By Justin Smith
Amidst watching polling data come in from the November 8 election in which the divisive Donald Trump secured electoral victory, students at Canisius began seeing pictures of a black baby doll hanging from a curtain rod and in a Frisch elevator. The first sightings of the doll occurred around 5:20p.m. Over the next ninety minutes, the doll was “moved and repositioned,” but no one called Public Safety. Public Safety was not called until about 11:30p.m., a full six hours later.
“People go six hours, in and out, and nobody says anything,” said one student.
The incident prompted a meeting in Grupp, which the Undergraduate Student Association announced in an email at 2:05p.m. on November 9. Despite giving only two hours’ notice, 300 plus students, professors, and faculty showed up in solidarity against the hateful act carried out on Canisius’ campus. The event, which was moderated by Associate Professor of Philosophy Devonya Havis and Senior Associate Campus Minister Luanne Firestone, started off with a prayer from the Director of Campus Ministry Mike Hayes. The evening saw speeches from President and former Griffin Editor John J. Hurley, as well as USA President Elias “Fenoose” Ayoub and Public Safety Director Wil Johnson.
Wil Johnson call the incident “totally unacceptable.” Johnson said that Public Safety is currently talking to people about the incident and has already identified “multiple players,” although no names were disclosed as the investigation is ongoing. However, Johnson would ultimately go on to take heat from students, particularly for his comment that there was “most likely no ill intent” in the incident and that it was “not criminal.”
The truth is that the situation is nuanced. What is clear is that there was ill intent when the baby doll was hung in the Frisch dorm room. However, what is less clear is the intent of the people who put the baby in the elevator, as the baby in the elevator was not hung.
“The doll in question was apparently left in a Frisch Hall laundry room by a young visitor to the campus on Tuesday,” said Hurley in an email to the student body, sent November 10 at 4:35p.m.
From there, the doll was placed in the elevator in what Hurley calls a “prank” — although many students feel uncomfortable writing that off to a simple prank — and it was after the doll came out of the elevator that a student took the doll into their room in Frisch 6 and hung it from a curtain rod. Hurley called this act “far more disturbing,” as the student proceeded to take pictures of the lynched doll and “use language about ‘Trump fans’” in a meme which was sent out to the individual’s friends.
President Ayoub urged students not to make this incident political, but this proved to be an unpopular opinion as the night went on. Trump, who has spent a large part of his campaign using racist rhetoric, was explicitly referenced in connection to this racist lynching of a black doll on campus the same night in which he was elected. Objectively, this incident was political, although certainly racism is not limited to Trump supporters.
“We don’t know the intent, but we know the intent,” said Afro-American Society President Joyce McBride.
And that was the theme of the night. Despite Vice President of Academic Affairs Margaret McCarthy’s urging for students to “withhold judgement until the facts of this incident are fully brought to light,” students clearly felt differently.
“To whoever did this, [expletive] you, and if you support this person, then [expletive] you too,” said one student, to applause.
What students wanted more than anything was repercussions. The consensus was that Canisius’ credibility hinged on the degree to which the student behind this would be dealt with.
“There will be consequences,” said Hurley, adding that the consequences would be severe.
Although Hurley made these comments at the beginning of the evening, it did not stop one student for calling for “swift and appropriate punishment.” Other students demanded answers right then and there, although this was not feasible with the investigation, less than twenty-four hours old, still ongoing.
However, it would be a mistake to think that anger dominated the night. People were angry–at the perpetrator, at students, at administration — but perhaps the greater emotion was sorrow. The day was marked by open weeping for professors and students alike.
“Know that I have requested that the faculty not penalize you if you miss a class today,” said McCarthy.
Many students said they did indeed skip class, and multiple professors encouraged those who needed the time to recover to take it. Many people were horrified by the events on our own campus, but equally horrifying to many was the election of Donald Trump, who many students see as an existential threat because of his rhetoric. One student pointed out that she is a Latina, a member of the LGBT community, and a woman — “all things Trump is against.” For students such as her, and many others, the next four years seem a daunting prospect. The incident with the baby doll brought the situation home and made it that much more visceral.
“As a community, we need to find comfort in each other,” said one student.
The question is whether or not this is happening. One student bemoaned another student for laughing at a professor who left the room for a few minutes to gather himself during a class. One student called the school “segregated” and another called it “divided.” Afro-American society has repeatedly brought up the issue that white students seem to avoid their events.
Another theme that emerged was a discussion of how safe the campus was. Many students explicitly expressed that they felt scared, more so now than ever, for their safety at campus.
“There’s no reason why my parents should be calling me and telling me that they are scared […] That they don’t want me be here by myself,” said one student.
Several international students also came up to speak. One from Jamaica said she tried to hide the pictures of the baby from her social media so that her parents wouldn’t get stressed. A student from Nigeria said his parents immediately called him upon seeing the baby doll and wanted to know where he was transferring.
“The only people that are comfortable are the people that don’t look like us,” said a member of Afro-American Society.
The passion was there, but the night did lack a certain nuanced understanding of what exactly should happen to this student. Certainly Canisius, as a private institution, can suspend or expel the perpetrator.
According to Canisius’s Community Standards, “Harassment is defined as verbal, written or physical conduct directed at a person or a group based on color, race, national origin, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation where the offensive behavior is intimidating, hostile or demeaning, or could or does result in mental, emotional or physical discomfort.”
Certainly it seems that this conduct was directed at a group based on color and race, and it definitely caused mental and emotional discomfort, so this certainly violates harassment standards. It also violates the Community Standards for hate crimes, which occur when someone “intentionally commits the act or acts constituting the offense in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color.” Undoubtedly, the perpetrator of this incident has broken Community Standards. But this does not mean that the perpetrator has broken any laws.
“At this moment,” said President Hurley, via e-mail, “we are in the process of retaining an outside investigator to review the results of the Public Safety investigation and to provide us with advice on whether additional steps should be taken with law enforcement agencies with respect to possible hate crimes[…] The investigator will be given free rein to look at all of the college’s records, videos, summaries of interviews and any other items that he may deem necessary. He will have access to witnesses if necessary. We will be guided by this review and I will communicate the results of the work as soon as they are available to us.”