At a Central Park rally and in a letter to the campus community last week, Chancellor Gary S. May drew a sharp distinction between freedom of speech and what he saw in the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia: provocation to violence.
May joined Mayor Robb Davis, Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, Rabbi Greg Wolfe and others at the Aug. 16 Unity Rally, organized by the Davis Phoenix Coalition to condemn neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other “alt-right” factions for the hate they spewed in Charlottesville the weekend before.
With his acceptance of the Davis Phoenix Coalition’s invitation to address the Unity Rally, May found himself in Davis’ “town square” addressing an audience of some 300 people after just two weeks as chancellor.
“I have spent the past several days reflecting on what the tragic events in Charlottesville mean for UC Davis,” May said. “The images of an armed, angry mob marching with torchlights across a college campus and chanting racist slogans were infuriating and frightening.”
The march took place Aug. 11 at the University of Virginia, which adjoins Charlottesville. The next day, as the rally continued in the city limits, a car slammed into a group of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring many others, in what authorities have described as domestic terrorism.
“It wasn’t the actions of ‘many sides’ that led to the deaths of a counterprotester and two state police officers (in a helicopter crash),” Chancellor May wrote in his Aug. 17 letter. “There was only one side that provoked the hate-fueled violence –– those who organized the racially charged rally and the sympathizers who joined them.”
‘What if they come to our town?’
Mayor Davis responded to a question he said people have been asking him: “What if they come to our town, Robb? What if they come to our town? We’re not that different from Charlottesville. What if they come to our town?
“I know it’s not popular, but I would beg you, I would beg you to get together in small groups (and have) discussion in your communities (on) how we are going to confront these people nonviolently. I know that is not popular at this time. But if they come here, we will confront them, we will do it without violence, and we will show them the kind of community we are.”
Chancellor May said the “terrorizing display of racism and hate” in Charlottesville has raised questions about limits on freedom of expression. “College campuses have always been –– and should continue to be –– a forum for wide-open debate and discussion. However, there is an unmistakable difference between protected and prohibited speech.
“Incitement to violence is not speech. Terrorism is not dialogue. Freedom of speech is about new ideas, not old hate.
“I am a strong advocate for free speech, but as chancellor of this university my paramount concern is for the safety of our students, staff and faculty. I assure you that UC Davis has policies and procedures in place for managing events that have any likelihood of provoking violence.
“We cannot allow our institutions of higher learning to become centers for ideologies repugnant to everything our nation stands for. In times like these, I am inspired by a favored saying of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’
“Intolerance will not win.”
‘Claiming Heather Heyer’
Andy Jones, a lecturer in the University Writing Program, addressed the rally in his capacity as the poet laureate of Davis, reciting a poem he had written for the occasion.
He titled his work, “Claiming Heather Heyer” — the counterprotester who died in Charlottesville. The “claiming” reference, his poem would explain, harkens to Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the American Revolution.
“African Americans claim him for their own. Native Americans claim him as their own. American revolutionaries claimed him. In Illinois, and New York and Indiana, schools named after him. American schoolchildren today learn about Crispus Attucks and draw pictures of his final moments.”
On the day Heyer was laid to rest, Jones continued, “Let us claim her for those who study history, who recognize injustice, who recognize racial and religious bigotry, and who resist. … Let us claim her for those who are told to keep quiet and who persist. Let us claim her for those who stand up and will not stand aside.
“Let’s stand like those who stood with Heather on Saturday and be unified. Let us remember her message of outrage and resistance and let it be amplified. Let her name be heard in every college quad, public park and mountainside. Join me in claiming Heather Heyer as one of our own.”