Op-Ed: Wash. U. chooses statue over student

Sabrina Sayed | Class of 2021

On October 28, 2020, I participated in and helped organize a march in the name of Walter Wallace Jr., an aspiring rapper from Philadelphia who was shot 14 times by the police in the midst of a mental health crisis. We marched for victims of police brutality like Walter and his family; for more investment in mental health resources on federal, state and local levels; for more investment in mental health resources at Washington University; for the abolition of policing systems everywhere and to disrupt the chilling normalization of tragedies like the murder of Walter Wallace Jr.

The march started at the DUC, meandered through the surrounding neighborhoods and ended on campus in front of Olin Library. There stands a statue of George Washington, a symbol of racism, white supremacy, Native American genocide, erasure, colonialism and theft of land—stolen land on which Washington University sits. Aside from my own research, my knowledge on these subjects comes from my Wash. U. education. It was this university that educated me, provided me access to networks of changemakers, taught me to ask the important questions and shaped me into a more empathetic and conscious human being.

Emboldened by the knowledge afforded to me as a Wash. U. student, I put words into action and spray painted the George Washington statue, covering his name and his words to symbolically undermine the glorification of a man who this country prefers to forget championed genocide, murder, colonization and slavery. Yet the very same university has deemed my protest as reproachable because I did not “operate within the confines of what [the University] expects its students to do.”

As an organizer, I take ownership and responsibility for my actions. Spray painting the statue was a strategic tactic used to disrupt the status quo. I did so with the knowledge of University policies and in anticipation of disciplinary action taken by the University. I credit my organizing knowledge and tactics to my predecessors in the Civil Rights movement, Iranian Revolution, American Indian movement, the Arab Spring and the Black Lives Matter movement, from whom I learned that disruption and breaking the rules of law is critical to a successful movement.

The Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, including Dr. Kyle R. Williams, Nicole Gore and Sheryl Mauricio, decided my protest was a violation of University Student Conduct Code 19: “Unauthorized entry, deliberate destruction of, damage to, malicious use of or abuse for any University, public or private property.” In turn, Student Conduct has demanded “restitution” by slapping me with an astonishing and questionable $1,516 fine for damages and a forced letter of apology.

Student Conduct failed to provide me receipts to support a questionable cost breakdown that states power washing the statue took 4.75 hours. According to the Student Conduct website, fine money is “put into a separate University account which provides funding for initiatives and special projects surrounding student conduct including… Sorority and Fraternity Life projects, ResLife projects, Campus Life events, guest speaker fees…” Therefore, the $1,516 fine that I cannot afford will not even cover the costs of repair of the statue, despite this being the only grounds for this sanction.

All the University chose to see was vandalism. At the conduct meeting, I was listened to, but I was not heard. Instead, I was lectured, mansplained to and punished.

I am deeply disappointed in the individuals involved in the Student Conduct process for failing to recognize that my actions were an attempt at restoration, healing and education. I am even more disappointed by the rigid Student Conduct system that fails to recognize nuance, rushes to punish students and causes more harm to the community. Those involved in the conduct process did not want to accept the truth: the statue of George Washington is harmful to the Wash. U. community because it celebrates a slave-owner known by the Iroquois as the “Town Destroyer” on Osage, Miami, Sioux and Kickapoo peoples’ stolen land. Instead, the Student Conduct Office preferred to do what was convenient, pointing their fingers at me and insisting I had done the harm. The claim that I harmed my community by spray painting a bronze statue tells me that the University believes a blemished statue is commensurate with the very harm that I am protesting.

The placement of a statue of George Washington symbolizes a white memory of American history. The statue’s much-needed revision is in line with the many Confederate statues that have already been removed because they each represent the unspoken valorization and repressed memory of Native American and Black terror in the American story. I, for one, believe the statue should be utilized as a tool for education to remember our history by adding a plaque that details the true history of the man standing at the center of campus and serving as the namesake of our university.

As I write, I am hurt by the University’s complete disregard of my message and the message of the Justice for Walter Wallace Jr. march, especially after its stated commitment to address systemic racism and pursue racial equity.

It has not even been one year since the mass movement uprisings against police brutality and policing systems in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Protestors were labeled “rioters,” “opportunists,” “looters,” “anarchist agitators” and “fools.” Resembling reactions to and media coverage of Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement was pathologized and condemned for destruction of property; however, those who knew better didn’t focus on the property, but rather what it symbolized. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained the Black Urban Riots of 1967: “Why were they so violent with property then? Because property represents the white power structure, which they were attacking and trying to destroy.”

After months of discussions on the intolerable act of choosing property over people, this University should have known better than to ignore my protest, the march, and reduce all of it to “vandalism.” Such a label implies my actions were a mere lapse of judgement, loss of control, or emotional reaction. But make no mistake—my actions were reasoned, strategic and symbolic.

On June 18, 2020, Chancellor Martin wrote in his letter on racial equity that he would commit to reimagining campus safety and investing in the community stating, “Nothing is more important to us as a university than the people in our community.”

Mr. Chancellor, I feel that you and the rest of the University have fallen short of this commitment. The University failed me by doing more to protect a bronze statue than a human being. When we marched on campus and in the streets, we were trailed and surrounded by WUPD officers who made us feel anything but safe. When we walked home, they still followed.

I care deeply for my community, Mr. Chancellor. I am fighting hard for the world I want to live in. It is not just for the University to target me, punish me, fine me and force me to apologize for protesting. It is not just for the University to criminalize student activists; instead, it should be actively supporting and working with us. I am ready to work with you to change the policies and procedures regarding student activists and protestors. I am ready to discuss the concrete steps we can take so we do not continue to condone and perpetuate the erasure of Native American and Black history.

I am ready to help our community do better.

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