'Disgusted' NU president condemns anti-police protesters who burned banner outside his house, vandalized campus

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Two tarps cover the bases of the iconic Weber Arch at Northwestern University on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Evanston, Illinois, after it was vandalized by anti-police protesters. - Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — A group of Northwestern University students urging the school to cut ties with local and campus police departments is now calling on President Morton Schapiro to resign after a protest outside his home this weekend prompted him to rebuke the movement and characterize its recent actions as violent.

In a letter sent to the Northwestern community Monday, Schapiro said he condemned the protesters who have menaced residents by blocking streets, vandalizing campus property and lighting fires. The student newspaper reported that protesters spray-painted local businesses, smashed a grocery store window and burned a school banner in front of Schapiro’s house.

The iconic Arch gateway on campus has also been vandalized, with “more dead pigs” and “abolish (police)” scrawled in red spray paint on its stone base, which has since been wrapped in tarps.

Schapiro, who’s led the private university in Evanston since 2009, wrote that protesters chanted profanities, calling him “piggy Morty,” when they gathered outside his home late Saturday. He suggested the reference to pigs bordered on anti-Semitism since he’s an observant Jew — calling the language “completely unacceptable” — and questioned whether outside agitators had joined the student group.

“To those protesters and their supporters who justify such actions, I ask you to take a long hard look in the mirror and realize that this isn’t actually ‘speaking truth to power’ or furthering your cause,” Schapiro wrote. “It is an abomination and you should be ashamed of yourselves. … I am disgusted by those who chose to disgrace this University in such a fashion.”

Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty released a statement Tuesday saying he supports the right for people to protest but also strongly condemned demonstrators who deface or destroy property.

The group NU Community Not Cops rejected Schapiro’s message and instead demanded he step down, saying he’s failed to engage with students about the problem of racial injustice behind the protests.

LaTesha Harris, a recent NU alumna involved in the group, said Schapiro’s response seeks to de-legitimize the concerns of Black students and shows a lack of empathy.

“It’s really disheartening to see that Northwestern only is responding to our campaign now because we’re acting ‘destructive,’” said Harris, 22. “Morty has been silent on this matter for so long. We were shocked to receive that email yesterday,” which she described as vitriolic.

Harris said NUCNC has held marches, protests, sit-ins and other events since its founding in June that did not involve property damage. After months of feeling ignored, members of the group spontaneously expressed themselves with graffiti and vandalism, though that was not planned. Before every action, the group instructs members not to interact with police or harm others, she said.

“People who show up to our actions — if they’re feeling frustrated and they’re feeling angry and they decide that the way they want to take it out is by doing vandalism or graffiti or burning something, that’s up to them,” Harris said. “We’re not here to police anyone. We’re here to honestly cause a disruption and get on the Northwestern University’s radar, and it’s frustrating that the only way to do that, as we’ve seen, is for these ‘violent’ things to happen.”

NUCNC created a petition in June that asked NU to end contracts with the Evanston and Chicago police departments and to disband the Northwestern University Police Department. Though the group contends such decisions would improve emotional and physical security for Black students, it was dissatisfied with the response from Schapiro’s administration.

In an online statement, NUCNC also took issue with Schapiro’s description of the protests, comparing the scenario to the “terror Black families face amid the real threat of being killed in their homes.”

“Black people are not safe anywhere in a world with police, including in their homes, a reality that Black students at Northwestern also contend with,” the statement said. “As a wealthy white man, Morton Schapiro knows that he holds an immense amount of privilege that those facing impending threats of ‘personal attacks’ do not, as he mobilized the police to do what they are meant to do — protect white property and white lives.”

While the statement apologized to Jewish community members who might have been harmed by the campaign’s language, the students said the word “pig” was used to refer to the “structural violence that police officers present,” and not as a nod to pejoratives used in “some European countries in the 14th century” to describe Jews. The group said it condemns anti-Semitism and violence against any persecuted group.

But it did not express regret for the property damage mentioned by Schapiro. NUCNC said the burning of the banner amounted to symbolic free speech and that its tactics did not hurt anyone. The banner was removed from campus and shaped like a face mask and said “We’re N This Together,” the school newspaper reported.

“How can we ‘peacefully’ advocate when you don’t even attend our meetings?” the NUCNC statement said. “Who is bodily harmed by vandalism? Why do you assign higher value to property than to the needs of the Black community at Northwestern and in Evanston?”

The heated campus discourse emerges after a summer that saw protests and marches in scores of cities, sparked by the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Some city leaders, including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, were criticized for painting the actions with a broad stroke and calling the demonstrations violent even though many were peacefully organized. At night, after a Chicago curfew kicked in, looting and property damage occurred downtown and in some neighborhoods.

At Northwestern — although the number of students on campus is relatively small compared to pre-pandemic norms — students have led regular protests of police in recent days, and organizers say they intend to continue.

One afternoon last week, about 200 students blocked the intersection of Green Bay Road, Ridge Avenue and Emerson Street — one of Evanston’s busiest, police Cmdr. Brian Henry said.

On Saturday night, students protested with a march that stretched into the early morning, Henry said, with demonstrations including trash can fires and spray paint graffiti on buildings off campus.

Harris, the NU grad affiliated with NU Community Not Cops, said the group’s actions are primarily planned by graduate and undergraduate students, the events are open to anyone, Harris said. The group is aiming to host one action every day for a month, the details of which are posted on social media.

Harris said her group wants to talk with Schapiro directly and has been asking to review the campus police budget. That money, she said, should be spent in other ways to support Black students and campus life.

Schapiro, for his part, maintains that he’s participated in campus discourse about policing and racial justice. He said that university provosts, deans and administrators have held “numerous” discussions with concerned students, faculty and staff. Schapiro said he will appear virtually in a “community dialogue” Tuesday evening, but registration for the Zoom event is capped.

“We, as a University, recognize the many injustices faced by Black and other marginalized groups,” his message said. “We also acknowledge that the policing and criminal justice system in our country is too often stacked against those same communities.”

Still, Schapiro shut down the conversation about disbanding the campus police department, writing he has “absolutely no intention to abolish it,” though improvements can be made.

Protesters were back in front of his home Monday evening without incident, according to Evanston city officials and police. About 300 to 400 people were present but they remained on public property, Henry said.

“We were prepared. We have been gathering intelligence each day as to what their plans are. We made sure we had adequate staffing to ensure that private property and things of that nature were secure and safe,” Henry said.

Hagerty said in his statement that he strongly supports “the right of all individuals to protest peacefully and safely in Evanston.

“I have no tolerance, however, for the destruction or defacement of public or private property,” the mayor’s statement continued. “Any protester who partakes in vandalism or worse is not helping Black Lives in Evanston, and is only serving to set back the cause. I expect all protestors to respect the rights of their fellow citizens and follow the law. Those who do not will be held accountable.”

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