Trump’s Weaponized Base Is Going After Academics — I Know Because I Was Targeted
In Trump’s America, academic freedom is under siege.
Academic censorship is nothing new — especially for scholars of color — but in Donald Trump’s America, the issue has taken on new and frightening dimensions. Trump’s emboldened base, en masse, has been attacking leftist educators with renewed vigor since his election, and universities across the country have wasted no time caving to alt-right (read: white supremacist) pressure to discipline professors, freedom of speech/academic freedom be damned. In a peculiar twist of logic, members of the alt-right have positioned themselves as victims of discrimination, and as such, have demanded that universities take action to “protect” them.
Sadly, many are.
George Ciccariello-Maher was censured and is the subject of an ongoing investigation by Drexel University over a tweet mocking white nationalists. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor was bombarded with death threats for calling Trump a “racist, sexist megalomaniac” in a commencement speech at Hampshire College (though the school defended her, a rare occurrence). Johnny Eric Williams was placed on leave by Trinity College for using a hashtag drawing attention to systemic racism. Lisa Durden was fired from Essex County College for defending a black-only Memorial Day event while appearing on Fox News. This is just a small sample, all since November’s infamous election.
Inevitably, these stories get some press, then are largely forgotten. But the repercussions reverberate long after the news cycle has moved on.
I know because Trump’s weaponized base came after me, too.
I had been an adjunct professor at Rutgers in the Women’s and Gender Studies department since Fall 2013. On November 15, 2016, two NYPD officers showed up at my Brooklyn apartment around 9 p.m. They entered without permission and after numerous refusals on my part and threats of force on theirs, transported me by ambulance to Bellevue Hospital for what they said was a mandatory psychiatric evaluation required by Rutgers University.
An anonymous complaint from a parent claimed I forced students to destroy an American flag, threatened every white student in class by saying I would shoot them all given the chance, then returned home and tweeted proof of my dangerous behavior. (I guess it should also be noted at some point that I, myself, am white.)
Any piece of this complaint could’ve been easily corroborated or disproved by 60+ students or a scroll through my Twitter feed. Instead, Rutgers escalated the after-hours complaint — logged a week after the “alleged events” — from the parent to the Dean of Students to Rutgers Police to the NYPD, all in roughly three hours. No one even attempted to contact me before NYPD showed up at my door. (I later tracked down police reports from the NYPD and Rutgers. They can be seen here and here.)
When the cops arrived, I tried to explain what had actually happened that fateful day. Yes, I had tweeted about the flag from my personal account.
And yes, the day after the election, I had brought an American flag to class. My students were largely women, people of color, immigrants or children of immigrants, and LGBTQ+ folks — all groups with a lot to fear under a Trump administration. We had discussed the campaign throughout the semester; the events closely mirrored themes of the course.
Anticipating my students’ anger and frustration at the election results, I brought the flag as a way to spark conversation. If students wanted to engage in therapeutic protest using the flag, I was also amenable. Nothing happened; I never even removed the flag from its shopping bag. I simply referenced it as present, which was enough to spark a productive conversation. I returned the flag, unharmed and in its original packaging, to the store later. Another fact I publicly tweeted.
Our class conversation jumped from topic to topic that day. Some students shed tears. Some expressed outrage. Some were shocked to silence by the election results. We commiserated in a friendly fashion. At one point, I made a jocular, off-the-cuff comment about the Second Amendment and police brutality, insinuating that conservative white people and the NRA would care a lot more about gun control if they were constantly being shot at. Students laughed. It would be a stretch of any imagination to consider it a threat. I tweeted a similar comment later as well, framed by the events of my day and by my personal frustration with the election results.
The tweet was admittedly provocative. I was angry. But it was posed as a rhetorical question regardless of the semantics of “when” versus “if.” Either way you slice it, it was not a direct threat against a particular person. And it was a personal communication on Twitter. Moreover, this was not the way the comment was phrased in class, but the complaint blurred the two.
This is the whole truth at the core of the fabricated complaint. Whomever made it or passed it on to a parent knew it to be an exaggeration, a grandiose lie.
The doctors at Bellevue performed a full evaluation, but rushed me through the steps once I explained. They were outraged and stunned at the waste of time and resources involved, but were personally empathetic. Suffice it to say, I passed the evaluation easily.
Two days later, Rutgers placed me on immediate and indefinite administrative leave, using the same anonymous fabricated complaint as evidence, still having undergone no investigation to corroborate or disprove. They still hadn’t even attempted personal contact. They charged me with violating the University Policy Prohibiting Violence in the Workplace, as well as the Policy Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment. The protected class I had allegedly discriminated against and/or harassed was cited as “white people.” Pending the completion of an internal investigation conducted by the Office of Employment Equity, I was placed under a gag order, not allowed to speak to anyone at Rutgers or even step foot on campus.
The investigation lasted 99 days. My administrative leave turned into effective termination as the Fall 2016 semester ended and I couldn’t sign contracts for courses promised to me for Spring 2017 since the investigation was not complete. Using a kind of punitive circular logic, Rutgers initiated an investigation into whether I had done anything wrong while instituting a punishment for the alleged wrongdoing simultaneously. And…spoiler alert: after 99 days, I was exonerated on all counts. Not only was I cleared, the investigation report provided a strong, substantive defense of my actions. My union has tried to help me seek remedy, but Rutgers continues to ignore my grievance, claiming it was filed too late.
Rutgers initiated an investigation into whether I had done anything wrong while instituting a punishment for the alleged wrongdoing simultaneously.
The student at the center of the complaint (still unknown to me) recanted when questioned by the investigator, admitting they never felt unsafe and could offer no proof for “discrimination against white people” or “violence” beyond my telling the class that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump — a statistical fact. Every other student interviewed recounted a version of events mirroring those shared above sans threats, discomfort, and forced flag desecration.
Vindication is, of course, nice — but it’s also too little, too late. The investigation didn’t include anything stating I could return to the university, and though I could theoretically get a job with another department, it’s hard to imagine that happening. I’m also not sure I’d even want to return, considering the circumstances.
As such, I’ve lost a job I loved. Meanwhile, Rutgers refuses to issue a public statement acknowledging my exoneration, further sullying my name and reputation. Nor will they pay the nearly $2,000 in medical bills accrued through forced transport and a psych evaluation with no health insurance (can’t afford it and Rutgers doesn’t provide it for adjuncts), or the $10,000 I would have made teaching my courses for Spring 2017. I’m still struggling to recover from the unexpected and unjustified loss of income.
I’ve lost a job I loved.
If that wasn’t enough, I’m also the subject of an investigation by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, who visited me weeks after the NYPD. I was referred to them by “local law enforcement.” Having learned my lesson with the NYPD, I refused to open the door and immediately secured a lawyer (one of many I’ve had to scramble to find—pro bono because I’m broke—for various aspects of my ongoing case). I’ve received multiple death threats and doxxing—publication of my personal information online, threatening phone calls, emails, letters, etc., that continue 8 months later. I know so many, especially women of color, face much worse on the internet daily. I’m insulated by various privileges, but this is the reality of Trump’s weaponized base in action.
The democratic ideal of power spread throughout the hands of all the people has never been truly realized in America; “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” in bell hooks’ phrasing, has always constituted a massive roadblock. What does it mean to become a society that threatens, punishes, and arrests professors who encourage students to question that very roadblock?
There is, too, a troubling sense of irony to this. As freedom of speech, especially when exercised by educators, is being curtailed right and left, the ACLU defends Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to spout racist, misogynistic, transphobic propaganda, and individuals bend over backwards to defend noted white nationalist Richard Spencer’s right to speak on college campuses.
Alice Walker famously said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” By caving to Trump’s base and coming after professors, universities are attempting to convince students they have no power, a dangerous and false lesson. They’re hoping that professors also fall for the ruse, or at least fall in line.
What does this mean for educators going forward? I don’t know the answer, but I know, despite all the bullshit, that it makes me want to teach harder, more ferociously, and more unapologetically than ever. I offer the details of my story because I have the privilege and safety to do so, and so it might echo into the future as warning.
So it might resound and rebound and encourage more to teach or learn, damn the consequences.
Now more than ever.