On May 6, 2019, a UW-Milwaukee student positioned himself in a public space at the heart of campus, near students celebrating Israeli Independence Day, and held up a sign displaying a large swastika, flanked by the words “free speech” and a couple racist coded messages. It took some twenty-four hours for UWM Chancellor Mark Mone to issue a response to campus (https://uwm.edu/chancellor/chancellors-update-balancing-free-speech-and-civility/). The swastika incident, along with the official response, prompted me to send the letter below to Chancellor Mone on May 10.
I am writing to express my profound dismay at your response to the incident that took place in Spaights Plaza on Monday, when one of our students antagonized other students celebrating Israeli Independence Day by prominently displaying a large swastika drawn on a hand-held sign. In doing so, he also implicitly threatened, frightened, angered, and saddened many other people on and beyond our campus.
The University’s initial response was shockingly weak—and it’s the first response in such cases that gets the most attention. I’m simply dumbfounded by this wording: “As a public university, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee respects everyone’s right to free speech, even when it is speech that we disagree with.” There was no need to use the word “respect” regarding speech that comes in the form of a swastika accompanied by other thinly coded racist messages. And you could easily used a stronger word than “disagree,” and for that matter have made it clear that you do in fact reject that message of hate, rather than offering a wishy-washy “even when….” It shouldn’t be hard to make it crystal clear that you don’t side with Nazis and white supremacists, but in the first instance, the University failed to do so.
I was initially relieved to receive your more substantive response to the incident in your message to campus on Tuesday, even though we had to wait some twenty-four hours or so to see it. That positive feeling, however, quickly gave way to further disappointment, and indeed anger. The way you chose to frame the issues was tone deaf, lacked moral leadership, and has left many people across campus feeling frightened, outraged, and abandoned by your administration. Of course I am well aware of First Amendment and FERPA protections, but even if those fully govern in this situation—and there is reason to question some of the claims you make about each in this case—you had many other choices as to which elements of this case to emphasize. You chose to foreground free speech rights, even placing side by side with “civility” (whose presence in this scenario completely baffles me) as bookends to the title of your statement.
You then referred to “individuals who have expressed, among other feelings, concern, fear, anger, frustration, sadness and disbelief.” Others, but not you. You could have taken a page out of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s characterization of her country’s Muslims, after the Christchurch shootings, that “We are them. They are us.” But we needn’t look to the other side of the world for models of how to deal with hateful speech and actions. We can journey just up the road, to Oshkosh, where UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Leavitt responded as follows to an analogous incident on his campus only a couple of weeks ago: “We take it seriously. I am angry, and I am sorry for the pain these images cause. They are examples of hate and bias that defy everything we stand for as a university and inclusive community. We do not and will not tolerate it.”
I realize that ultimately you denounce the student’s statement, but I am far from the only person to be far from reassured at how you do so. My inbox, phone, and social media accounts have blown up this week with reactions from faculty, staff, and colleagues expressing their fear and anger, as much at your administration’s apparent failure to appreciate the seriousness of this incident as at the underlying incident itself. It doesn’t help that the student is clearly spouting the rhetoric of the alt-right, and seems to be plugged into international networks where such rhetoric and imagery flows freely. Or that he has a criminal record that apparently includes acts of violence against women (entirely predictable behavior from the sort of men who express these views).
Many of us observing this from both on and off campus also wonder whether your administration appreciates just how serious, and suggestive of violence, a display like this of a swastika inherently is. So let me make it clear what the student is saying—even if he claims, unconvincingly, not to realize that or even agree with it—when he holds up a large swastika in public, particularly when deliberately doing so in close proximity to what is obviously a gathering of Jewish students. The swastika does not merely represent a controversial position. It is the most prominent and recognizable symbol of the Nazi party, which sought to completely eradicate the world’s Jewish population, as a central platform of an ideology that also saw a number of other populations—Roma, gays and lesbians, the mentally ill, people of color, et al—as less than human and therefore fit for extermination. The Nazis murdered some six million Jews, and millions of other civilians. Those of us, like me, who are their descendants tend to be keenly aware of their absence, and also keenly aware of the ongoing threat posed by intertwined ideologies such as antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, and homophobia. So do others, regardless of their race, religion, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation, who understand the history of Nazism and related far-right ideologies. The swastika is not just an offensive symbol. It is an endorsement of everything the Nazis stood for, and tends to express the desire for someone to finish the job of exterminating everyone they deemed undesirable.
This episode has pained me deeply. I feel, though, as the proud director of our campus’s Jewish Studies program—the only one in southeastern Wisconsin—that it is my responsibility to be frank with you about how profundly I feel that you have failed me, my colleagues, our students, and the wider community in this case. It is not too late, however, to learn lessons from this episode in preparation for the next time we face comparable threats. There is a great deal of expertise and wisdom on our campus to draw upon. I hope you will reach out to those of us who work on such issues, so that in future, we can handle these issues more effectively as a campus community.