By Miguel Gonzalez
In the aftermath of the student counter-protest against the presence of conservative religious group Bible Believers in Alumni Grove on Thursday, April 12, the College held the “Critical Conversations: Spring Edition” forum in the Education Building Room 115 to allow students to discuss their concerns about the day’s events.
Angela Lauer Chong, the interim vice president for student affairs and Don Trahan Jr., director of the College’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, facilitated a student-led discussion of how the College’s initial response to the protest, the Use of Campus Property Policy and future plans.
Chong emphasized the College’s obligation to adhere to the First Amendment and use of public space, no matter the content of the speech.
“We are a state institution,” Chong said. “We are fulfilling and following certain federal and state law, which includes the First Amendment. We can’t make those decisions based on what they say. However, we can talk openly when things don’t align with our values.”
Chong acknowledged that the protests were difficult to face.
“We do have obligations we have to hold to,” Chong said. “Those are the same obligations that allow us to allow speech that is in sync with our values. That’s the tricky situation (that) our state institution is in. It’s hard for everyone.”
According to Section VII.1.7 of the College’s Use of Campus Property Policy, “Non-College Users who comply with the requirements of this Policy (including, without limitation, the restrictions on time and manner) may utilize Public Use Areas or Facilities for purposes of constitutionally protected speech, peaceable assembly or expression. Non-College Users utilizing a Public Use Area must provide identification when requested to do so by a College official.”
Chong also spoke about how Bible Believers were no different than other provocative groups. Students applauded as Chong commended the student body for not causing violence during the protest.
“Much like the Westboro Baptist Church, these guys are skilled at using institutions and organizations,” Chong said. “Another reason why they’re here is that they tried to provoke us. You did not take the bait.”
Timothy Grant, the College’s interim chief of police, spoke about maintaining safety in the midst of hostile outside groups.
“We were not out there to protect them,” Grant said. “We wanted to protect peace and protect everyone’s health and safety.”
Trahan agreed with Chong and Grant, expressing his pride in students for not turning violent during the tense demonstration.
“When someone’s trying to provoke and give into that and you demonstrate what they’re expecting, all we’re doing is fueling exactly what they’re looking for,” Trahan said. “But you demonstrated a level of dignity and respect in spite of the circumstances.”
Trahan said he saw the counter-protest as a valuable lesson for students at the College.
“One of the things I like most about higher education is that it is a training ground,” Trahan said. “Once you leave this space and go to the real world, people will try to test you — people will put you into circumstances that you do not want to be in. This was a learning experience that we all can grow from together.”
After discussion about the protests, Baldween Casseus, Student Government’s vice president of diversity and inclusion and a senior marketing major, stood beside Trahan and helped facilitate ideas for future action.
“There’s forms of explicit bias,” Trahan said. “There’s forms of unconscious bias. We make the effort, no matter who we are, what backgrounds we are, to decide how we will adhere to that or lack of thereof. I believe we can be a model of inclusive excellence. We demonstrated that today, but that’s today. How can we truly build that into the fabric of this institution?”
While students called for there to be on-campus mediation and relaxation events, Casseus emphasized finding closure and thinking about long-term solutions.
“We’re not trying to solve this situation with flowers or dog events in Alumni Grove,” Casseus said. “I think that it’s just abandoning the issue. A lot of people were traumatized and triggered today. How do we address the problem? How do we address these issues across campus and fix them as a campus instead of distracting students with an event? That’s a long-term plan.”