Close to 300 Stage Silent Protest on Steps
Groups Link Cartoon to Bake Sale, Fliers
February 24, 2004
Low Steps fell silent yesterday when hundreds of students held a sit-in against what they say is the latest of a series of racist incidents on campus.
Dressed from head to toe in black, the protesters sat on the steps without speaking from noon-2 p.m. as supporters stopped to watch or join the group. Many protesters held signs reading "I Have Been Silenced."
The students were demonstrating against a comic strip in The Fed, an offbeat parody newspaper that operates as a student club. The cartoon, which ran in the monthly publication's latest issue--distributed to students' mail boxes last week--depicts two black males in a variety of roles including a slave and a rap artist. The last panel of the strip shows the two men, fists raised, shouting "Kill Whitey!" with a caption that says "Black people do even more crazy crap, but don't worry about it until next February"--an apparent reference to Black History Month.
The cartoon was drawn by Ben Schwartz, CC '03 and a former Spectator cartoonist known for his "Wacky Fun Whitey" comic strips that ran in both Spectator and The Fed. The comic was published under a "disclaimer," that reads: "The Fed is a forum. We don't censor anything. But a lot of us didn't really want to print this cartoon, 'cause it's kinda offensive. But we did. Cause that's our policy. End transmission!"
Student leaders of the Black Students Organization, the United Students of Color Council, Students Promoting Empowerment and Knowledge, and Respecting Ourselves and Others Through Education say that the column used unfair stereotypes of African Americans offensive to black students. The groups gathered Sunday night to plan a response and later sent e-mail announcements about the protest.
Many sit-in participants linked the cartoon with other incidents of what they say is similar offensive speech. "Following [the Columbia College Conservative Club's] anti-affirmative action bake sale two weeks ago and the racist fliers put up by the Columbia marching band for Orgo Night last fall, this cartoon highlights the Columbia Administration's failure to deal with racism on campus," an announcement to the SPEaK listserv said.
Though Fed editor-in-chief Kate Sullivan said she did not know about the bake sale before the cartoon ran last week, she acknowledged that, when taken together, the events could be considered offensive.
"I think people have a right to protest, and I think they should protest," she said.
BSO and USCC organizers did not return phone calls seeking comment after the sit-in.
While the students sat in silence on the steps--many of them holding signs with messages including "Diversity Where?" and "1964-2004: Civil Rights?"--other group members distributed fliers to passersby. The handouts reprinted The Fed's cartoon under the heading "Columbia Students of Color Are Under Attack!"
"We stand here in solidarity and in silence--a symbolic representation of how we, as students, feel having been abandoned by our administration and student groups who have transgressed against us," the flier said.
On Sunday night, members of The Fed's executive board printed letters of apology and put them up in residence halls and campus buildings, as well as on the student web site CU Community. Sullivan said that the decision to run Schwartz's cartoon was "inexcusable."
Sullivan said that because "Wacky Fun Whitey" is a regular feature, it does not usually come to a vote before publication, but that she called for a vote last weekend. Sullivan argued against printing the cartoon, but those in favor held a 6-5 majority.
"[Schwartz] really did intend for it to be making fun of racial stereotypes and he did a really poor job of it," she said. "I feel personally responsible that The Fed made a massive mistake in choosing to run it."
Sullivan said that she and other editors have received threats in the form of posters in their residence halls accusing them of racism. One flier depicted a Ku Klux Klan membership card with Sullivan's name.
Sullivan added that Schwartz himself would issue a formal apology in the next issue of The Fed.