Editor’s note: Opinion pieces published in The Clerk represent the views and ideas of the author.
On Monday, October 26 at 4 pm, 27 year old Walter Wallace Jr. was murdered in cold blood by two officers of the Philadelphia Police Department. Wallace, who is reported to have struggled with mental health and bipolar disorder in particular, was shot 14 times. Videos have shown his mother chasing after him as she asks the police to hold fire, and yet, we see the police fire several fatal rounds. Walter Wallace Jr.’s name goes on the list of countless Black lives that have been brutalized by police departments across the United States of America.
As the news broke Tuesday morning and Haverford students shared details on social media, I felt the community was mobilizing—even if at a distance. That, to be blunt, is the least we can do, considering that the shooting occurred less than five miles from our institution, in an area that Haverford alums are actively gentrifying. In response, some students also attended the protests in Philadelphia on Monday and Tuesday night; two seniors were arrested by the Philadelphia Police Department and detained at the 18th Precinct.
In the wake of all this, there was a gaping silence from Haverford’s administration. I was awaiting word from President Wendy Raymond, hoping that she would condemn the horrific actions of the police. So, when an email arrived in our inboxes on Wednesday, October 28 at 2:37 pm, signed by both President Raymond and Interim Dean of the College Joyce Bylander, I thought: “finally.” Little did I know the disgusting roller coaster ride that the email would prove to be. In retrospect, I wish that it had never been sent out.
In the most tone-deaf of emails that I have received from Haverford’s administration over the past three years, President Raymond and Dean Bylander get through the horrific spectre of Wallace’s death in about three lines. Why be so terse in a moment where you should be loud? Why be so terse in a moment where the Black community of Philadelphia is terrorized yet again? Why be so terse in a time where Black students at Haverford feel a plethora of emotions: grief, anger, and much more that all of us as non-Black folk cannot comprehend at all?
As if this curt discussion weren’t enraging enough, the email goes on to center Haverford students. Yes, the students at a rich, predominantly white institution who live on a campus guarded by a private security force at all its entrances were made the focus of an email sent in the wake of a murder on our doorstep. “We write because our sadness is accompanied by alarm. That alarm is for YOU. While we all might be tempted to join protests about this tragedy, we are imploring you to temper that impulse. Now is not the time to go to Philadelphia,” wrote President Raymond and Dean Bylander.
My question for both Raymond and Bylander is: While your alarm is valid as we are in the midst of a global pandemic, how and why did it manifest in you simply pushing students to not protest? Why was your email—which should have focused on the Black community in Philly and created a place to grieve for our Black community—so tone-deaf? When you wrote the sentence “Joining a protest off campus not only would not bring Walter Wallace back,” did you not read it twice to smell the detachment and apathy that it reeks of?
Why, as an institution, couldn’t we step up and say that we are wary of a COVID breakout on campus, but students can exercise their agency to fight for justice? Why couldn’t we say that if students choose to protest, we will mobilize institutional resources for more rapid COVID testing? How can we claim to be anti-racist, if in the face of police brutality inflicted on Black bodies at our doorstep we choose to close that door and hide inside?
In all honesty, as I read through the email, my faith in our institution and efforts crumbled all at once. Yet it was when President Raymond encouraged students to vote and “fight for democracy at the ballot box” that I was caught the most off guard. In my opinion, most Haverford students understand their civic duties well enough to be voting. But many of us are voting with dead hearts, hoping to preserve some sanctuary for marginalized groups across the country while knowing full well how little of a difference it may make. After all, we are sitting in the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia, where police brutality still remains rampant.
My critique, anger, or sadness aren’t directed at the Haverford administration’s COVID worries or their encouragement to vote. Those are valid concerns, but there is a time and place for everything. Today’s email and response wasn’t it: the student body—specifically our Black students—needed to be understood, consoled, and given a place to grieve. Walter Wallace Jr.’s murder and the ensuing disappointment, fear, and anger of the Black community needed to be centered. Instead, tone-deafness ran rampant through the message.
I am disappointed beyond measure today and embarrassed at my association with Haverford. This email has created a rift in the community which shall prove impossible to repair in the days and months to come. If Haverford truly cares about becoming an “anti-racist institution,” the administration needs to confront their treatment of real social issues in our backyard. We cannot continue to hide out in our bubble as Black communities all over this country are terrorized.
P.S.: There is a sit-in on Founders Green being organized tonight, October 28 at 10 pm. We look forward to seeing you there. Please remain masked, social distanced, and DO NOT use the space for any kind of political promotion. The space is meant to center Black voices and we request that you be mindful of that.