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In recent weeks, we have witnessed intense and diverse efforts by far-right activists and journalists to harass, bully, threaten and discredit activist and critical intellectuals. Based on the experiences of some activist professors, this document lays out key critical elements of a successful defense campaign. A rapid collective response is crucial in every instance to defend our persons, jobs and ability to organize on our campuses.
I myself was targeted in June after I tweeted for reinforcements at a demonstration against anti-Muslim activists, writing that if more people came out, we could “finish them off.” Of course, as a nonviolent and longtime activist, I did not intend to take or incite actual violence. The statement was taken out of context and circulated via social media across major right-wing outlets including the right-wing front Campus Reform and by Ann Coulter.
What I learned from responding to the storm of hate mail and threats that I received is that targeted faculty members must respond immediately, even when it feels natural to keep your head down. The forces of the far right are targeting one critical or activist professor at a time, hoping to demoralize us and chill the political climate on campus. The more support you can get, and the more quickly you can get it, the safer you will be.
Here are the steps that I advise targeted faculty members to take.
Reverse the right’s narrative. If your bullies are attempting to discredit you with your university and calling for termination or censure, it is imperative to try to break out of the “civility” and “free speech” frames that portray the right’s threats and our scholarly critiques and activism as equally violent and uncivil.
One thing the right-wingers are doing is taking comments, posts and tweets out of context and circulating them through opinion leaders like Ann Coulter and the website Campus Reform to portray us as the violent ones. They are interested in defining all critique and protest as violent and outside the pale.
One way to reverse the narrative is to document and archive your hate mail -- all threatening emails, tweets and Facebook posts and messages. If you get phone messages, archive them also. Compile them into a packet or presentation, showing the types of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic and so on motives of your attackers. Show how they are the ones threatening actual violence.
A subset of such messages may include neo-Nazi or other white supremacist iconography. Be ready to show and explain them to administrators if you get a chance. Examples include double lightning bolts (insignia of the SS), Pepe the frog, and the iron or Celtic cross. White supremacists use these in their tweets to signal to others that they are present.
Presenting such examples to your chair, dean, provost, president, chancellor or trustees gives them the opportunity to realize that they are not dealing with your average disgruntled parent or garden-variety conservative. Make it clear where the violence is actually coming from.
Because presidents, provosts, chancellors and trustees are quick to give in to flak from outside the campus (especially if enrollment and donations are threatened), getting the counternarrative in front of them very quickly is advisable. There is no guarantee that they will listen, but in one case at Syracuse University, at least, this information influenced a dean and the chancellor in their interpretation of events. In my own situation, the chancellor of Syracuse made a public affirmation of academic freedom and the freedom of expression, noting that it was clear that those conservatives who contacted him were the advocates of violence. The American Association of University Professors posted his statement as a model here.
Find your allies on the campus. Ask faculty members you know from governance and activism, along with friends and other colleagues, to sign and circulate a statement in your defense. If certain student organizations would support you, tap them to get involved. At some point, if needed, they could mount a public campaign to demand the protection of your academic freedom.
Gain the support of major organizations that defend academic freedom. In particular, contact the American Association of University Professors; they have been campaigning for targeted professors and have crafted an important statement defending them. They can circulate the details of your case and any petitions or other material you are sending out. Contact media outlets like Inside Higher Ed to try to schedule interviews.
Obtain signatures from academics and allies everywhere. Use what social media and political organizations you have to circulate an online petition to gather hundreds, if not thousands, of signatures. The presence of that support can pressure or give administrators “permission” to do the right thing. This work also builds long-lasting networks of mutual support.
Get help. It is difficult to do all these things by yourself, especially when under siege. If you have comrades in a political organization or a posse of friends and colleagues who could take on some of this labor, use them. Someone can archive and document, another person can get a faculty statement going, another can contact the AAUP and set up press interviews, another can organize an online petition, and so on.
Undertake this work in the order I’ve just outlined: narrate to administrators, reach out on the campus, reach out beyond it and gather widespread support and publicity. If those things are not working to protect your person and your job, get student organizations involved in a public campaign in your defense.
Of course, take steps, when necessary, to ensure your physical safety and the safety of family, friends and pets. The forces of the far right seek to intimidate and shut down the critical speech and action of the left by any means, including violence. They frequently mean their threats of racist, gendered and Islamophobic violence literally.
If you think your attackers know where you live (and online sources like the white pages, voter registration sites and property documents are easy to find), stay with friends or elsewhere during the most intense part of the agitation. Consider a security system.
You can find out where the people making the threats live by tracing the IP address of their posts, emails and tweets. Get a comrade or colleague to help with this. It’s very reassuring when they turn out to be very far away, but we do need to know when they are nearby.
On campuses, make a safety plan with campus security. Arrange for a close parking space and escorts. Alert your colleagues, chair and staff and make sure they know how to contact campus safety. Also, if you are involved in activist organizations, make a security plan that includes escorts to and from events and screening attendees at meetings.
Get organized. And, in fact, participating in activist organizations, including faculty unions, the AAUP, field-specific organizations and national and international organizations is a crucial part of our self-defense. Being organized means you have the networks and help already in place when it is time to do battle. And you will be ready to defend everyone else if and when they face similar assaults. Organize to protect vulnerable untenured and adjunct faculty.
As we saw in Charlottesville, Va., and Berkeley, Calif., the white-supremacist right has made our campuses and faculty members part of their culture war. These harassment campaigns are meant to terrorize us. We need to let people know that we won’t be silenced in order to hold on not only to our jobs but also our spaces of organization and dissent.