When Syracuse University students began hearing reports that a white supremacist manifesto had been airdropped to some people’s cellphones at the school library on Monday night, Aarti Patel, a fourth-year PhD student, quickly began thinking about escape routes and evacuation plans.
One of her professors in the Department of Religion texted her at 7:25 a.m. on Tuesday morning: “Aarti, are you sure you wanna go to campus? We need to be safe.”
Multiple people reached out to each other with the same message: “Do not go to campus today.”
“It was palpable fear,” Patel, 30, told BuzzFeed News. “You could feel it in the air.”
A series of racist incidents reported at the university since Nov. 7 have heightened the fears of students and faculty members on campus. This week, teachers canceled several classes, citing concerns for their students’ safety. Parents are making their kids return home for the holidays earlier than usual. And many students are refusing to leave their apartments, missing classes and work shifts.
The incidents include reports of racial slurs against black and Asian people, racist graffiti, a swastika found in a snowbank, a black woman being called the n-word by a group of students and fraternity members, and a professor of color receiving a violent and racist email threat.
Then there were reports that the 74-page anti-Muslim manifesto published by the perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque shootings was posted to the university’s Greekrank.com page and sent to students sitting in the Bird Library. Authorities said no one had directly reported receiving the document and that there was no “direct threat” to the university.
Authorities, including the FBI and campus and local police, are investigating some of the incidents, including the anti-Semitic email sent to a faculty member and reports of the anti-Muslim manifesto. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force and State Division of Human Rights are also assisting the investigations.
The university’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) said it has doubled patrols on campus, stationed patrol vehicles around campus, and increased walking patrols to residence halls and campus buildings. It also advised students to call for a safety escort if they felt unsafe on campus.
The incidents and the university’s subsequent response have sparked an ongoing student sit-in protest on campus. Several students have taken to social media to share their experiences and express solidarity with protesters using the hashtag #NotAgainSU. Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, a Syracuse University alum, and Sen. Kamala Harris called attention to the situation in tweets on Wednesday.
A 20-year-old Afro-Latina student, who lives in the building next to Bird Library, was walking back to her dorm on Tuesday after participating in a student protest on campus when she “genuinely felt that fear and paranoia.”
The third-year student told BuzzFeed News she did not want to identified “for fear that the people committing these crimes could come after me.”
She said that she didn’t request a DPS officer to escort her to her dorm room because she felt that they seemed to have “a lack of care as to what students are actually going through.”
“I didn’t want to leave my room. I did not go to class. I did not go to work,” she said. “Being 3,000 miles away from home to be at my number one dream school to experience this... it’s just very not worth it to me anymore.”
She said both her teachers and bosses have been supportive and excused her absence.
The student said that her name sign on the door of her dorm room had been ripped off. Even then, she said, her room felt like the only “safe space” on campus.
She said a lot of students had taken flights and gone back home earlier than usual and there are fewer students of color walking around on campus.
In text messages she exchanged with two other students, one of her friends said, “I cried today twice. I’m so fucking done.”
One of them said they were going to bring mace to campus.
“I hate this fucking school,” another text said. “I’m trying to keep it together and finish my shit for my classes but this is so disheartening.”
When Kerri McAneney, 21, woke up at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning to notifications about the manifesto, she immediately called her mother, saying, “I don’t know what to do, I’ve never felt so unsafe.”
As a white woman, McAneney said she did not experience the same fear as students of color. But after getting notifications about the manifesto, McAneney said she was terrified of leaving her off-campus apartment and going to classes, one of which was located in a building next to the Bird Library.
“Should I worry about going to classes and continuing my education or stay at home and not worry about getting shot,” McAneney said.
In a text to her mother, McAneney said, “I really wish they would cancel classes today. I’m really scared.”
“If you don’t feel safe don’t go,” her mother replied. She also advised her not to go to certain areas of the campus.
“I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” her mom texted. “Wish I was with you.”
Like Patel, McAneney’s thoughts also went to exits and evacuations in classrooms.
In a text to one of her classmates, McAneney said, “I’m literally checking to make sure I know where every exit is rn.”
“Honestly that’s not a bad idea,” her friend replied. “I’ve never felt less safe on campus.”
Of the 140 students that usually attend her Monday class, only around 80 turned up this week, Jenn M. Jackson, an assistant professor of political science, told BuzzFeed News.
Jackson recalled one of her students telling her on Monday, “I don’t feel safe coming out of my apartment.” She said that saw another student tweet, “I don’t feel safe going outside.”
Jackson decided to cancel her Wednesday class as well as other discussion lectures scheduled this week that are supervised by teaching assistants.
After reports of the racist manifesto being airdropped to students surfaced, faculty members were discussing whether to cancel classes and had been waiting for a directive from the administration, Jackson said.
When the administration decided not to cancel classes, several teachers took it upon themselves to either cancel their own classes, hold virtual lectures, or excuse students who cited concerns about their safety.
“If students don’t feel safe even going outside, they’re not going to be able to function in a classroom,” Jackson said. “With that type of anxiety and fear you’re not focusing on the lecture.”
Patel, who is also a graduate teaching assistant and an instructor at the university, canceled the class she teaches on Wednesdays. The faculty member for whom she is a teaching assistant also canceled the class after several students expressed their fears of being on campus or had already left home early before the Thanksgiving break.
Patel said that she had been subjected to slurs and intimidation during the four years she has spent on campus. But the spate of recent incidents, all within a short period of time, had “exponentially heightened” fears on campus, she said.
Patel said she did not go to campus on Tuesday as she did not have a class to teach. On Wednesday, she did go to the university to attend a town hall meeting, but made sure that it was still daylight when she arrived on campus.
“Everyone is scared,” McAneney said. “I’ve never seen the campus so united as we are in our fear right now.”