This is the original, unedited text of a blog I published here in May/June 2015 to provide an immediate response to the controversy about a mural I supported at Marquette University. I've since written about the mural, the leaders who created it, and the controversy in "White Fear in Universities: the Story of an Assata Shakur Mural," Feminist Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, 2015.
As I write this on my porch, the social one of my cats is nuzzling on my hand and the city traffic buzzes by slowly/quickly/slowly, extended heartbeat that sounds like summer although it's in the 50s in Milwaukee. Cool and beautiful, like late September. This fall will be the first September in 14 years that I haven't been slated for a fall semester job of some kind: teaching, programming, administering, managing, organizing, advising. Maybe it's that yesterday is the one month time marker of when I was fired, but I'm starting this week feeling nostalgic, reflective. (Don't worry, friends--I'll deliver some politics by the end, or you can skip ahead to the big finish.)
I promised to write about why the whitewashing of the mural matters beyond academia. I couldn't decide if I should start with a personal or more analytical vibe. I keep thinking back to a conversation I had about establishing solidarity, credibility, with people who will hear the phrase “cop killer” and shut down. A particular audience who has more in common with Assata Shakur and many other civil rights and freedom fighters falsely accused than they might think.
How did we get here?
In September 2001, I had just started grad school. Three weeks into the semester, my carpool friend called me up (on the land line, of course) and said, “I think you better turn on the radio.” It was September 11, a Tuesday morning, and my favorite rock-solid NPR announcers sounded like jabbering squirrels. (When I tried to call home to Philadelphia, to see if my folks were ok, I couldn't get through: all circuits were busy. Such a little thing that felt so huge to my 23-year-old brain, used to a cis white women's privileges in Clinton-era prosperity (though I didn't know the word 'cis' yet). Amazing how communication lines can be the thing that shakes you into realizing how bad things are.)
I hoped, prayed, that we (as a nation) would be able to reconcile our grief in a meaningful way—not without justice, but with a kind of deep awareness of our own political history. I was superficially familiar with things like COINTELPRO and overseas military actions, with the reality that the U.S. hadn't always been the best global citizen. I hoped for better than the march for war and consumerism that began right away.
(I'm generalizing, moving through a lot of stuff quickly, and trying to keep it simple, but I might jump back in with links for some evidence for folks who need more specificity.)
Since then, we've occupied multiple countries and started wars on false pretenses. We've normalized torture. We've fed a sense of fear in ourselves (afraid of zombies, afraid to be without our phones for more than two hours at a time). We've turned that fear into fuel for justifying racism, for limiting women's reproductive rights, for making the police a military-trained force. People in poverty are struggling worse than ever partly because our military bleeds our national budget. Many politicians are more occupied with the drama of politics than politics itself, or citizenship. Do you ever notice how a lot of political news is about popularity (how someone is doing in the polls) rather than political actions (what they did in their congressional office that day)? Isn't that weird? I'm often unclear where to go to get actual information about real-time political events (including information that doesn't only feed my own political bias).
(Also, I promise I have hope, and will write about that hope, but I'm trying to connect a few dots here.)
So here we were, in a university that had had diversity crises one after the other, with a pattern of discrimination. In a city with one of the highest poverty and segregation rates in the country. In a state with the highest rate of incarceration for African American men in the country, and in a year when scene after scene of racial profiling followed by unjust force toward people of color was being replayed. People were fighting back against the dismal state of things. My students were being creative, thoughtful, supportive of one another and exploring options for how to research and make a statement on these issues.
In this context, though, any statement that seems not to support the police or the government or the powers that be gets demonized right away. Assata Shakur, rather than also being an intellectual and political figure admired by many, gets reduced to being a “cop killer”.
When someone is reduced in that way, it erases their humanity. Think about how it feels to always be called only by your job title. To have people only judge you by the clothes you wear. In the context I've been describing, only some people get to be seen as complex, fully human. It's a black OR white culture: one has to win. You're either for us or against us. Love America or leave it. (You've heard these statements, yeah?)
The reality is much more complex and we have lost the ability to see that, to talk about it. It's an incredible tragedy because then we no longer see each other. My work as an educator is, was, to communicate to students and colleagues that I see them, and so do a lot of other people, and here is a whole tradition to explore, and here's a space and a wall to investigate it. And when that gets shut down, we are telling students they don't matter. But we are also doing something much more cruel: we are telling them that they do not even deserve to space to ask the question.
This mural was a question, an opening, an exploration, and an assertion. It made the claim that students have a right to take up space in an institutional setting. It definitely presented a challenge, both in the quotes the students selected and in the choice of the person they muralized. And sure, that matters for academic freedom. But it also just plain matters for freedom. We must be free to challenge each other, to challenge ourselves, to face challenges. To question and still to belong. Questions are not a threat; violence is. And whitewashing a student project without consultation is a form of violence, just like tackling a 14-year-old girl at a pool party is a form of violence, just like putting people in prison because they can't pay their debts is a form of violence: it sends the message, over and over again, that the lives of people of color, poor people, women (and queer people, and others) do not matter as much as others. These violent acts may be different in scale but they come from the same place: a power structure that (consciously or not) explicitly prioritizes certain lives over others. And that affects all of us, whether you care about academic freedom or not.