Since the death of George Floyd, people across the country have protested enmasse for Black lives. Protesting is inherently disruptive to demand attention to issues of racial injustice and inequality which have perpetuated for hundreds of years.
The office of student affairs proposed the creation of the First Amendment Support Team (FAST) on Aug. 28 in a letter titled “Responding to Campus Protests,” which would consist of a group of students, faculty and staff who would call on University Police Officers or the Vice President for Student Affairs Office staff if a protest on campus was causing “imminent danger.”
Black Lives Matter at School at New Paltz (BLM@S), a collective whose purpose is to “provoke critical reflection, discussion and action regarding issues of racism on our campus and society at large,” created a petition to suspend FAST, a goal which was achieved when FAST was temporarily suspended on Sept. 15.
On Aug. 28, SUNY New Paltz also updated its protesting guidelines and prohibited protesting indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic and asked that protestors social distance. The letter, penned by Stephanie Blaisdell, vice president for Student Affairs and organizer behind FAST, can be found here.
The letter also asks that anyone planning a protest meet with the assistant director of community and civic engagement, Erica Wagner, to review protest guidelines. In the past, students would meet with UPD or the Police Chief and establish rules for when and where protests are allowed to happen.
“[Regarding a protest at the pregnancy center in New Paltz] Student Activities wanted to tell students who were planning on protesting that you have to stay on the sidewalk, because if you went into the road, that’s a parade, and you have to have a permit to have a parade,” Wagner said during a phone interview. “If they walked into the parking lot of the pregnancy center, that is private property, and they can call the police to have you arrested for trespassing. We want to make sure that you can have your voice heard.”
FAST would take the role of advising students about the best times and places to protest, and would deploy FAST volunteers to every student-led protest.
“We understand that not all students feel comfortable working with UPD and that there are many instances where an unarmed volunteer could help monitor a demonstration in a way that helped protesters feel safer,” Blaisdell said. “We implemented the First Amendment Support Team to achieve these goals.”
However, FAST would still create many situations in which UPD would be required to be called on. One being “Problematically Disruptive Protests,” which could include disruptions in normal campus operations, threats of harm, extreme loudness, obstruction of access to and from buildings or protestors entering private offices or closed buildings. UPD would also be called on when there is a threat of violence at an on-campus protest.
On Sept. 1, FAST recruited students, faculty and staff to join as volunteers who would be trained on how to support students relating to protests and demonstrations.
“FAST members will be provided training on free speech rights and restrictions, de-escalating protests that are not complying with campus policy or when to determine when a protest becomes disruptive or dangerous where they can refer it up to University Police,” the FAST recruitment email read. “Consistent with our role as a public university and before agreeing to serve at a particular event, FAST members must assess their capability to remain neutral and restrain themselves from being active participants in any protest/demonstration gatherings.”
The Black Studies department was not involved or consulted in the creation of the FAST, and was only included during the recruitment process, according to Wagner and other sources.
“We later found out that two UPD members in plain clothes would be part of the four member [comprised of students, UPD, teachers and faculty] FAST for any event,” BLM@S founding member and lecturer in the Black Studies department Anthony Dandridge wrote in an email.
BLM@S spoke out against FAST with a petition and a letter signed by faculty, staff, community members and students.
“FAST is being branded as ‘anti-racist’ and an extension of the college’s commitment to becoming an anti-racist campus. We write to express our firm belief that this is not — and cannot be — an anti-racist initiative,” the response to FAST by BLM@S read. “We have deep concerns that the formation, selection process, purpose and implementation of FAST will uphold white supremacy, white patriarchal paternalism and white fragility on the SUNY New Paltz campus.”
BLM@S listed their multiple concerns with FAST’s guidelines against disruptive protests. “BLM@S acknowledges the power of protest to disrupt laws, regulations and norms that are unjust and inequitable,” BLM@S wrote in their response.
“I do not think that the disruption of laws, regulations, and norms are an inherent aspect of protests,” Dandridge wrote in an email. “Yet no form of protest should be limited by laws, regulations or norms that maintain ways of ordering the world which are inherently unjust.”
“They are unjust in that they are in conflict with our moral obligations to one another as human beings. The chant ‘No Justice, No peace’ is rooted in knowing that justice in its best form is related to truth-telling and social harmony,” the email continued. “A significant truth is that as humans we have obligations to one another, in a way that when some people are not free, none of us are free. Our students’ struggle is a struggle for peace, and systems which do not recognize that as a mutually beneficial priority are, by default, violent.”
The group pointed out that it is impossible to be content-neutral and be an agent for the school, and that de-escalation techniques are simply another route to contact University Police. They believe FAST essentially strips volunteers of their first amendment rights and perpetuates the use of UPD under the guise of an anti-racist initiative.
“Silence about these violations is complicity. Complicity so often denied by ideas, individuals and institutions that impose unjustified harm as they boldly and systematically distribute benefits and burdens. These veils of injustice must be revealed and removed for in the end, healing happens when we see ourselves in the faces of the other,” Dandridge continued in his email.
BLM@S stated that anti-racist protocols should consult with Black members of the campus community and if they do not, those protocols support white supremacy, lack of transparency and white fragility. Their petition called for FAST to be suspended, Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) to have input on anti-racist campus plans and funds to be allocated to anti-racist efforts from UPD to benefit BIPOC students.
“In hindsight, we could have done a better job of consulting the campus community more broadly to help further our positive intentions and lessen the unintended impact,” President Donald P. Christian wrote in a letter responding to BLM@S on Sept. 15. “We are suspending the FAST initiative until we are able to speak with you and better understand possible common ground in providing such a resource to protect those who wish to exercise their free speech rights.”