JOSEPH DIBACCO ’19
This past June, Professor Johnny Eric Williams of the Sociology Department sparked controversy. After releasing two Facebook posts in June that included the hashtag “Let Them F—–g Die”, Professor Williams went on “voluntary leave” for this semester. His posts were focused on a Medium article by an anonymous author working under the pseudonym “Son of Baldwin.” In the aftermath of the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise, “Son of Baldwin” urged victims of bigotry to not help bigots when they are in life-threatening situations.
Campus Reform, a conservative online newspaper, misconstrued Williams’ words, inciting national outrage. According to Williams, his statements were not meant to condone violence against white people, and he later made clear that it was not his hope to see Congressman Scalise die on that field without any emergency medical care. Williams elaborated on the motivation for his posts, saying that he had been disillusioned and angered by the amount of black people being shot by white police officers, the most recent case being a black woman in Seattle. His ultimate goal is to see the end of white supremacist ideology, and his purpose in sharing the work of Son of Baldwin was simply to raise awareness of this contentious issue. In response to numerous death threats sent to Williams, along with threats to the College, President Berger-Sweeney shut down the campus for 24 hours on Wednesday, June 21.
Over the course of the week of June 21, Dean of the Faculty Tim Cresswell conducted an investigation into Williams’ social media activity and whether or not he violated any academic policies. Professor Williams took some time off to be with his family far from Trinity’s campus in order to ensure his safety. Shortly after launching the investigation, President Berger-Sweeney announced that she would be placing Williamson paid leave for the Fall 2017 semester. In defense of her treatment of the matter, she told the Hartford Courant, “While I support Professor Williams’s right to express his opinions, as I have previously stated, I do not condone the hashtag he chose to use.” Without mentioning them by name, Berger-Sweeney referenced Campus Reform when she said the majority of the vitriolic reaction nationwide was “fueled by misleading and incorrect reports of what he actually said.”
Jeffrey Bayliss, an Associate Professor of History at Trinity, and a member of AAUP (American Association of University Professors), an advocacy group for college professors, came out in defense of Professor Williams. “When I read Johnny’s piece, I didn’t take it as a call to violence,” Bayliss said. He explained that Williams never actually expressed a desire for violence against white people, and that he only used the hashtag as a way of calling attention to Son of Baldwin’s work of the same name. “I’m pretty sure that Professor Williams has been on Campus Reform’s radar for a long time,” Bayliss speculated. That was a reference to Campus Reform’s modus operandi, which is the targeting of left-wing college professors who question the status quo and attempting to get them fired. “Johnny was linking to that, but talking about a separate incident in time,” reiterated Bayliss as he revisited the Son of Baldwin piece. Professor Williams may have referenced that controversial piece about the congressional shooting, but he was not endorsing it or even focusing on the shooting itself. His gripe had to do with the shooting of a pregnant black woman in Seattle. “I think in Johnny’s case, though…he’s commenting on what he works on, which is race. In many ways, whatever he’s doing on Facebook is sort of an extension of his teaching.” In the eyes of Professor Bayliss, Williams used Facebook as another medium with which to teach his students about race, something he should not be punished for.
This past Friday, there was a teach-in about racism that featured Professor Williams as a keynote speaker. Williams, who patiently waited for the other Trinity professors to share their views on the issue, had much to say about Trinity’s administration and how they handled his punishment. Talking about why he was punished at all, Williams contended that, “The college is interested in white supremacist money.” Addressing racism as a whole, Professor Williams explained to the crowd of professors and students that race is merely an ideology and that, “it’s rooted in institutions like Trinity College.” Professor Williams made clear his disgust at people identifying as ‘white’. Describing his activism, Williams asserted, “I’m calling for the death of whiteness itself.”
Professor Williams believes that colleges and universities, entities he believes are hotbeds of systemic racism. “Colleges and universities are functionaries of epistemic violence,” he declared just before adding, “If we don’t interrogate higher education, systemic racism will continue to reign.” He addressed Trinity’s handling of his case towards the end of his talk. He began his remarks by saying “The college wasn’t protecting me. I was punished before due process. It was all show.” He continued to comment on Trinity’s administration with the following: “The administration had one thing in mind: to protect itself.” He ended his defense of his actions by stating, “Facebook is my classroom. Social media is my classroom. I’ve done my job and I did it well.”
JOSEPH DIBACCO ’19