Brown University Students’ Poisonous Uprising Against Their President
The relentless shouting, interrupting, cursing, and berating was the type of scene one would expect from either a lawless land in the midst of revolutionary chaos or a group of petulant toddlers with abnormally salty language.
But this was the crowd the president of one of the top Ivy League universities faced Saturday afternoon from her undergraduates over an alleged incident of police hostility.
Brown University President Christina Paxson faced the verbal firing squad at a meeting to address the concerns of the Brown community and members of the Latinx Ivy League Conference, after a Dartmouth student visiting for the conference alleged campus police assaulted him.
“I will find you all and chase you down,” a male student said in a video published on the Providence Journal’s website, eliciting laughs from his peers. “And ask you every day what’s being done.”
He then threatened Paxson and her administrators, saying, “I didn’t think what happened at Mizzou could happen somewhere else, but with the way things are going, you, too, are liable to be in a position that is precarious.” The audience broke into thunderous cheers.
Geovanni Cuevas, a 23-year-old Dartmouth senior, claimed a Brown University Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer assaulted him when he attempted to get into Machado House, which houses students and programs devoted to studying Spanish and Hispanic culture, after he had been told by police he could not enter.
Cuevas had not responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for an interview at the time of the publication.
According to Cuevas’ account to the Providence Journal, around 12:30 a.m. Saturday, police denied him entry after he told them they were acting wrongly for making “severe eye contact” and “aggressively confront[ing]” a drunk student.
“They gave me an ultimatum,” Cuevas told the Providence Journal. “Of leaving or getting arrested for trespassing.”
Cuevas proceeded to go around the back to enter Machado House because that was where he was staying during his visit.
According to Cuevas, an officer followed him and “slammed” him down, resulting in two cuts on his cheek. No charges were filed against Cuevas, and he was released.
No doubt, the account that Cuevas and other students have offered of the events is deeply upsetting to fellow undergraduates, especially those of color.
Russell C. Carey, Brown University’s Executive Vice President of Planning and Policy, released a statement on Saturday that he “deeply regret[s] this incident occurred” and admitted it became “heated and physical.”
But by all accounts, Brown (where this author’s brother is currently enrolled as an undergraduate) took several steps after the incident to make amends.
Within hours, the DPS officer in question was removed from street patrol and limited to desk duty while the school commenced a full investigation into what transpired.
But that was not nearly sufficient for angry Brown students who called for the officer to be immediately suspended, regardless of the investigation’s outcome and without any care for due process.
From the way Brown students and members visiting for the Latinx conference reacted Saturday afternoon, one would have thought Paxson had awarded the officer in question the Medal of Honor.
“You’re saying you can’t suspend the officer. Find a way to suspend the officer,” a male student snapped at the meeting, which was also attended by Mark Porter, Chief of Police for the Department of Public Safety.
“If you can’t find a way, I’m sure you can find ten students on campus who will give you that information, who will dedicate their time to making sure Geo [Geovanni Cuevas] actually gets justice. I don’t want him getting some bullshit term that America has labeled [as] ‘justice’ that’s about bending the truth.”
“Even though that’s not our job, we’re willing to help you,” a female student graciously shouted from the audience.
Paxson attempted to explain that she wanted to create a student advisory council to combat racial profiling and improve DPS, but students kept shouting and cutting her off.
“Will they [the students] be compensated?” a female student screamed before Paxson could finish, demanding to know if this group was actually a guise for “more free colored labor."
The same voice could be heard in the video breaking into weeps, asking if “students of color are here to give you more labor? To build this school up more? To make you look good?” The crowd broke into claps.
Anger over the incident appeared transformed Paxson into a verbal punching bag, without any patience for her apologies or genuine efforts to effect change and address students' fears.
Legitimate concerns about racial profiling were subsumed by displays of entitlement, impatience, and ignorance.
As Yale students curse out a professor who thinks the school shouldn’t police Halloween costume and Amherst students protest against free speech, the recent display at Brown validates concerns that these college demonstrations have taken an ugly turn.
Students’ demands ranged from hyperbolic to irrational to plain rude.
When Paxson tried to explain Brown had “short-term” and “long-term” changes planned, a student interrupted her to shout “Can we get a timeline for that so we can hold you accountable? Because clearly, you cannot hold yourselves accountable.”
When one student actually said “sorry” for interrupting Paxson, others shouted “Don’t apologize.”
The student proceeded to criticize Paxson’s proposal for change, though he admitted he hadn’t actually read it. “I haven’t seen it, but I’m going to make the not very far logical leap it doesn’t address the issues at all,” he said.
Although students were understandably frightened after Cuevas came forward with his account, some of their claims and complaints sounded histrionic.
“There are multiple police who have been racial profiling—like so many! Like every single one!,” shrieked one female student.
While no university is a racial or ethnic utopia, Brown University is regarded as one of the most socially liberal campuses; it is highly unlikely that every single one of its campus officers racially profiles.
Even in light of the alleged assault, students sounded whiny and melodramatic.
“We have a lot of beautiful leaders in the room being emotionally traumatized,” said one female student, which resulted in loud snaps of approval.
“I felt fear, and I wasn’t even present at the event,” a female student said, with her voice wavering, sounding as if she was almost verging on tears.
“Have you noticed people have left the room? It’s not because they had something to do. It’s because it was an emotionally taxing thing,” a male student said, implying that because talks can be “emotionally taxing” it is justifiable to walk out of them. This and other comments made during the Saturday event provided further evidence for critics who argue that the real change protesting college students want is for administrators to become comforting parental figures.
Of course, Paxson did little to correct students’ misguided demands.
From the video, it appeared she couldn’t bend to students fast enough, even as they cursed and chided her.
Paxson noted how at the mention of her community board proposal “a lot of you clapped,” but one student “got very upset, so we need to figure it out.”
If the university president dictates her decision based on clapping approval from a crowd of undergraduates, it does not exactly send a message of strong leadership.
When a student brought up the need to compensate students who serve on an advisory board, Paxson was loudly booed for saying “This community lives on people pitching in.”
Yet, to even this Paxson appeared to cave. “I’m willing to consider it. Let’s figure out a way to make it work.”
Since the meeting, Paxson has expedited the release of a plan to improve diversity and inclusion at Brown, according to an email shared with The Daily Beast by Brown University Vice President for Communication Cass Cliatt.
“President Paxson returned to her office and reached out to members of her senior staff that Saturday afternoon to begin immediately working on a set of actions to address the pain, confusion, frustration, and—yes—anger that the students shared,” Cliatt told The Daily Beast in an email. “The senior leadership led by the president shared a set of actions that same night for no other reason than the sense of urgency we all felt on a personal level to ensure that the students understand that Brown has made a commitment to address these issues.”
As an outside observer, what is most frustrating about the students’ reaction is that they are trampling an ally, someone trying to institute the kinds of changes they desire.
The treatment of Paxson echoed the angry protests and dramatic hunger strikes that led to Claremont McKenna’s Dean of Student Mary Spellman being forced to resign after her email reaching out to a student of color was construed as racist. The email included the phrase “CMC [Claremont McKenna College] type," which was taken as a racially insensitive preference for white students.
Students in some of these protests appear so blindly angry that they would rather beat up the people who are trying to help them just to release their fury.
“I’m giving you a heartfelt apology,” Paxson said to the booing mob.
“Congratulations,” one student said sarcastically to Paxson. “But what are you going to do? We need action right now. You’re standing up there like you have no power.”
After watching video of Paxson and the students, I’m not sure she does.