asked campus administrators to address racial profiling by campus police, implement cultural competency training, hire more diverse and representative staff, among other demands. Despite President Bridges’ promise that he’d meet with activists after the event, the promise went unfulfilled for months, even as other demonstrations took place, according to the Journal.
In November, Evergreen’s Equity & Inclusion Panel, a committee of 27 faculty and students, published a strategic plan, which called for creating equity-driven curriculum, hiring more diverse faculty and staff, and hiring a Vice President of Equity and Inclusion, among other goals. As of June, someone “will soon be hired and assume a senior role on campus” to oversee the Equity and Inclusion office, said Zach Powers, communications and public relations manager for the college.
In response to the plan, biology instructor Bret Weinstein e-mailed an all-staff and faculty e-mail list with criticisms of the committee’s report. In his messages, several of which were given to The Stranger, Weinstein criticized the panel’s proposals, saying they would create an “anti-intellectual climate necessary to maintain an artificial consensus” through “fear” and that the council was imposing a “de facto hierarchy based on skin color.” Weinstein also claimed that faculty and staff members privately expressed support for his criticisms of the panel’s plans. His comments rubbed some colleagues the wrong way.
“That’s language you use to invalidate women and people of color,” said Naima Lowe, an Evergreen media and arts instructor and member of the equity council.
Weinstein did not return The Stranger’s request for comment.
Tensions came to a head in mid-April, when someone—we still don’t know who—made public an e-mail from Weinstein to Love. In his message, Weinstein criticized a new spin on Evergreen’s annual “Day of Absence,” an event dating back to the 1970s, in which students, faculty, and staff of color are invited to leave campus to participate in race and equity workshops while white participants attend similar panels on campus. The groups later reunite for a “Day of Presence,” in which all participants discuss how to create a more supportive campus. This year, white students, staff, and faculty were invited to participate in the off-campus event.
In his e-mail, Weinstein wrote that the spin was "a show of force and an act of oppression in and of itself” for asking white students, faculty, and staff to "go away." Love responded to his e-mail by emphasizing that the event was voluntary and invited him to talk further in-person. Love said Weinstein never took her up on the offer.
Despite Weinstein’s criticisms, the “Day of Absence” saw 200 white students, staff, and faculty participate in the off-campus workshops on April 12, said Love. The event was so popular that the organizing committee had to create a waitlist and eventually turn away some eager participants, she said.
On May 23, students interrupted Weinstein’s class to confront him about his e-mails to Love and other messages criticizing the Equity & Inclusion Panel’s proposals to better support underrepresented students. In subsequent demonstrations, students also protested the treatment of two Black students at the hands of campus police. Videos of the students chanting at him have since gone viral. Right wing media, like Breitbart and Heat Street latched onto the incident as an example of what they call liberal intolerance and mob mentality on college campuses.
A group of 17 Evergreen students later issued an open letter criticizing Evergreen administrators and some student protesters and condemning “the McCarthy-esque witch-hunting which has taken place. Simply crying racist has become sufficient to destroy credibility and empower accusers. This has been accompanied by vigilante action against those dubiously accused racism, and this behavior has not been reigned in by the administration.”
When asked if the students who disrupted Weinstein’s class would be disciplined, Powers of Evergreen media relations was vague.
“The college is in the process of reviewing the entire sequence of events,” he said. “Both the demonstrations, the actions the college took in response, and what we can do next. Once that review is complete there will be some decisions made.”
The day students met with Evergreen President Bridges and issued a list of demands for addressing racism and equity issues on campus, Weinstein appeared on Tucker Carlson’s “Campus Craziness” segment on Fox News. The next week, Weinstein gave a nearly two-hour interview on The Rubin Report, a political show that streams on YouTube.
Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, also a biology instructor at Evergreen, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that Fox News went against their left-leaning values, but defending against what they viewed as an assault on free speech seemed more important.
After these interviews, students, staff, and faculty began receiving vicious and threatening e-mails from right-wing internet trolls.
Student distrust of the media has also grown since attention fell upon their school. Few approached by The Stranger agreed to interviews, citing fears of misrepresentation.
One student, who only identified himself as a freshman at Evergreen, claimed video footage from the protests had been “selectively edited” to misrepresent student activists. After trolls began doxxing students, some people changed their names on Facebook to avoid harassment, he said.
"A swastika appeared on campus. Student personal information was published on 4chan channels and other neo-Nazi and violent racist internet communities," one student, who wished to remain anonymous for safety concerns, told The Stranger in a previous interview.
Another student claimed he and five friends were writing “We want class” and “Give us education” in chalk in the Evergreen quad around 9 p.m. days after the protests when they were approached by a group of about 10 people. During the altercation, one of the student’s friends was hit in the wrist with a nightstick. Another friend’s phone, which had footage of the incident, was nearly smashed. Eventually, one of the students called Evergreen campus police to break it up, he said.
The next day, the student found one of their chalk messages covered with another note written in black spray paint: “NAZIS FUCK OFF.”
Lowe, who has worked at Evergreen for about seven years, became a target of right-wing ire after a video of her confronting a white, female colleague during the protests surfaced online. In his interview with the Rubin Report, Weinstein mentioned Lowe by name.
One message to Lowe was something to the effect of, “I hope you get lynched, fat nigger bitch,” she said. “No one cares about niggers,” read another. “Go back to the zoo.”
In the video, Lowe claims that white Evergreen faculty and staff did not do enough to support students of color in their fight for equity on campus. Edits of the video shared across social media frame her as someone “radicalizing the students,” Lowe said.
But that’s not what happened, she said. Although internet commenters lambasted Lowe for berating a female staff member, the instructor said she was responding to comments from some Evergreen faculty members’ she found to be “dismissive” to the students protesting in support of their demands.
“I do not deny whatsoever that I yelled, that I was in people’s faces, that I was pissed,” said Lowe. “What I’ve been experiencing for a year or more is dealing with people being really, really inactive on the [equity] issues students are responding to. My anger isn't coming from nowhere.”
And neither is the students’ long-simmering frustration with a lack of administrative action to address racism on campus, said Lowe.
“I believe that many of my colleagues are in support of making changes reflected in the equity council's plans,” she says, “but I also believe that it is valid for students to be upset that we aren't moving fast enough as an institution to enact those changes.”
She continued: “Many of the changes that the Equity Council and the student protestors were asking for are things that have been called for decades. None of this is new.”
Love echoed Lowe and said that underrepresented students have long tried to make their voices heard through the “appropriate” routes, such as getting involved with student government and student groups and scheduling meetings with the Evergreen president. But, from some students’ points of view, administrative action didn’t happen fast enough, Love said. The May protests are “the latest expression of their frustration."
“It’s difficult for people to figure out new ways to express themselves when they’re going the route they’re supposed to go and they’re getting no answers,” she said.
What’s especially frustrating, says Lowe, is that her colleagues at Evergreen have “gone out of their way to privately and publicly” tell Weinstein that his identifying her on national media has made her into a target for white nationalists.
In an e-mail to Evergreen staff and faculty members, Julie Levin Russo, a digital media studies instructor, wrote: “It is important for us to be aware of Bret’s overwrought comments on the national stage and through fast-moving, easily decontextualized social media networks. There are urgent impacts on the emotional and physical safety of visible/identifiable students, staff, and faculty of color at Evergreen. Alt-right networks are now mobilized around Bret’s characterization of his victimhood.”
Although Weinstein issued a call to his Twitter followers to end the doxxing campaigns against “those that protested against [him],” it wasn’t enough to stop the flood of threats. In a follow-up e-mail in which Russo called for Weinstein’s resignation, she wrote:
Bret may not be the one making direct personal threats, but he fully grasps his complicity based on how he has represented “those that protested against me” to “people [who] are doxxing."
Bret may truly believe that asking people to stop doxxing on his behalf is enough to neutralize this threat. That is a delusion. If necessary, I can offer scholarly sources about alt-right internet culture to support the claim that those violent and sociopathic enough to doxx are unlikely to pull back en masse based on a polite request.
According to Bret, his family and students were also doxxed and threatened. This may be true, but it is no excuse for recklessly endangering others.
Asked whether the administration has considered seeking Weinstein's resignation, Powers says, "Bret Weinstein has the right to speak to whomever he wishes. He has freedom of speech and will not be sanctioned for his actions."
One student said the media has framed student activists as “aggressors.”
“Despite their mistakes and their aggressiveness at times, ultimately, they’re people who are fighting for equity,” he said. “These threats [and harassment] are completely out of proportion to the transgressions the activists themselves have committed.”
It's a problem that media commentators are conflating “people being loud” with others making threats, said Lowe.
The right-wing troll nightmare might not be over for Evergreen, either. On Thursday, the day before the college’s graduation ceremony, Patriot Prayer, an alt-Right group, plans to hold a free speech rally on the college campus. In a Facebook event announcement, a member of the group wrote they were headed for Evergreen because “Political Correctness and Hatred has taken over the campus.” Previous Patriot Prayer gatherings attracted the likes of Jeremy Christian, the man who allegedly fatally stabbed two men an injured another aboard a MAX train in Portland, Oregon, in May.
But Evergreen Interim Provost Ken Tabbutt officials notified the campus community of the gathering, which is intended to include “non-violent speaking and chalking,” via e-mail on Tuesday.
“As a public college we are obligated to uphold this right [to free speech] and we can’t exclude groups from Red Square,” he said. “The aim of some groups is to gain publicity by provoking arguments and confrontation; they thrive on negative attention.”