Stabbings, knife fights, and posters like those found across our nation that read “It’s okay to be white” left on the MLK statue: Cabrillo appears to be aligned with a country in turmoil, and students from all walks of life are looking for ways to feel safe. The office of student equity arranged a vigil after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, but the nation’s tragedies continued to pile up, and suddenly Cabrillo was experiencing its own when student Asha Allott was stabbed on campus.
So in a country where one group can’t stand a conversation that mentions white privilege and another group feels threatened by the concept of white pride, people are wondering how to start the discussion about safety when that topic is fundamentally tied up with people’s identity.
“It’s a question of how to get people to come to uncomfortable spaces,” said Kenna Lindsay, 23, a student equity fellow, who is working to try and create a sense of community among a diverse campus that doesn’t always agree on what that looks like.
When 49-year-old Steve Wooding came onto campus with a knife he wasn’t motivated by racial disenfranchisement. He had been institutionalized for years after his last violent incident on campus. Wooding’s release had nothing to do with his actual mental stability and everything to do with the time on his sentence being served.
Numerous students that were reluctant to share their name for a quote voiced concerns about the attacks taking place across our country. Regardless of motivation, the outcome amounts to the same: tragedy, and trauma. And the issue of safety on campus is one that the administration is still grappling with after the stabbing.
Rad Altwal, 44, the manager of the cafeteria for the last three and a half years, was the man who first charged over to help restrain the alleged stabber. David Kamoss, an instructor in the medical assisting department and a student in the radiology technician department, assisted.
“We’re the adults,” said Altwal. “We’re supposed to take care of that stuff,” said Altwal, a veteran of the Palestinian military. He reacted automatically even though he says he had never been in a situation like that. He knew that protocol was to run the other way, but he had a sense of responsibility for the students that he serves.
Many are grateful to Altwal, but many of those grateful people who have been reluctant to give their name have been asking, “What if it had been a gun instead of a knife?” And, “Why wasn’t the student body alerted to this threat?” An email to the student body offered two conflicting notions coupled with an apology.
“Campus culture is kind of shook right now.”
– Kenna Lindsay
The campus obtained a restraining order that a judge would never have granted without a reasonable understanding that there was a potential threat – and at the same time the administration claims to have had no idea anything like this could possibly happen. Rectifying those two conflicting notions is difficult for students and staff alike.
“It’s getting me to rethink our protocols and how we go about the procedure of letting people know about restraining orders,” said President Wetstein. “We can second-guess ourselves too much. But I’m very conscious that I made a mistake.”
“Campus culture is kind of shook right now,” said Lindsay. “Students are not really sure what’s going on and I think that it’s important for the office of equity and for the entire administration to make sure that they feel comfortable and that they feel seen and heard.” After the posters were found on the statue of MLK, the office of equity is keenly aware that something needs to be done. But what needs to be done, and how can it be initiated?
“I have to be honest that I have some fear in my heart,” said Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El, neighboring the Aptos campus. “But this fear is not going to stop me. And this fear is not going to stop us.” Marcus spoke, sung and played her guitar to the emotional crowd of people gathered in the quad for the Pittsburgh vigil.
She wondered how, instead of dealing with the issues that inspired the shooters to arm up in the first place, the leader of this country blames the victims at the synagogue shooting, the media that received pipe bombs, and the two African American people who were killed in Kentucky by saying they, or someone nearby, should have been armed and ready to protect.
“I think a lot of times, especially on college campuses, it’s really easy for us to tell students that they are supported and they have networks and places to go,” said Solange Marcotte, 20, a student and a Quaker. “And that’s not enough; it’s too invisible.” She attended the vigil because she felt it was her responsibility to show support to the Jewish population on campus.
“There is support for everyone, and it is important to seek out that support because it does help,” said Elena Castro. As a 23-year-old student and member of the Jewish community, she went to the vigil because she wasn’t feeling safe after the shooting in Pittsburgh. Then she was on campus when Allott was stabbed.
“It feels more real because it’s closer to home. Before (the stabbing) it was easy to think it couldn’t happen,” said Castro.
There is still the uncomfortable question that has everything to do with safety, but is hard to pose in a way that won’t offend one group or the other: How can there be a dialogue between white people who are feeling newly discriminated against and people of color who have always felt that way?
“You’re just sitting there having your identity questioned.”
– Kenna Lindsay
Some say by avoiding the topic, the people wrapped up in these feelings are driven into the shadows where desperate actions begin to look like the only option. Posting signs on the statue might seem like no big deal to some, but it is an indication of intent to others.
“They’re feeling attacked, or misrepresented, or unsupported,” said Lindsay as she reflected on what she thinks could be some motivating factors for the gun violence in bars, places of worship, campuses, theaters, and on and on. And while all of those feelings are not destined to manifest as fear and aggression, the campus isn’t waiting to find out if it will.
“One of the expectations is that if you are part of an underrepresented community you always have to be ready to educate others or defend yourself and your identity,” said Lindsay. “You’re just sitting there having your identity questioned.” And though she has elected to work in a position that deals with that directly, “Not everyone can be in those education positions, those activist positions, because it’s really emotionally draining and not everyone has the emotional resources to do that,” said Lindsay.
That is where the student body comes in. The office of equity counts on the input of the students to steer them toward finding the answers to these harder questions about our social experience and ultimately our safety on campus. How is preaching to the choir going to help mitigate a threat from people that aren’t alike? How can that demographic be motivated to attend a meeting that is focused on hearing their concerns as well as getting them to get into the uncomfortable space where they can self critique?
Is our goal, as Marcus said, “A world where all people stand together for justice and for peace, a world of safety and respect for trans people and people of color, and differently abled people and immigrants and Muslims and on and on – all people,”?