When a Fight is not a Fight

News-2Hate crime at UCSC reveals larger issues

When UCSC students shut down traffic on Highway 17 in early March, media coverage was intense. But when a gay male student was brutalized at Kresge College on Feb. 7—leaving him with a dislocated hip, a fractured jaw, broken knuckles, a shattered wrist, and a concussion—it slipped by without much discussion.

A few days after the attack, the UCSC Police Department sent out a crime bulletin via email which mentioned the “fight,” adding that two men were arrested the following day on charges of battery, obstructing a police officer, and being drunk in public. The bulletin reported that “one or more of the victims belonged to a protected classification, as listed in the California Hate Crime Statutes.”

Many students were frustrated that the bulletin did not specify what was obvious to those who knew the details of the attack—that the student was beaten because he is gay.

“Making it sound like a two-sided fight when it was really an attack takes away from what really happened that night,” says Jamie Epstein, a third-year student at UCSC who is the education coordinator for the Cantú Queer Center and leads workshops on sex, sexuality, and gender. “We have a right to know when there is violence happening to our community.”

Epstein says the university should have expressed unreserved support for the queer community after the incident. Instead, she feels the email’s language has further distanced them.

UCSC Police Chief Nader Oweis says the wording was deliberate to protect the victim. Further details about the hate crime and its perpetrators cannot be released, he says, citing an ongoing investigation.

The university needs to be proactive rather than reactive, says Epstein, which is why she and other students created a petition demanding more bathrooms for transgender students (UCSC currently has 40 all-gender restrooms); free self-defense workshops; mandatory diversity training for all current and future staff, faculty, administrators, and students; and queer-specialist staff members with at least one trans-specialist.

“If we didn’t do this, no one would stop and really think about it—that’s what really terrified us,” says Epstein of the petition, which currently has 2,123 supporters.

Epstein was also involved in a campus pilot survey which asked how members of the queer community felt on campus. The results showed that they do not feel safe, but when the students presented their findings to the UCSC administration more than a year ago with recommendations mirroring those of the petition, they didn’t see much of a response. Epstein says the students are trying to get permission from some participants to disclose their responses before releasing the findings to the public.

While Epstein was shocked by the Kresge beating, she’s no stranger to queerphobic violence; she remembers being at an LGBTQ-friendly party last year when some people walked through off the street, saying, “There’s just a bunch of faggots and dykes here.” According to Epstein, when a man at the party asked them to leave, they assaulted him, sending him to the hospital.

According to the most recent report, the last hate crime to take place at UCSC was in 2013, a “vandalism incident characterized by sexual orientation bias.” In 2011, there was one case of intimidation on the grounds of sexual orientation, but there were also three on-campus vandalism incidents characterised by racial bias, three by ethnic bias, one by religious bias and one by sexual orientation bias.

UCSC’s spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason says that the university regularly re-evaluates its diversity programming.

“I think it’s a first step to have these discussions, to learn a little bit more about what [students’] concerns are, and what we can do to address them. We very much want to have a campus that feels inclusive and welcoming, where students feel safe,” says Hernandez-Jason. “Something like this does not typically happen at UC Santa Cruz, so I think everyone was a bit shocked by it.”

Communication Breakdown

Hate crimes are merely symptoms of a larger and more insidious problem—biases ingrained in society, says Christie McCullen, a Ph.D candidate at UCSC. Part of the problem is that people do, say, or think things every day without realizing that they reinforce prejudices, she says.

McCullen has been conducting research on how race is discussed in classroom settings and how history shapes that narrative. She says people are often more focused on being politically correct than on understanding the history and power dynamics behind the words they know to avoid, thus creating a “a culture of silence.”

“I think too often there’s not enough listening and there’s not enough critical reflection that happens in that, especially for people who are not affected,” says McCullen, also a sociology graduate student instructor.

That’s how “microaggressions” fuel subtler but equally damaging racism and queerphobia in Santa Cruz, says Jocqui Smollett. Microaggressions are unintended discrimination through socially accepted behavior—the comments that people defend with “it’s not a big deal”—but still contribute to a hollow tolerance that isn’t based on true understanding.

Smollett, a UCSC fourth-year African Black Student Alliance member, says he’s experienced microaggressions and blatant racism on campus, including an incident where a student repeatedly asked if he had eaten cornbread and watermelon at the dining hall—laughing in a way that made it “apparent that it was racially charged.” At the time, Smollett was a Resident Assistant (RA) and documented the same student three separate times for the comments, but no disciplinary action followed.

Smollett says that although mandatory diversity training is necessary, even small tweaks in language—including in emails from university administrators—make a huge difference.

“The email about the Kresge incident was extremely vague,” he says, “and if you compare that with the email that they sent out last week about the student protests—they were very direct on their point that they were not supporting what the protesters were doing.”

Without clarity, the mentality of tolerance gets turned into something that looks a lot like fetishizing identities—like how everyone wants a “gay best friend” and a piece of hip-hop culture, he says.

“No one wants to understand the struggle of being gay, or being lesbian. It’s the same thing with everyone wants to be black, but no one wants to be black,” says Smollett. “A lot of problems with diversity training and ally training is that they don’t go deep enough, and their training is tailored around making the ally feel comfortable. This life is not comfortable—our lived experiences are not comfortable—so for you to be a true ally, you have to be willing to evolve with us.”

PHOTO: Dayton Andrews, Jamie Epstein and Santos De La Paz at UCSC’s Cantú Queer Center. CHIP SCHEUER

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