Lee Myers says he moved to Seattle from East Texas two years ago in search of open minds. The lanky 28-year-old enrolled at Seattle Central Community College and became editor of the student newspaper's opinion page. It was the perfect platform, he thought, for his "progressive views."
So Myers was shocked when, on Wednesday, January 31, several hundred students gathered at a campus atrium to protest his opinions, specifically those contained in an opinion page piece titled, "Crime and Race: The American Black Crime Epidemic."
Myers said he expected letters, discussion. "I didn't expect to be called a white supremacist," he says, sitting in the lower-level offices of the City Collegian.
His surprise may come as, well, a surprise.
In his quarter-page rant, Myers connects Seattle's low crime rate to the paucity of African Americans here, describes the "black community" as a "significant part of [the] threat" of violent crime, and concludes that racial profiling "is only logical when most criminals are of a particular race." He scolds blacks for believing in the "imaginary dilemma of 'institutionalized racism'" and swears he has the chops to write about all of this because he committed "crime with black friends in the past."
Myers wouldn't expound upon his previous exploits.
The student body at Seattle Central—which is 41.8 percent minority and 12.7 percent black—has reacted with anger and disbelief. In addition to the recent rally, the student government has organized weekly discussion forums and a petition is circulating to remove Myers from the editorial board.
The staff of the student paper insists this is an issue of free speech. Since the piece appeared on an opinion page, says editor in chief Janelle Hartman, readers should know that it represents only one man's point of view.
Many students and faculty members say Myers's treatise was too vitriolic and poorly reasoned to warrant protection as free speech. Political science professor Carl Livingston says it may be hard for people who aren't black to understand the issue.
"When you're an outsider, it's easy to see this as something that's only a free-speech issue and see the word 'opinion' as all that is needed to signal to people that you shouldn't hold a newspaper responsible for what's printed on a page," Livingston says. "Pieces that raise questions about the criminality of how African Americans are being socialized... they strike at the very things that are keeping African Americans at the bottom of society."
Apollo Amen, a former president of the Black Student Union, says Myers's piece "doesn't take into account the why of the social circumstance, the structure of poverty, how drugs and guns get into our community."
"Stuff like that is just blatantly offensive," he says.
Last year, Amen says, the Collegian ran an essay on Hurricane Katrina in which the author said he would have sold his crack pipe and moved out when the storm approached. In response to reader outcry, he says, the paper organized an editorial review board to vet potentially offensive stories. The board has since been disbanded.
Amen says the next step is for black students to work their way onto the Collegian's editorial board.