Minneapolis, MN – Since the University of Minnesota (UMN) Twin Cities’ 2016 Paint The Bridge event, one particular panel on the Washington Avenue bridge has sparked significant controversy.
The annual Paint The Bridge event is open to all student groups officially registered with the UMN. Student groups have two days in which to paint a mural on their designated panel(s); the panels line the interior of the pedestrian walkway and are highly visible to the thousands of daily passersby.
One student group, College Republicans, chose to devote an entire panel to the phrase “Build the Wall” with an accompanying illustration of a tall, gray brick wall.
On Friday, September 30, Navigate MN published the above photo of the mural to their Facebook page. Navigate MN a grassroots organization focused on leadership development for immigrant young adults in Minnesota. The group specifically cautioned Mexican, undocumented, and immigrant students to be alert, saying “[the mural] echoes the anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant racist rhetoric that has instigated violence across the nation.”
Within 24 hours of the mural’s completion, multiple tags had appeared on the panel, as well as on the adjacent panel which advertised the 2016 Trump/Pence candidacy.Over these two panels, the words “Stop White Supremacy” had been spray-painted in black and gold.
On Saturday, October 1, Navigate MN organized a protest against the mural, in collaboration with La Raza Student Cultural Center. The protest was dubbed “Love Trumps Hate.”
In addition to the Love Trumps Hate protest, October 1st was also the date of publication of multiple statements responding to the controversial panel and its subsequent redecoration.
The President of the UMN, Eric Kaler, published a statement on October 1 in which he expressed that the “Build the Wall” phrase was to be honored as “free, protected speech,” and suggested that those who found the mural “distasteful or offensive” simply “engage in more protected speech.”
The president of UMN College Republicans Madison Faupel also published a statement about the alterations to the panel, thanking President Kaler for his “support of [their] freedom of speech.” On behalf of the group, Faupel stated it was “highly disturbing” that such a “simple statement” was defaced.
Faupel, in her “cordial” statement claimed UMN College Republicans have been falsely accused of racism, xenophobia, and adhering to anti-immigrant sentiment. She also pointed out several DFL politicians who had also in past times voiced support for a US-Mexico border wall; it is worth noting that none of this year’s bridge panels was devoted to those politicians’ pro-wall statements.
The GDC piece contrasted the College Republicans’ portrayal of themselves as “not racist”, with a 2012 photo of their president smiling beside a white student apparently in blackface:
The original photo, previously available in an album of Faupel’s Facebook profile pictures, has since been deleted.
Also on October 1st, the UMN Department of Chicano and Latino Studies published a statement condemning the panel as anti-immigrant and anti-Latinx. The statement called out President Kaler for his dismissal of an incendiary and inherently violent slogan, and was published in solidarity with ten other groups and official UMN departments.
“The university’s response fails to recognize the inherent violence within this slogan. … The university should ensure that the campus is a safe and welcoming place for Latinx students, faculty, and staff.”
— UMN Department of Chicano Studies
On Monday, October 3, UMN faculty member Dr. Jigna Desai published a statement (link to Facebook) that was shared on the page of the UMN Department of Asian American Studies.
“In stating its support for racist rhetoric in public spaces without any actions to counter the climate, the University has failed in its responsibilities to uphold values other than free speech.”
— Dr. Jigna Desai, Professor at UMN
President Kaler released another statement on Wednesday, October 5th, in which he claimed that “a welcoming campus climate is a high and longstanding priority of [his].” He invited the Twin Cities campus community to engage in a “meaningful conversation” at an October 6th event that had been scheduled a month prior.
While there have been many decrying the defacement as alleged impingement upon the constitutional right to freedom of speech, these comments are countered with the text of the First Amendment itself. Only the state, not individuals, has the ability to abridge constitutional rights.
In response to what many perceive as the campus’ allowance of open racism, on Friday, October 7, the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies, in cooperation with the Institute of Advanced Studies, hosted a teach-in on “Build the Wall” at Northrup Hall on the UMN Minneapolis campus.
Participants were invited to attend “for an open dialogue on immigration, free speech, and the role of the university.”
The room was filled to capacity; some attendees leaned against the back wall while others sat on the floor.
The event began with an acknowledgement that the UMN exists on occupied Dakota land and a reminder of the power of individuals and of the community.
Dr. Bianet Castellanos briefly explained the reasons behind holding the teach-in, and the response by many departments to the oft-repeated phrase of “free speech.”
Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” was mentioned as a decades-old referent. It was suggested that Kaler, a leader at the University, has not reflected on his privilege as a white person, nor the historical context behind the “Build the Wall” statement, and that he must learn much more in order to truly understand how it affects the campus climate.
Two questions were put to the group, and attendees given five minutes to discuss:
- What would you like President Kaler to understand about how his leadership choices impacted you?
- What questions do you have?
In answer to the first question, many attendees expressed that it was not the panel itself that angered them, but rather the University’s official response to and defense of the panel. Some of the points that were made in response to Q1:
- The “Build the Wall” sentiment is racist, and showcases the ignorance of issues in the current political climate
- This is not an isolated incident of unequal enforcement of the values of liberalism, democracy, and free speech at the University; students expressing concerns about campus diversity at the UMN Regents meeting this past June, were arrested while engaging in “free speech,” students expressing racist statements are protected
- Official University emails sent to all students seem to imply that students’ mental health is only a concern in the classroom; Kaler’s statements of defense of “Build the Wall” indicate that a climate of bigotry and hatred is being cultivated on campus, which drastically affects students’ mental health
- As Kaler doesn’t understand free vs. hate speech, he has no authority to speak on behalf of the University
There were many responses to the second question, including:
- Who gets the privilege of free speech?
- What threats to funding exist in this moment to the UMN, one of the biggest universities in the U.S.?
- Why has Kaler neglected to respond to statements put out by numerous UMN Departments and faculty?
- What was the intention of the College Republicans in painting the mural?
In the discussion, one attendee noted that she was friends on Facebook with one of the College Republicans responsible for painting the mural. Once the group had finished their mural, they posted pictures online, where members of the group made comments betting how quickly it would be defaced.
This indicates the College Republicans knew “Build the Wall” was more than just a policy statement, and that the group had painted the mural with the intention of provoking community backlash. (The comment thread in question has reportedly since been deleted.)
It was also noted that a panel nearby the College Republicans panel, painted by Latinx-based fraternity Sigma Lambda Beta, read “Building Bridges, Not Walls”. (link to Facebook)
Another attendee, a faculty member in the UMN Department of History, noted that as of 10:00 a.m. President Kaler had responded to an email from their department. His reply, which included “I appreciate you reaching out to me, and I will take into account your perspective as together we continue to confront this critically important issue, and others like it as they arrive” was interpreted as a non-response by this faculty member. The Department of History is the only department who has thus far been responded to directly by Kaler.
A graduate student noted the rhetorical device of paralipsis in use by the administration during this controversy; discussing “Build the Wall” as a simple policy statement, and ignoring the context behind the statement (namely, racism and the criminalization of immigration) serves to dishonestly and falsely neutralize the issue.
The last fifteen minutes of the teach-in were spent brainstorming numerous suggestions for action. Attendees were encouraged to participate in the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) meeting on Tuesday, October 11, in Walter Mondale Hall Room 50. President Kaler will be in attendance at 5:30 at the MSA meeting.
To help our volunteer-operated, horizontally-organized, non-profit media collective please consider a tax-deductible donation: