May Day at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin was not only a day of protest, but also one of confusion, fear and mourning. At about 1:45 p.m., several students were stabbed, one fatally, outside the busy Gregory Gym by a fellow student, Kendrex White.
More than one witness claimed they thought the attack was just a stunt, but by the time White was arrested, the gravity of the situation had become apparent, and a state of shock descended on campus. On May 3, thousands of students solemnly convened to remember the life of freshman Harrison Brown.
Immediately following Brown’s tragic death, however, the campus and social media exploded in a flurry of speculation and scapegoating. A flyer appeared featuring the slogan “Around Blacks, Never Relax” with a racist Black caricature brandishing a knife.
A new, ambiguously named Facebook group called “UT Students” suggested in a post the day after the stabbing that fraternities felt victimized and fearful for their safety in light of the attack — and in failing to act, the administration had attempted to sweep these events under the rug.
Some on the far right claimed the attack had been directed specifically at white conservatives. The news media even picked up a fabricated story about a gun-carrying savior who had swept in to subdue White, though this was quickly discredited.
The real story of what happened doesn’t support the right wing’s political agenda. Contrary to the idea that White was targeting “frat boys” or “white conservatives,” there was no evidence of this as his motive. Those who knew White remembered him as kind and engaged in his campus community.
White had recently been hospitalized for mental health reasons, and his social media accounts suggest that he was struggling through a difficult time. Immediately after being arrested and in a later interview, White told police, blank-faced, that he had no recollection of the attack. According to a police affidavit, White interrupted one interview and said, “If I did something I don’t remember, then I want to be told.”
It seems that despite the attempts to claim Kendrex White as a poster boy for “anti-white racism” among African Americans or the far left, he was actually someone who desperately needed help.
Meanwhile, despite the evidence debunking the spurious connection between the stabbings and an attack on the Greek system, a “Frats Bash Back” flyer appeared last weekend in UT’s West Campus, with a picture of Harrison Brown at the top.
The flyer called for the formation of vigilante squads to protect fraternities and sororities from “anti-white” violence — and encouraged people to report all “illegal immigrants” employed at the university to the authorities, in defiance of the student demand for a sanctuary campus.
Anticommunist Action, whose website was listed on the bottom of the flyer, claims its mission is to “defend our communities from radical political violence by physically resisting leftist terrorists and rioters.”
A far-right news site also listed on the flyer features a two-part series explaining how the left and its allies in academia are “killing conservatives on campuses,” citing the UT stabbing as an example of this supposed persecution — despite the lack of any evidence of a connection between Brown’s death and the targeting of the fraternities.
Racist flyers aren’t new to the University of Texas campus. Periodic appearances of racist and Nazi-themed flyers have been increasingly common at UT in the last two semesters, calling for the banning of Muslim students and protection of the “white race” from immigrants, leftists and people of color.
One flyer used the phrase “Imagine a Muslim-Free Campus” and an image of the World Trade Center. Many of these flyers echo the hate-filled rhetoric of Trump’s cabinet and the so-called alt-right.
UT President Greg Fenves has been aware of these flyers and student complaints about them. However, his public responses have repeatedly failed to address the nature and seriousness of the threats they pose — and instead tend to downplay the fear they cause.
In the case of the anti-Muslim flyers, the university president didn’t counter their racism of the flyers, but instead focused on the fact that the group responsible for posting them wasn’t a student organization and didn’t have permission to put them up.
A February 22 town hall hosted by the university featured student speakers who felt the administration’s response didn’t take seriously the danger posed to students by these blatantly racist groups.
The UT administration responded to this criticism by releasing a new “hate and bias” policy in early March. The document outlined the university’s commitment to cracking down on incidents of verbal harassment and threats of violence on the basis of “race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity or gender expression, age, disability, citizenship, veteran status, sexual orientation, ideology, political views or political affiliation.”
The materials also indicated that the administration wouldn’t tolerate any incitement to break the law.
Unfortunantly, isntead of confronting the threats promoted by racist flyers, the university’s new policy has led to escalated intimidation of students who have taken the initiative to remove them.
Jessica, a first-year neuroscience major on the pre-med track at UT and a first generation Latinx student from Corpus Christi, said that while taking a picture of a racist flyer in late April, a UTPD officer exited his vehicle and questioned her. She felt scared when she realized she didn’t have her ID on her.
She said the officer told her that he would “take her word for it” that she was a student. As Jessica aimed to throw the white supremacist trash in the garbage — where it belonged — the officer briefly stopped her, stating cryptically, “I can’t tell you what to do with that flyer.” The encounter left her uneasy and uncomfortable.
This wave of racist flyers coincided with the March 2017 release of a report that found 15 percent of female UT Austin students had been raped, the majority by fellow students. An additional 12 percent had reportedly been victims of an attempted rape.
About a month later, several fraternities were tagged with messages such as “Racist!” and “Rapist!” referencing a fraternity culture that includes racist and homophobic pledge rules, glorification of sexual assault and events such as a 2015 “Border Patrol”-themed party.
More ominous messages were also left on frat walls, along with hammer and sickle imagery. According to an anonymous statement, the “vandals” responsible felt that the subsequent outpouring of support for the tagged frats highlighted the disparity in how threats toward students were dealt with.
Campus activists drew the connection between the university’s failure to act when someone tagged the university’s art museum with a Celtic Cross, a symbol used by the far right. Instead, the three antifascist activists who attempted to paint over the graffiti were arrested.
Following the May Day stabbing, Fenves issued a statement suggesting that fear on campus was heightened by “the recent vandalism and threats against students” — drawing a parallel between the vandalism of fraternity houses and racist flyers. But it is absurd to suggest that these two incidents are equally deplorable.
Over several months, the administration’s actions have suggested that its new policy has less to do with challenging racism and misogyny, and more to do with policing those on campus who pose a challenge to the administration. This includes those activists who oppose hate and actively strive to make UT a safe place for all.
While the new policy claims that UT “unequivocally condemns and prohibits acts of intolerance, hate, bias and prejudice…manifested in threatened or actual violent conduct against a person,” the university has done nothing to condemn state and federal actions that would have direct and devastating effects on students: like Trump’s anti-Muslim ban, the newly passed Texas SB4 (also known as the “Show me your papers” bill) or the transphobic “bathroom bill” SB6.
In other words, the protection that the administration boasts about doesn’t extend to its most vulnerable populations — and instead is used to justify the intimidation and monitoring of activists.
While universities across the country are using their power to suppress dissent, the right is given space to converge and recruit. In this atmosphere of hate and fear, the only way to challenge the administration and the right is an open, mass movement of students, faculty and staff condemning racism, sexism and homophobia on our campuses.
Clandestine actions and secret organizing — like that which resulted in the tagging of fraternities — may have gained the attention of the administration, but they have haven’t challenged its crackdown on free speech or succeeded in protecting students.
Fenves is right — there is fear on our campus. But this includes the fear of deportation, the fear of sexual assault and the fear of racist attacks. More officers won’t solve this problem. Increased policing of people of color won’t solve it. The displacement of the homeless won’t solve it. All these will, in fact, make matters worse.
Without a broad group of students behind the struggle for a truly safe campus, our legitimate demands are at risk of being crushed under the banner of protection and security.
Charles Holm contributed to this article.