Scars and Stripes

Fall16_Flags

The destruction of a memorial to the victims of 9/11 creates a national stir, underlining the ongoing debate over diversity and inclusion on campus

When members of the Occidental Conservative Club planted 2,997 small American flags in the Quad on the afternoon of September 10 as a memorial to those who died on 9/11, organizers announced that they intended it as gesture that transcended politics. (Flags for the memorial, which had been registered in advance with the Office of Student Life, were furnished by the Virginia-based Young America's Foundation, which calls itself "the principal outreach organization of the conservative movement.")

Setup of the memorial was uneventful, but at about 12:40 a.m. on September 11, leaders of the club got word that the flags were in nearby trash cans. When they arrived on the scene, they found the flags had been replaced with a scattering of flyers mourning the loss of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died in the war that followed as well as the victims of 9/11.

Club members restored the flags—but not before snapping photos of them in the trash. Posted on the Conservative Club's Facebook page, the images quickly went viral, sparking angry denunciations—many of them from members of the general public—and a flurry of press coverage nationwide.

Organizers say their 9/11 memorial was an attempt to celebrate American unity in the face of tragedy. Others saw it as a deliberate provocation. What followed was a debate over the nature of free speech, putting Oxy in the crosshairs of a social media feeding frenzy and underlining the complexities of the College's ongoing effort to foster ­diversity and inclusion on campus.

Early on the afternoon of September 11, a group of 21 students posted a defense of the flags' removal on Facebook, writing that students of color found the memorial objectionable because the flag "is a symbol of ­institutionalized violence (genocide, rape, slavery, colonialism, etc.) against people of color, domestically as well as globally. When [the College] allows thousands of American flags to be placed in the center of campus it speaks volumes to the students that have lived their lives under the oppression of this flag. … this school is saying your fear and trauma do not matter here."

But the reaction online was overwhelmingly negative, even from those who appreciated the message behind the students' action. "The way to debate something is to draw attention to it, critique it, analyze it, ask questions," Dev Das '07 wrote in a Facebook post. "Silencing freedom of expression does much more to hurt our movement than anything else. And moreover, was this memorial really the best target for debate in the first place? This is just a sad distraction. It undermines the credibility of voices of color who are trying to fight oppression through non-violent means."

As the online comments aimed at the protesters grew uglier—some students who spoke in defense of the protesters reported being the targets of death threats—a second, anonymous response was posted on Facebook. This message claimed that those who removed the flags didn't realize that each one represented an individual victim, acknowledged the "pain and outrage felt by many," and emphasized that the incident represented an attempt to present "a more holistic approach" to honoring those who died on 9/11 as well as the civilian casualties in the war that followed. (Campus Safety followed up with the LAPD regarding any complaints of threats made against students, according to Victor Clay, Oxy's chief of campus safety.)

Less than 24 hours after the flags were uprooted, Erica O'Neal Howard, Oxy's interim dean of students, announced that the College had launched an investigation of the incident as a violation of the Student Code of Conduct. Her position was echoed by in a subsequent campus message from President Jonathan Veitch.

"This incident has been defended by some as an act of protected speech. It is not," Veitch wrote. "It is an act of defilement that is deeply offensive to the memory of those who died on September 11. And it violates the free speech of others, a principle we must hold dear as members of an educational community."

On November 1, the College announced that its investigation into the incident had concluded—that students believed to have been involved were identified and appropriate action was taken in accordance with the Code of Student Conduct. Despite widespread interest in the investigation, "Federal and state privacy laws prevent the College from disclosing details about it, the findings, or the sanctions applied," says Leora Freedman, Oxy's general counsel.

Some faculty and students have been critical of the College's response to the incident, pointing to the lack of similar concern in 2014 when a campus memorial to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black high school student shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida four years ago, was vandalized. An investigation was conducted in that case, students responsible for the vandalism were identified, and appropriate action was taken—but those facts were not widely known because the same privacy laws apply, O'Neal Howard says.

Meanwhile, faculty and administrators are working to develop a series of campus ­activities to address the issues raised by controversy. Upcoming events include a roundtable discussion on free speech by UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky; a series of documentary films dealing with 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the meaning and motivations behind modern memorials; and a performance of Defamation, an interactive courtroom drama on race, religion, class, and gender in which the audience is the jury.

"We cannot shirk our responsibility as educators to use episodes like this as teachable moments," Veitch says. "Now is the time for all of us in the Oxy community—students, faculty, alumni, staff, parents, and friends—to come together to provide a model of spirited public debate informed by mutual respect, open minds, and shared aspirations for our country. That can be an effort of which we all can be proud."