Session D.12: Target Practice: Interrogating Stories of Harassment

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Presenters: Molly Campbell (University of New Hampshire) “‘Facebook Four’: A Post-Election Alt-Right Attack on Four Faculty,” Ersula Ore (Arizona State University) “Police Violence and University Neutrality: Reflections from a Jaywalking Academic”

Chair and Speaker: Garrett Nichols (Bridgewater State University) “‘Hang It Up’: Threats of Violence, Plausible Deniability, and University Acquiescence”

*Samantha Blackmon was unable to present due to illness.

I begin this review with a moment of gratitude. The speakers involved are empathetic, compassionate people who openly, and with no small amount of bravery, discussed their traumas with us in the audience. They did so to not only ensure their own visibility but so that at other scholars are prepared and cognizant of risks they face as public individuals and members of academic institutions. They remind us, as people, that we need to protect ourselves from the ‘targets’ we can potentially become. Before reading further, a brief warning: the following presentation summaries include death threats, harassment, and traumatic, violent language. Please read at your own discretion.

Campbell begins with an announcement that Googling her name results in a misleading headline, specifically of an alleged call for expulsion of counter protester students of a Democratic Walk Out inspired at her university by Donald Trump’s election. It is this false narrative that serves as the foundation of a smear and harassment campaign against Campbell and other colleagues. Costumed as Richard Nixon and Harambe, these individual students, and countless others, utilized social media and alt right online publications to claim oppression. Doxxing, death threats, and harassment quickly began against Campbell and her peers. Noting the male colleague had a brief flurry of email harassment, Campbell’s experiences detail how she and faculty in women and queer studies faced the brunt of it. Unprepared and, in some cases, unwilling to offer support, institutional powers offered little in means of protection for Campbell and colleagues. The school paper even allowed the costumed students to create editorials while Campbell could not return to campus in fear for her safety, further perpetuating myths of oppression and mob mentality against Campbell. Carefully, inspired by her experiences, she outlined the ‘anatomy’ of such attacks: first digital (social media), then in news and press, and later, professional. She stated that, despite harassers having short attention spans, the “Physical violence is least likely but feels the most real.” To help prepare academics, Campbell collected various resources on locking down social media, removing identifiers like home addresses online, and other helpful materials uploaded to the official CCCCs app.

Nichols’ narrative begins days after Trump’s election. Meeting with queer students in crisis, Nichols’ social media included posts against Trump and his voters. A year later, a student searched through a year plus of old posts before locating writings about Trump, sharing them across social media and alt right spaces, leading to Nichols placement on Professor Watchlist and Campus Watch, websites dedicated to tracking professors discriminating against conservative leaning students. Pulled from university for the semester under the guise of “personal safety reason”, Nichols channeled frustrations in his lack of voice in the conversations about his removal into research, much of which was the foundation of his presentation. Echoing Campbell’s commentary that time is on the side of the harassed, it nevertheless creates numerous traumas. Targeted harassment campaigns he and Campbell suffered through requires mass communicators focusing on a specific audience, requiring careful uses of rhetoric and ambiguity. As he acknowledges, Nichols’ lack of ambiguity in his Trump based messages were what attracted attention to him, though his harassers were ambiguous in their language online and in who was actually sending the messages. Their purposeful ambiguity functioned in three ways. First, it muddied the malice in the meaning of their content. Second, they retribution in the form of their posts being taken down or the focus of legal punishment impossible. Nichols, the victim, could not identify the source of the threats, which also led to feeling attacks came from all sides. Finally, their use of social media allowed the messages to be framed for multiple audiences to view them, creating ambiguity in the true recipient from a legal standpoint. Succinctly, he concludes that online harassment, unpredictable and confusing, is traumatic for those very reasons.

Finally, Ore’s presentation is a stunning and heartbreaking invitation to learn how a white officer arrested her and brutally attacked her with excessive force under the excuse of jaywalking. Spectators called the police to complain about attacks against her while others stood by, leading to Ore’s call, “I am not invisible!” Audience members were asked to close their eyes to envision the scene and then learned further horrific details, such as the officer’s lies to the judge that Ore was mentally ill, and the lack of institutional support from even those in the department due to misconceptions and outright lies. Detailing the process and the immediate aftermath as “strategizing for my life”, Ore segued into an interactive element of her presentation. Having given each member of the audience a sheet of paper and had that paper divided into four sections, she asked everyone to write answers down, one in each section, for three questions. Why did you attend this session? Who would make a statement on my behalf? What did rhetoric do to prepare you? In the remaining quarter of the paper, she requested we write three questions down, even if we lack answers: Do I have a legal fund? Do I have a therapy fund? What kind of insurances have I organized for the possibility of targeted harassment? She reminded us of three personal steps she took during the trauma: breathe, remember your training, and recognize certain forces supposedly for you (HR) are actually in support of others (the university).

Harassment can strike at any time from systematic forces of oppression, whether digital or physical in nature. Entrapped in crisis mode, victimized, it can become impossible to recognize patterns. This panel, however, offers, a reminder that individuals should not blame themselves for being victims of harassment and that there are support systems to locate, even if they are outside the university or traditional authorities. There is no inappropriate response, a vital point to remember. Separate from the harrowing, unforgettable personal examples they put forth, despite the taxing nature of reliving such traumatic memories, the trio of presenters also prepare us to consider how we may function or what might happen. Takeaways include to prepare your loved ones, get training in crisis communication, handouts to share with administrators, and the reminder that panels like this ‘suck’ in content but you are not alone.

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