GREENCASTLE, Ind. – Tensions were high at DePauw University on Tuesday as students voiced their concerns over recent racist incidents on and near the campus, during an event featuring actress Jenna Fischer.
During the Ubben Lecture featuring Fischer, protesters said when they blew a whistle students scattered throughout the auditorium and stood up saying "I am not safe." Two students went to the front of the auditorium and held up a banner reading "We are not safe. #DePauwKKK."
The incidents include a racist threat found in a restroom at The Inn at DePauw, a homophobic and an anti-Semitic message found in a bathroom, an incident of a student “engaging in offensive behavior at the Duck,” and a racial slur formed by rocks in a park near campus, according to an email University President Mark McCoy sent out to the campus. A university spokesman said Tuesday night before the lecture, they learned of an additional incident. This one included racial slurs written on a toilet seat. They are being investigated through the Office of Public Safety and Greencastle Police Department.
"The series of these events have had a very traumatic effect on the black community on campus, we're mourning, we're students, we have studies to get back to, but we have to keep up the burden of being able to go to something as mentally taxing as this," said Kaleb Anderson, the president of the Association of African American Students at DePauw University.
Videos from inside the auditorium showed the protest. In the video, students say "stop excusing problematic behavior" and "don't give them protection when they're attacking us." Their voices were often raised and filled with emotion.
"The sign--the first sign that was seen thus far, was a sign by the KKK, if we all know the history of what the KKK stands for and what they do to folks that look like all of us here, that's what we wanted to present tonight, and that's the message we wanted to present to all of those in the room at that moment," said Trishaunna John, the vice president of AAAS.
When one student said "it's not OK," Fischer also says "it's not OK."
At times, Fischer is interrupted when she tries to speak. She later said she was told there might be a disruption of the event.
"Often times justice requires disruption and interruption of our scheduled lives," Fischer told the audience.
Ken Owen, the coordinator of the Ubben Lecture Series and special adviser to the president of the university, said he and Fischer talked backstage about what to do if a protest began.
"Students want change. They don't want these kinds of things to pop up. They feel fear, fearful of what's happening around them in Greencastle and DePauw. So we both agree that if this happens and the students decided that if this is going to be their event for a while, then it's going to be their event for a while," Owen said.
After it appears protesters leave, Fischer tells the audience, in part, "I just can't imagine feeling unsafe at my school like that, like with what I heard tonight, it's really serious and it's unfair."
It was easy to see just how tense and emotional a time it is at the school. When protesters left the auditorium, voices rose and things became physical between them and others outside the lecture.
Anderson said a community member confronted and pushed a student who was part of the protest. From there, he said other students tried to defend the student and pushed back, but that the community member kept interjecting and trying to push other students.
"That was never our goal, and I think it's important to say that when black people speak up against injustice that's happening with our community, specifically these racial incidents that white people are inflicting on our community, it's interesting how white people react to black bodies protesting and not being silent about the injustices that are happening to us," Anderson said.
The protests came one day after the university’s president, Dr. Mark McCoy, sent an email to students addressing the recent incidents. In the email, McCoy said slurs, threats or intimidation are never welcome on the campus. He added that authorities and the administration are investigating each of the incidents.
“We will be taking a host of actions and you will hear additional comments from me in the coming days,” said McCoy. “Make no mistake, we will take every action available to us to address these incidents.”
In his email, McCoy said in addition to investigating the incidents, they have launched bias team reviews, added additional safe ride and campus escort vehicles and created an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, to report information. McCoy also said they're scheduling meetings with faculty, staff and student campus leaders and planning to schedule a campus-wide gathering.
"They're obviously very angry, and I understand their anger, and I understand their feelings, to the extent that I can as a white male, but it was a very, very difficult evening, and I know it was hard on everybody, including the protesters," Owen said.
Owen, who moderated the lecture, said they hurt for the students, describing their voices as painful, loud and clear. He said the university is determined to figure out what's going on.
"I just want people to know that DePauw is a very diverse place that's committed to its diversity and we're going to get to the bottom of this, and these kind of conversations are going to continue, and they're obviously going to be painful ones, but we're determined to keep the dialogue going," Owen said.
Students said they planned to send the administration a list of demands Tuesday night.
"We also want to show that we're not taking this lightly, we will move forward with anything we need to do to get our demands met," John said. "We wanted to show the community that it's not one or two people affected. It's an entire community that's affected, not including faculty, staff or professors living in this community as well."
In a tweet following the protest, the university said campus administrators were meeting. The message also identified where students who needed support or a place to gather together could go and said "safety and security remain our highest priority and we will continue working through this situation."