Zero tolerance for intolerance
Students and administrators band together to stem recent spate of bias-related events
| 30 April 2003
For some students, Berkeley’s reputation as a place of tolerance and acceptance doesn’t quite match their reality. Take Nadia Yousef, a senior majoring in architecture. While she was walking down Telegraph Ave. with a group of fellow Muslim students, not long after the war in Iraq began, a man came up and screamed ethnic slurs at them.
“He was right in our faces, and he said such horrible things,” Yousef recalls. “Since then, several of my friends have changed the way they wear their hajabs [the traditional head scarf for Muslim women] to look more Western, or have quit wearing them altogether, because they don’t want to get harassed.”
Justin Wong, a junior majoring in interdisciplinary field studies who is facilitator of the campus’s student-run Queer Resource Center, recalls how a friend — who carried a backpack adorned with a rainbow sticker — was followed and verbally threatened as he walked home from class.
“And more recently, during the ASUC elections, a candidate’s campaign sign was defaced with anti-gay statements,” Wong says. “These incidents not only make us feel unsafe, but affect how we feel about ourselves. Some of us don’t want to have to hide who we are.”
Wong and Yousef are not alone in their experiences. Several hate-related incidents have occurred on and around campus in the past year, affecting various identity groups.
Last spring, Berkeley Hillel, a Jewish student center, was marked by anti-Jewish graffiti and had a brick thrown through one of its windows. On Christmas Eve, a swastika and Aryan Nation symbol were spraypainted on a sign in front of the African American Theme House cooperative. This year, just in the month of April, a Sikh student passing through the Eucalyptus Grove was physically attacked, a pro-Palestinian student was spat on during a demonstration, and anti-Muslim statements were scrawled on a wall outside the Recreational Sports Facility.
According to campus crime statistics, no hate crimes were reported in 2000 and 2001, while four were reported in 2002. But Wong, Yousef, and others guess that more are occurring, but aren’t being reported.
Dean of Students Karen Kenney has some ideas about why that might be so. “Some students may not report because they think that, in and of itself, what happened to them isn’t that big a deal, while others are fearful of going public,” she says. “There also may be a perception that the campus won’t be responsive.”
Indeed, a few students have criticized how the UC Police Department (UCPD) handled their complaints. Wong says that last November, upon reporting the theft of a Queer Resource Center banner hanging at the ASUC, and the receipt shortly thereafter of threatening e-mail and voice messages, the attending officer suggested the students “develop a thicker skin.”
Yousef says that when three Muslim women who were harassed while walking on Sproul Plaza went to UCPD to make a report, they were told that no one was around to assist them because all available officers were busy with an anti-war demonstration.
The problems went beyond UCPD, say students who came to believe that there was a lack of understanding and acknowledgment of these issues among the campus’s top administrators. They came to this conclusion in part because no strategic actions had been developed to deal with the rash of hate incidents.
Says Felicia Moore-Jordan, a junior political-science major and resident of the African American Theme House: “Several of us started asking ourselves, ‘What we can do to make sure students feel safe on and around campus?’”
A coalition, comprised of representatives from numerous identity groups — including Arab, Israeli, African American, Sikh, Muslim, and gay, among others — met with Horace Mitchell, Vice Chancellor – Business and Administrative Services, who oversees UCPD. A subsequent meeting included Kenney, Vice Chancellor – Undergraduate Affairs Genaro Padilla, and UCPD Chief Victoria Harrison. On March 19, a town-hall meeting attended by more than 100 students and numerous high-ranking campus administrators was held, followed by a meeting between students and Chancellor Robert Berdahl.
Out of these discussions, 15 recommendations for dealing with hate incidents were formulated, including: creating a campus Hate Crimes Task Force; inserting language into the Student Code of Conduct that deals specifically with bias-related incidents; incorporating information about hate acts into new-student orientations; organizing forums and courses to increase the understanding of cultural differences; and developing a set of “Principles of Community” for the campus. The task-force recommendation was quickly approved: As part of its charge, the group (currently being formed by the Chancellor) will research and, where feasible, implement the remaining recommendations, and develop new ones as needed.
Several of the recommendations involve UCPD, says Chief Harrison. These include extending the boundaries and hours of operation of the Owl shuttle bus and night-time-escort program, as well as printing a list of emergency numbers on the back of student ID cards. The students also suggested the printing of posters (similar to those UCPD produces to curb crime) that decry prejudice and promote tolerance. She will also work with her officers to ensure they respond to student concerns promptly and respectfully, she adds.
“I think in past situations we had officers whose intentions were good, but that didn’t come across,” she explains. “Instead of being supportive, they were unknowingly adding to an already bad situation.”
Her employees receive sensitivity training throughout their careers at UC, says Harrison. Within the first one or two years of their hire, she says, all staff, not just officers, must attend a “Tools for Tolerance” workshop sponsored by the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles.
“We want students to feel comfortable reporting anything that makes them feel threatened,” Harrison emphasizes. “Our department is committed to providing excellent service, and here to help in any way we can.”
Fostering a community that not only embraces but emphasizes the need for tolerance is a top goal for Chancellor Berdahl as well. “Everyone at Berkeley has the right to feel safe and comfortable as they go about their business,” he says. “I would remind those who would threaten that right that such behavior is not acceptable on our campus, and that, together, we will do everything in our power to prevent it from happening.”