After email controversy, Smith President Kathleen McCartney leads campus vigil over police killings of blacks

Tuesday, December 09, 2014
NORTHAMPTON ­— Smith College President Kathleen McCartney led a vigil attended by 130 people Monday afternoon three days after she apologized for her original wording in an email she sent to the campus community in reaction to the recent police killings of three blacks.

McCartney sent two emails Friday, which were obtained by the Gazette from a Smith faculty member. The first, with a subject line reading “All Lives Matter,” was sent by McCartney to Smith students, faculty and staff with a list of actions that would taken on campus to heal those in pain, to “teach, learn and share what we know” and to “work for equity and justice.”

Smith College president's Dec. 2 emails

Nearly six hours later Friday evening, McCartney sent a second email expressing regret that she was unaware the phrase “all lives mater” was used by some on social media as a counter to the “#BlackLivesMatter” movement protesting the grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

In the first email, McCartney described the deaths of Brown and Garner as resulting from “excessive force” by police. She added that the video of Garner’s death “spoke for itself—or should have.”

She continued by explaining that she had been listening to the discouragement, fury and sorrow of students at Smith. “We are united in our insistence that all lives matter,” McCartney closed the email.

In her follow-up email, McCartney said that numerous students had contacted her objecting to her use of the phrase “all lives matter.” She cited two students’ emails, including one that explained that while all lives matter, it is not the value of all lives that is being called into question, it is specifically black lives.

“It minimizes the anti-blackness of this the current situation; yes, all lives matter, but not all lives are being targeted for police brutality,” wrote another student.

McCartney closed her email acknowledging her mistakes, “despite my best intentions,” and thanking those who shared their “wisdom and wise counsel” with her.

There have been numerous protests and rallies in the Valley and across the country since the Nov. 24 announcement that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who fatally shot unarmed Michael Brown, 18, on Aug. 9. Last Wednesday, a grand jury decided not to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the July 17 death of Eric Garner, 43. Garner was arrested for selling untaxed, loose cigarettes and later died after being restrained in a chokehold by Pantaleo. In a third case on Nov. 22, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun when he was shot by a Cleveland police officer in a city park.

The vigil on the lawn of Chapin House at 4:30 p.m. Monday was one of two responses by the Smith community announced Friday by McCartney. Also listed was praying in memory of Brown, Garner and Rice at the annual Christmas Vespers, at 4 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at John M. Greene Hall.

At 4 p.m. Sunday, a group of about 50 students marched from the Campus Center to John M. Greene Hall, blocking traffic on Elm Street, chanting slogans such as “Hey, hey, ho, ho these racist cops have got to go,” and holding signs including “Black lives matter” and “No Happy Holidays.”

The 130 people at Monday’s vigil, which was planned last week by McCartney and Dean of the College Donna Lisker gathered in a circle and held hands. McCartney invited anyone who wanted to speak to do so. One student announced a service planned at the Helen Hills Hills Chapel at noon Wednesday, and another told the group the college is providing three buses to the Millions March, another protest against racial inequality, Saturday in New York City.

McCartney then suggested that the group remain holding hands “for about 10 minutes.”

Two students who attended the vigil, sophomores Cecelia Lim and Maureen Leonard, agreed that McCartney was right to apologize after her original email.

“It felt like she was invalidating the experience of black lives,” Lim said.

A third student at the vigil, sophomore math major Maria Lopez, said McCartney’s first email was poorly received on campus.

“A lot of my news feed was negative remarks about her as a person,” she said, referring to students’ reaction on social media. Lopez added that McCartney, whom she called “President Kathy,” is generally well-liked among students.

“She acknowledged her mistake,” Lopez said.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.