'Unsafe Space' tour at Rutgers prompts counter-protest from Black Lives Matter and Rutgers One


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Photo by Yosef Serkez |

Yesterday, a small group of Rutgers students protested outside of the Douglass Student Center where a panel, entitled “Unsafe Space” was being held. The goal of the original event was to create a dialogue around identity politics and free speech on campus.


A free speech advocacy tour entitled “Unsafe Space” made its second stop at the Douglass Student Center last night in an attempt to spark new dialogue around free speech. The event included a panel of speakers and was met with a counter-protest from campus organizations including Black Lives Matter and Rutgers One.

Hundreds of Rutgers students faculty members attended the event, both to listen to the panel and to speak out against it. Tensions quickly rose between the protesters and counter-protesters.

The original “Unsafe Space” event was created as a result of correspondence between unnamed University constituents and an online British publication called Spiked.

The Rutgers leg of the tour, entitled "Identity politics: the new racialism on campus?" was made to explore whether a new "hypersensitivity" around race has negatively impacted the campus party. Topics included cultural appropriation, free speech and microaggressions.

The panelists who led the discussion were Kmele Foster, the founder of Freethink Media, Sarah Haider, a co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America, Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University and Bryan Stascavage, a writer and free-speech advocate.

During the panel, Foster said police violence should not be understood through the framework of racial identity politics. In interpreting the statistics of police violence, he said he finds little evidence that black people are at unique risk of being shot by the police.

“For me it seems impractical to take an issue that we all agree is important and to balkanize it and to make it something that is of unique interest to a particular community; to attach to it a mantra that is narrowly interested in racial outcomes — to make it an issue where if you disagree with me, you don't disagree on an approach to fixing this problem, you disagree on whether or not my life has value or merit,” Foster said.

After the event, members of Black Lives Matter Rutgers said that the panelists had not properly acknowledged their point of view.

“They literally didn't answer any questions that we asked,” said Bashir Herbert, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and the secretary of Black Lives Matter Rutgers. “They had no idea about the black struggle that we're dealing with. They were just answering things based on statistics.”

Lilla said that the greatest threat to the rights of historically marginalized communities comes from the Republican Party. He added that the Republican party has committed itself to reducing the rights of women to get abortions, of black people to vote and of gay couples to be treated equally.

Lilla said that in order to protect these historically marginalized groups, the Democratic Party must develop a rhetoric that also appeals to communities that regularly vote Republican.

“One needs a message as a party that speaks to everyone in the country,” Lilla said. “Identity politics as currently practiced is preventing liberals, the left, progressives, the Democratic party, however, you want to describe that side, from holding on to institutional power and actually being the change they say they seek.”

Mackenzie Miller, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and a member of Rutgers One, said that he hoped the protest would demonstrate the Rutgers community's rejection of Unsafe Space's “divisive” rhetoric.

“I think the outrage that was sparked so quickly among various communities in Rutgers about (Unsafe Space) attending shows that generally Rutgers is on the side of not allowing racists to come on campus,” Miller said.

Rutgers One is an alliance of students, faculty and alumni from various organizations around campus. In addition to leading the counter-protest last night, they have been involved to some degree in nearly every Rutgers protest this year.

In the press release for the counter-protest, Miller said it is important to understand that events like “Unsafe Space” risk ushering more bigoted and racist beliefs onto the campus.

“Rutgers One believes that respect and sensitivity do not present a threat to free speech and that the real threats to students lie in racism, homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of oppression,” he wrote.

In response to claims that students had their voices silenced, Ella Whelan, the assistant director of Spiked, said that the organization invited all societies within the Rutgers community to participate in open discussion on these issues regardless of political orientation.

“It’s a tour, it’s called the 'Unsafe Space Tour.' The first one was at American University last week. I spoke on the panel,” Whelan said. “It was canceled by the University, so actually the first event of the Unsafe Space Free Speech tour was censored.”

When asked how she felt about the event, Whelan said the organizers anticipate the situation to be tense but prefer that people build on the tension and voice their opinions.

“The worst thing, we think, is for it to be a same old event where everyone agrees,” she said.

Tom Slater, the deputy editor at Spiked, added that the robust exchange of ideas highlighted a lot of topics that are not discussed often enough on campus.

“A lot of people didn’t disagree on a fundamental level, on what is important or what needs to be tackled,” he said.

Slater said that free speech policy can be implemented but cannot thrive in an environment that does not truly criticize it.

He said that events like this are important because they showcase debates with perspectives that are heard less.

“You’ve always got to think of your own ideas as something that has to be submitted to challenge,” he said. “The thing is if you believe something and never allow anyone to challenge it, then you have no idea why you think something.”


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