Student Opinion Split on Homecoming Shirts
Issue   |   Wed, 11/14/2012 - 00:24
Photo by Jisoo Lee '13
Cat Bryars ’12 talks to other alumni outside of Johnson Chapel regarding the t-shirts and campus sexual assault issues.

A provocative t-shirt distributed at the Homecoming game to keep sexual assault at the forefront proved divisive and polarized the opinions of the student body.

The front of the shirt featured Lord Jeff gripping a broom in his right hand and lifting up a rug with his left, accompanied by the words “Amherst: Sweeping Sexual Assault Under the Rug since 1821.” The image mirrored the original Homecoming t-shirt, which depicts Lord Jeff spearing a piece of meat. The back read, ‘Silence has the rusty taste of shame. We will be silent no more. Demand zero tolerance for sexual violence now.’

The t-shirts were distributed outside Johnson Chapel following alumni’s Conversation with the President and outside the gates of Pratt Field during the Homecoming game. Organizers hoped to communicate directly with alumni the ways in which some students were dissatisfied with the College’s handling of sexual violence. An alumnus who wished to remain anonymous funded the printing of 1,000 t-shirts.

“Leading up to the weekend, many students expressed a desire to stop talking about sexual assault in order to relax and have fun,” said Catherine Bryars ’12, who designed the image on the front of the t-shirt. “[This] perpetuates a campus culture of forgetting serious matters in the interest of ‘comfort,’ ‘convenience’ or ‘appropriateness.’ We decided to take a visible stance to make sure that the reality and pervasiveness of sexual assault not be invisibilized this weekend.”

A petition was circulated along with the shirts at the Homecoming game. It included the following demands: approval of sexual assault policy and procedure by the student body; the hiring of at least three trained sexual assault counselors and a part-time lawyer; expansion of the Women’s Center; replacement of students and faculty by permanent, trained staff members on the disciplinary hearing committee; training for faculty and staff on sexual assault; a requirement that students take one Women and Gender Studies or Black Studies class, potentially through the first-year seminar; and summer reading requirements that address gender, race and class.

Students created the shirt in the hopes that history would not repeat itself, fearing that meaningful progress would cease as soon as media coverage died down and students stopped putting pressure on the College.

“While I’m encouraged by the way Biddy has been responding since Angie’s article, her recent language urging students to ‘take their foot off the pedal,’ and let the administration handle things, worries me,” said Dana Bolger ’14E. “After all, students told the administration about many of these things last year — and 10 years ago and 20 years ago — and the College still chose to do little about it until bad publicity forced some initial change. Students have always been the ones pushing this issue to the forefront. When we weren’t heard, we wrote articles, we went to the media. Every step of the way we were told by other students and some administrators that what we were doing was inappropriate and unfair.”

Bryars and Bolger cited a letter written to The Student two weeks ago by alumna Annann Hong ’92 about her rape at the College as a key motivating force for creating the shirt. In 1991, Hong’s case had also made the news in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Amherst Bulletin, leading the College to evaluate its handling of Hong’s complaint and its campus disciplinary hearing proceedings.

“I learned last month from the President’s email that nothing had really changed after all,” Hong wrote to The Student. “The campus judicial system as described by Angie remains just as flawed, both at the front end of handling reported cases and at the heart of the judicial process itself.”

Upon exiting Johnson Chapel after her conversation with alumni, President Carolyn Martin said, “The shirt is indicative of our students’ and my own insistence that we get on top of this, and not allow things to be swept under the rug. You’re trying to raise awareness and what you’re doing is absolutely fine. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

The t-shirt drew criticism from students and alumni, many of whom pointed out that the administration had been making changes since the summer and that President Martin had taken unprecedented steps to address the issue of sexual violence.

“That’s not a fair statement,” said Dave Blackburn ’53, referring to the front of the t-shirt. “We don’t know if that’s happened or not. This is a problem all over the country and not just Amherst, but what’s different about this is the way [President Martin] is handling it.”

“She’s taking an issue that borders on catastrophe and turning it into a positive response that I think will endure and make this community a much better community,” said former trustee Alan Bernstein ’63. “She’s setting new ground in policy at colleges and universities.”

Bolger acknowledged that the president had wasted no time changing College policies.

However, she added, “President Martin is just one person in an institution that has been traditionally patriarchal. She heads an administration that has changed little, both in terms of personnel and attitudes. She’s also responsible to Trustees and powerful alumni, some of whom may be more interested in saving face than actually changing the reality for survivors here.”

While most students sympathized with the t-shirt’s cause, many felt uncomfortable with what they perceived to be a strong, negative message, and believed that changes are best enabled through conversation with an administration that is now willing to listen. They were also concerned that survivors or potential allies would be alienated, and that Homecoming — a time for fun and gathering as a community — was not the appropriate forum for dissent.

“I respect the message, and I absolutely think it’s something we need to address,” David Vitale ’13 said. “I’m just afraid that wearing this shirt will make people otherwise willing to confront this in a constructive manner say this has gone too far and that people are being too extreme.”

“If the shirt had to have this image, I wish instead it had said something like: ‘Amherst: Sweeping sexual assault under the rug until 2012,’” said Tian Buzbee ’13 in a Facebook comment. “That message would have acknowledged the faults of the past while making a break with it. However, I think a better concept would have been a shirt with some image that encouraged us to change our culture as a community. Something more like the ‘I support love’ shirts, which have a more accessible and positive message.”

Others felt that the shirt was factually inaccurate and even offensive.

“The idea that we haven’t grappled with this in a way that’s at least as open as any other college is insulting to all of the people that spent a lot of time organizing events,” said Henrik Onarheim ’13.

“It’s inflammatory, it’s attacking the wrong thing,” Brittny Chong ’13E said. “It removes too much of the onus from the individual by saying the institution’s f***ed up.”

Emily Joyce Nussbaum, one of several Five College students who attended Homecoming to help distribute shirts, was surprised at the negative reactions to her advocacy work.

“People turned their heads, people wouldn’t listen, people would snicker,” Nussbaum said. “[An Amherst student] said that this was disrespectful to Amherst College and told me I was offensive. My reply to him was that rape culture is offensive, and he told me that I was more offensive than rape culture.”

Others indicated that activists are few and far between at the College, where there is little precedent for dissent. Many students are uncomfortable and dismissive of dissent, which is associated with aggression.

“It is that very dissent that opens up space for critical questions, and it should be embraced,” Briana Hanny ’13 said. “It’s important that we have spaces for people to openly disagree without being villainized. People have been hurt here and we should examine that as a community, even if it goes against the typical Amherst narrative.”

“We’re absolutely the least socially critical campus [among the Five Colleges],” Alexa Hettwer ’13 said. “Students who do speak up get ostracized as ‘angry’ or ‘crazy.’ Some were upset about the fact that they felt that recent policy changes meant that we were ‘over’ rape culture. First off, there’s no guarantee that policy changes will lead to proper handling of cases by the administration, but furthermore, I don’t think there is a pervasive understanding of the extent to which rape culture is tied into much larger, deep-rooted social architecture. Seeming ‘change’ in policy and thought can and will lead us right back into the same cycles of institutional behavior unless it is coupled with actual culture change, which, in my opinion, requires nothing short of revolution.”