Emory's Protesters Respond to Their Critics

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

If you followed my article last week about the Emory students who protested the fact that “Trump 2016” was written in chalk around their campus, it may interest you to know that they’ve published a statement taking issue with all media coverage of the story. Give it a read and decide for yourself whether it’s persuasive.

To me, several passages show the protesters to have a fundamental misunderstanding of their critics. This is most evident when they write:

Subsequent media reports have tried to frame this case as one about “coddled” and “oversensitive” students; however, LET US BE CLEAR: We are not scared of the chalk.

I noted as much in my coverage. But these protesters need to understand why so many media outlets wrote stories about students scared of chalk. This isn’t a case of fabulism. Emory students unambiguously created that narrative when talking to reporters.

“I legitimately feared for my life,” Emory student Paula Camila Alarcon told The Daily Beast. “It was deliberate intimidation,” Jonathan Peraza, another student, told the publication. “Some of us were expecting shootings. We feared walking alone.”

Freshman Amanda Obando told Emory’s student newspaper, “My reaction to the chalking was one of fear.” The newspaper quoted other ostensibly frightened students too. Here’s one passage:

“I’m supposed to feel comfortable and safe,” one student said. “But this man is being supported by students on our campus and our administration shows that they, by their silence, support it as well… I don’t deserve to feel afraid at my school.”

Here’s another:

“What are we feeling?” Peraza asked those assembled. Responses of “frustration” and “fear” came from around the room, but individual students soon began to offer more detailed, personal reactions to feelings of racial tension that Trump and his ideology bring to the fore.

Here’s Newsweek quoting yet another Emory undergrad:

“We aren’t afraid of chalk,” says a student involved in the protests, who declined to give her name because she said people have been receiving threats. “We’re afraid of people who are willing to put ridiculous messages as an intimidation tactic, as a scare tactic, against students who go to this school.”

If students keep reacting to incidents like this one with vivid, unambiguous descriptions of unusual fear, reporters will continue to faithfully relay their words to the public, who will continue to conclude that this generation is uncommonly fearful. The press is far from perfect on this story, as on many other stories, but fearful college students seeking “safe spaces” isn’t remotely a frame that the press created.

The protesters misunderstand their chroniclers and critics elsewhere in their statement too. They write:

Trump’s messages of division (racist, xenophobic, homophobic, ableist, and sexist) make reference to a non-post racial state. Fellow students’ complacency with the narratives of Donald Trump and the aggressive condemnation of Black and Brown students’ responses reflects a lack of concern for the very real consequences of his campaign policies.

But many if not most criticizing the Emory protesters are extremely concerned about the Trump campaign––its racism, its xenophobia, the violence it has stoked at campaign rallies, the gutter-insults of his political opponents, etc. The dispute isn’t over whether Trump is awful. Implying otherwise obscures the actual disagreements.

The protesters write:

Firstly, we are not asking that these students censor their politics, nor are we asking that administration chooses to intervene in student politics. Rather, what we are asking for is equality and equity--we want a streamlined, consistent method of communication to deal with instances of unrest on Emory's campus. This means race, color and economic status should not determine whether or not the University needs to be prompted to send out a response of acknowledgement of events.

This is very confusing. The protesters unambiguously demanded that Emory’s president intervene in student politics––at the very least, they sought “an acknowledgement of events,” which is to say, they wanted the president to conclude that “Trump 2016” is an objectionable message, with some literally wondering how he could fail to do that. At least one protester asked for an email from the administration that would “decry the support for this fascist, racist candidate” while another declared that faculty “are supporting this rhetoric by not ending it.”

Finally, the protesters write:

...we ask the Emory University Student Body and individuals nationally to fight for our right of freedom of speech the way they have for Trump supporters.

But no one has threatened their right to free speech. I would absolutely fight on their behalf if anyone did. As yet, they face no punishment whatsoever for their anti-Trump advocacy. And little wonder. A majority of Emory students and supermajorities of faculty and administrators abhor Trump as much as they do. If there’s one kind of speech that isn’t under threat on campus it’s Trump denunciations.

As I noted in my article on this controversy, the approach chosen by Emory activists, who ostensibly want to stop Trump’s rise, is far likelier to do the opposite. They’d do better to reflect on where they went wrong than to blame the media.