University of Massachusetts students who were targets of racist graffiti speak out



Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2014

AMHERST — Jonathan Romero, a senior living in Washington Tower at the University of Massachusetts, was stunned when he returned to his room Wednesday afternoon to pick up his phone charger and saw the words “Kill these Mexicans can’t even speak English” scrawled on his door.

Romero, a Honduran, said he knew two similar messages targeting black students had been found on dorm doors in high-rise dormitories in the Southwest residential area, previously, one on Monday. “I just said ‘wow, this is stupid,’ ” he said in an interview shortly after his discovery.

But still, he felt afraid.

“I’m not Mexican, but it says kill them,” he said. “Whoever did this knows where I am. I don’t feel safe.”

Romero said the message was written between 1:10 p.m., when he left for class, and 1:25 p.m. when he returned to get the charger he had forgotten. Romero, who is a resident assistant in the dormitory, said he followed the university protocol for responding to such an incident. He covered the graffiti with a sheet of paper and then called UMass police and his resident director. But then he wanted to get to class.

He talked to the Gazette on his way back from that class as he was headed to his dorm to meet with his resident director.

“He called me five minutes ago and said I need to talk to you to make sure you’re OK,” Romero said.

UMass officials have confirmed reports of three racist messages that students have described, though due to privacy laws, they won’t be more specific than to say that they were found in the Southwest residential area.

Joshua Odam, a sophomore, who is secretary for diversity of the Student Government Association, confirmed that he found a racist note on his door Monday in Coolidge Tower, but declined to discuss details.

Romero said a third note was discovered sometime within the past week on a dormitory door at John Quincy Adams tower. Images of two dormitory doors bearing the words “Kill These N------!!” were tweeted by UMass students before Romero found his threat.

He said while the wording in all three cases was similar, he noted the handwriting in the note on his door was different from the others, leading him to believe that more than one person is involved.

“I’m assuming it’s a group of students doing this,” he said.

Larger issue

Enku Gelaye, vice chancellor of student affairs and campus life, said UMass police are investigating the incidents and that support staff is working with the students involved, and the residents of the dormitories, to ensure their safety, as well as to get to the bottom of the racists acts.

“We’re disgusted and appalled,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “This is not the experience we want for our students. It’s not who we are as a community.”

Odam said he has consulted with a lawyer, who advised him not to talk to the press, but he has written an opinion piece expected to appear Thursday in the campus newspaper The Collegian. He declined to elaborate on its contents ahead of time.

“What I will say is that these matters are very troubling and they definitely shine a light on a larger societal issue,” he said. “People have this deluded idea that somehow we are in a post-racial society.”

Odam spoke at a rally on campus earlier this month protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri.

While he would not discuss the measures the university is taking to protect him, he said he has many supporters on campus.

“Procedures are in place from the community,” he said. “We have systems in place. We have meetings in place to ensure that those who perpetrated these heinous crimes are held accountable. Measures will be taken to protect ourselves in the future.”

He declined to be more specific, but said he planned to take part in a town hall meeting on diversity, equity and inclusion Thursday afternoon arranged by the university’s Diversity Strategic Planning Steering Committee.

“We will make our voices heard so that the administration will take these issues seriously,” he said.

Assistance available

Vinayak Rao, president of the Student Government Association, called the violent messages “terrifying. As a student of color, it made me very, very sad that it happened,” he said.

Once it is clear to him that the students directly affected by the hostility want to be identified, he will reach out to them.

The student government, he said, “will offer them any service to the best of our ability.”

In the meantime, he said, he has consulted with administrators and is confident that they are vigorously addressing the incidents.

“They are doing everything in their power to find out who did this and bring them to justice and to help whoever was impacted by these mindless act of racism and hate.”

Gelaye said as police investigate the incidents, officials are also working with the affected students on a case-by-case basis to provide help. She said that can mean a range of measures, from a temporary stay in the Campus Center Hotel, to a permanent change of residence, to a protective escort.

“Our primary focus is that anyone who feels targeted has the resources and the support of the university,” she said. “This behavior is intended to isolate. This behavior is intended to demoralize. That is very, very concerning to us as a university community.”

Romero, Odam and Rao all said they have never experienced such racist attacks at UMass.

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Romero said. “I’ve been here four years and this is the first time I’ve had to deal with a situation like this.”

Later Wednesday, several hours after discovering the graffiti, Romero told the Gazette he was offered support services and an offer to stay in the Campus Center Hotel by university officials but he turned it down. He was about to go out to dinner with a friend in the early evening. “I think I’m fine,” he said.

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@Gazettenet.com.


 


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