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Gonzaga releases statement of solidarity after Black Student Union members harassed at meeting Sunday

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 9, 2020

Members of the Black Student Union at Gonzaga University are reeling after anonymous people joined their Zoom meeting Sunday to spew racial slurs in what the university called a “hate crime.”

Gonzaga senior Malcolm Duncan has been a member of the Black Student Union since he was a freshman. He was presenting Sunday on the presidential election that was called for Joe Biden .

The group had decided to talk about the election during a Zoom call.

“We don’t have anywhere else to feel comfortable and to feel safe to say those types of things because when we’re outside in the community sometimes we don’t know if we can say how we feel because we might be met with backlash,” Duncan said. “It’s a place we can meet with people who look and sound like us, sometimes it can feel like no one feels how we feel.”

The Black Student Union at Gonzaga has about 30 members. During the COVID-19 pandemic, about 10 people regularly attend virtual meetings and events, Duncan said. Sunday’s meeting was posted on the group’s Instagram and “Zagtivities” page, where university organizations often post information about upcoming meetings or event.

Duncan was finishing his presentation when three new people joined the Zoom call. They were muted and had their cameras off. Duncan paused and asked the new people to turn on their cameras and introduce themselves before joining in on the discussion.

Duncan recalled that’s when one person unmuted and said, “I’m sad today. I voted for President Trump and he lost, so I’m going to kill the next president of the United States.”

Chaos erupted, Duncan said. The man began using racial and homophobic slurs, then a more traditional “Zoom-bombing” began where pornographic and violent images began to appear on screen rapidly.

Zoom-bombing has become a problem as people turn to teleconferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI recommends making meetings private and not sharing Zoom links publicly as some ways to prevent hijacking.

Duncan said the action taken Sunday by these anonymous individuals felt premeditated to their organization. He even suspects the perpetrators could be Gonzaga students.

“It was a lot and it was all in 90 seconds,” Duncan said. “I didn’t know what to do in that moment. I was confused, shocked.”

One of the perpetrators picked up on Duncan’s nervous tick of playing with his hair and berated him.

“It just made me even feel smaller because that’s just a nervous little habit,” Duncan said. “It was just really belittling.”

The organization immediately contacted Gonzaga University administrators who not only responded privately to group leaders but released a statement Sunday night that called the incident a “hate crime.”

“We are sickened and angered by this act of hatred against our students, and consider this act to be a violation of both our community standards and an inappropriate attack on our university community,” the statement, signed by university president Thayne McCulloh and other administrators, reads.

The statement adds that if the perpetrators are found to be part of the Gonzaga community, they will face “severe” consequences. The university’s Information Technology Services Department is working with external forensic experts to investigate the incident. The incident also can be reported to the Bias Incident Assessment Support Team, which collects reports on bias incidents and hate crimes.

University officials said that while they are committed to free expression of multiple viewpoints, that does not protect harassment or expressions of bias or hate based on social identity.

“We are deeply frustrated by, and sorry for, the hurt and harm this incident has caused and unequivocally condemn this disgusting and dehumanizing behavior, which is absolutely contrary to our values and intolerable to us at Gonzaga University,” the statement reads.

Duncan said he personally is happy with the university’s response, which showed “no tolerance of racism.” Members of the BSU have said they would like the university to expel the perpetrators if they turn out to be students.

Duncan said they are also considering reporting the incident to local law enforcement.

Red Kwenda, a freshman at Gonzaga studying music and computer science, initially intended to join the BSU as a biracial man but he got too busy this semester.

Seeing the incident and Sunday’s meeting, Kwenda said he was “horrified.”

“As a student of color, it’s scary,” Kwenda said. “You think that this is Washington. This is a liberal state so things should be better here but you see this happen and you think that can happen anywhere.”

Recent Gonzaga graduate and former Black Student Union Vice President Todd Oblior said this is the most severe hate incident the group has ever had.

“It was deliberate that they were going to a space for Black students that were already marginalized on a mostly white campus,” Obilor said.

During the fall semester while the Black Lives Matter movement has seen a national resurgence and the presidential election was intensifying, Duncan said the student union has been seeing increased requests for input and collaboration from not only the university but from other campus groups.

After Sunday’s incident, Duncan said he has been overwhelmed by the positivity and support shown to the group.

“I’ve never experienced this outpouring of love that’s happening right now,” Duncan said.

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