Support for Donald Trump in the form of chalk markings on campus at Emory College sent the university into a tailspin this week, with the administration scrambling to appease students who felt threatened by the sudden scourge of pro-Trump scribblings on school grounds.
Early Monday, students say, they were “attacked” by Trump’s name in large, pastel letters on campus walkways and buildings. “Vote for Trump,” “Trump for Pres,” “Accept the Inevitable: Trump 2016” and more chalk sloganeering for the Republican presidential frontrunner was written all over the most trafficked areas on campus.
“I legitimately feared for my life,” Paula Camila Alarcon, a freshman at Emory who identifies as Latino, told The Daily Beast. “I thought we were having a KKK rally on campus.”
Word spread quickly among student minorities and activist groups on social media, including the Muslim Student Association, Emory’s NAACP chapter, Black Students at Emory, and LatinAction.
“Some of us started scrubbing the signs,” said Alarcon, who is a member of LatinAction. She noted that writing on school buildings is considered vandalism, irrespective of content. But when other students accused them of censorship, they made “#StopTrump2016” fliers and disseminated them around campus.
“This wasn’t ordinary campaigning,” Jonathan Peraza, another member of LatinAction and a freshman at Emory, said of the chalkings. “It was deliberate intimidation. Some of us were expecting shootings. We feared walking alone.”
That afternoon, Alarcon and Peraza were among 40 or 50 students who protested the graffitied support for the likely GOP nominee on their campus.
Meanwhile, their emails urging the administration to condemn the pro-Trump messages went unreturned. So the protesters stormed Emory President James Wagner’s office.
“To us, the administration’s silence sanctioned the fact that this Nazi reincarnate is threatening to deport our parents—to put us in concentration camps and kill us,” said Peraza.
The chalkings were the tip of the iceberg for Alarcon, Peraza, and dozens of other minorities at Emory who feel marginalized by the school’s white, middle- and upper-class students and professors.
Like many other students across the country, they’ve spent the past year agitating for what they perceive to be increased social justice and diversity initiatives at Emory—only to be let down by the university, they say, when their campus was defiled with Trump propaganda.
On Monday, the group of 40-plus students demanded “transparency” from President Wagner and the administration that would involve them in the process of implementing these initiatives, plus a more diverse faculty and student body and a statement from Wagner saying Emory doesn’t support Trump or his ideology. The students also insisted that the administration review security footage to determine who carried out the pro-Trump “vandalism.”
According to the school newspaper, The Emory Wheel, Wagner told protesters at the meeting that the university would examine footage “up by the hospital [from] security cameras.”
The university did not respond when asked to confirm this report. The school did, however, clarify in a statement to The Daily Beast that chalkings by students “are a protected form of expression on the Emory campus, but must be limited to certain areas and surfaces.”
The pro-Trump messages “did not follow guidelines—that’s the issue regarding violation of policy, not the content.”
In an email to the Emory community on Tuesday morning, Wagner stood by the anti-Trump protesters, for whom the chalkings were “not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own,” he wrote. “It is important that we recognize, listen to, and honor the concerns of these students, as well as faculty and staff who may feel similarly.”
He also vowed commitment to “a formal process to institutionalize identification, review, and addressing of social justice opportunities and issues.”
Still, many student activists were disappointed by the email, which they claimed was more of the same empty rhetoric he’s failed to deliver in the past.
“Don’t tell me about you being here for black students, because when black students actually need you, you’re never there,” said Lolade Oshin, a junior undergraduate in Emory’s business school who participated in Monday’s protests.
“I think it was an act of violence,” Oshin said of the chalkings. “It was an active threat, intentionally meant to create opposition on campus and to segregate groups on campus that are already segregated.”
While she expects students to be racist, she said, she also expects Emory to be an ally to students of color.
“Emory likes to sell itself as a school that is really devoted to diversity and inclusion, and it’s not,” Oshin said. “If I’d known it would be this way, I would have gone to the University of Maryland and paid a quarter of the price to deal with the exact same issues I deal with here.”
To Oshin and other students who protested on Monday, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity at Emory is paramount to a progressive education. The protesters are less invested in (and perhaps less accustomed to) diversity of opinion, so much so that they assumed the sight of Trump’s name on their campus was likely a prelude to physical violence and invasion by the KKK. There have been no documented ties between Trump-based graffiti and terrorism.
Indeed, many students believed the chalk markings themselves constituted violence.
In a statement issued in solidarity with the NAACP and the Black, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, and disabled communities, LatinAction referred to the pro-Trump chalkings as “attacks” on Emory’s minority students. “We are angry and determined to bring light to the violence that we experience,” the statement reads.
Tyler Farrell, a junior studying political science in Emory’s business school, said he was not disturbed by the protesters but rather by the university kowtowing to their demands and thus implying that “one person’s political beliefs are inherently inferior to another person’s beliefs.”
President Wagner’s email to the community “made that distinction by favoring the people who protested and only further divided people on campus,” Farrell said. “However well meaning the protesters were, their protests were centered around an attempt to urge the university to condemn a form of political speech. ”
Farrell had previously conveyed similar sentiments in a Facebook post, which one student protester sent to The Daily Beast to highlight what she believed to be the “most offensive” student response.
He added that while he was “no fan of Donald Trump’s, I think it’s important that people who are have the right to express their opinions.”
Harvey Klehr, a longtime professor of political science at Emory, was also unimpressed by the university’s response to students.
“The administration doesn’t want some kind of explosion and they think they’ll avoid that by placating these students and patting them on the head,” he said. “They’re living in a cocoon bubble, and the university is validating their fears. If these students are frightened by someone writing ‘Trump 2016’ on campus, they need to see a psychiatrist.
“I despise Trump, but Emory is not some fundamentalist school where white supremacists send their children.”
Indeed, the student body does not lack diversity. While 37.8 percent of its current freshman students self-identify as white, roughly 40 percent are self-identifying minorities. A remaining 17.7 percent describe themselves as “international.”
At Emory, it’s up to the adults to value diversity in all forms—and to ensure that speech and political expression are not censored. Reviewing security surveillance tapes at the request of students who want any pro-Trump vandals identified or monitored is not leading by example. It’s an unnecessary precaution and a slippery slope.
In his final speech as Distinguished University Professor at Emory last year, Salman Rushdie—who was censored and targeted with death threats for years after Iran’s former supreme leader issued a fatwa over his 1989 book, The Satanic Verses—stressed the importance of free speech in a democracy. He remarked that the urge to squelch it is “beginning to be the greatest where they should be most defended, that is to say within the walls of the academy.
“These rights have been hard won, hard won,” Rushdie said. “Do not easily give them up. Do not give an inch.”
Emory students who protested on Monday should continue to protest loudly. They should continue to take the administration to task on empty promises and other issues that they believe hinder their ability to thrive at the university.
In turn, the university should remind them that they cannot thrive when freedom of expression, no matter how offensive, is stifled.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Emory’s president as Bill Wagner. His name is James.