In the wake of November 8

How the election shook a campus to its core

By
News Editor
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Borowski_Protest
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2017

Election Day started quietly on College Hill, and with the New York Times Upshot Election tracker giving Hillary Clinton an 85 percent chance of winning, few if any students felt the need to worry.

A Hillary Clinton cutout stood on the Main Green, and a steady trickle of students stopped to take photos with the next presumptive and first female president of the United States. Any mention of Donald Trump was met with laughter or an exaggerated grimace.

Few saw his rise coming, and even though his ability to dispense with a primary field of 16 other Republican candidates had been alarming, he just did not have a feasible path to the presidency, it seemed. That would be impossible.

Natalie Mesa ’19 thought as much while walking down Hope Street that afternoon when a truck slowed down behind her. “Trump! Trump! Trump!” the men inside yelled. The truck slowed to a crawl, tailing Mesa as the men shouted obscenities and racial slurs, telling her to go back to Mexico. She is not Mexican. After nearly two blocks of being taunted, Mesa ran behind a dumpster and hid until her pursuers drove off. The incident was jarring — even traumatic — but it did not change her mind as to the supposed inevitability of a Hillary Clinton electoral victory.

That was the perceived assumption — at least at an election watch party hosted by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs the evening of Nov. 8. In stark contrast to the divisiveness of the recent election season, the atmosphere at the Watson event would best be described as jovial. Cupcakes sporting the insignias of the Democratic and Republican parties were devoured as people posed with props at a photo station.

Watson faculty members mingled with students in front of screens broadcasting live returns, unaware of the shift the party would soon take. Unease started creeping in at 9 p.m., as returns from swing states started coming in off the predicted mark. By 11 o’clock, despair had settled across most of campus. Only a few were still celebrating, welcoming the surprise victory of Donald Trump against the stark contrast of the gloom around them.

In a confrontation with Trump supporters in response to their unadulterated elation, Paula Martínez ’17 mentioned that she was Mexican to contextualize her sentiments.

“Ew,” a student said in response. Chalking the incident up to miscommunication, the Trump supporter said he had actually said “oh,” but was misheard.

The Trump presidency to which many once referred in jest is now reality, and the torrent of emotions and implications that came with it show no signs of leaving College Hill.

Like many other Americans, Brown students have had to grapple with what had previously been deemed a political impossibility. But they have also had to wrestle, now more than ever, with the realization that the “Brown bubble” is far more expansive, exclusionary and blinding than most had originally thought. Since the election, students of all political stripes have had and continue to reassess and restructure their relationships to campus communities, the city of Providence and the American political process at large.

The campus reacts, the centers respond

Most students processed the fallout of the election in group settings, finding support in community spaces and departments on campus.

In defined community spaces like the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, the LGBTQ Center and the Brown Center for Students of Color, students worked through emotions at their rawest in “Community Care” events. In a model crafted by the BCSC, faculty and staff members offer both supportive distraction — music, food, arts and crafts — and serious engagement with issues students face as they arise.

“We did a lot of talking with … students whose families were divided and were feeling a lack of support at home,” said Director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center Gail Cohee, who said that the student need for election-related support has lasted through the spring semester. “We hear things about students being harassed on the street, concerns about access to reproductive healthcare,” Cohee added.

Students were not the only ones grappling with difficult circumstances. “It can be easy to forget that a lot of people that serve as support for students often hold identities that are also impacted by what’s happening,” said Je-Shawna Wholley, program coordinator for the LGBTQ Center.

“I remember walking into the (BCSC) and running into some of my colleagues” after the election, Wholley said. “We just embraced each other and started crying. That was the first moment where we gave ourselves permission to say, ‘We need care, too; this is also very scary for all of us for the same reasons it’s scary for our students.’”

For faculty and staff members, striking a balance between modeling vulnerability and strength can be difficult, Wholley added, as supporting students often comes at the cost of compartmentalizing their own emotions.

“People will say terrible things about all of our identities at various points,” Cohee said. “But after the years we’ve learned to check in with each other, check in with other colleagues.”

Beyond just checking in, organizations within the University community have mobilized to respond to students’ emotional and logistical needs. In many cases, this involves staff members at Brown’s various centers and departments connecting students to specific resources.

At Sarah Doyle, for example, students concerned about changes to Planned Parenthood funding or laws concerning reproductive health were connected to BWell Health Promotion for consultation about their options, said Felicia Salinas-Moniz, visiting professor of American studies and assistant director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center. At the suggestion of graduate students, Sarah Doyle also hosted an event in collaboration with BWell to analyze the implications of the election regarding access to reproductive healthcare.

At the LGBTQ Center Community Care event held days after the election, two staff members for the Office of Residential Life experienced in working with undocumented students and those qualifying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals were present to meet with students affected by potential immigration policy changes, Wholley said. When the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education retracted Obama-era guidance on the inclusion of transgender discrimination under Title IX, LGBTQ Center Program Director Kelly Garrett released a statement maintaining the importance of trans students on campus and their right to use whichever bathrooms align with their gender identities.

When members of the class, MES 1999E: “Displacement and Refugees in the Middle East,” went on a trip to Amman, Jordan for spring recess, the Watson Center for Information Technology loaned laptops to some members of the trip due to concerns over possible searches of personal electronics in the wake of Trump’s Muslim ban and subsequent restrictions on air travel. While most of the trip went smoothly, all 12 students and the professor were randomly chosen for an extended security check and were told to charge their electronic devices to allow for possible phone checks.

Many centers and departments on campus also responded to the election with panels and forums, hosting experts to analyze aspects of the election or its implications on future policy as it related to their fields of expertise. The Middle East studies department held a teach-in on the implications of Trump’s Muslim ban, while the environmental studies department held a panel on environmentalism under the new administration.

More than anything else, the panels and events served to answer the questions of a confused and shaken community unsure of how to move forward following the results of the election. “Emotions were so high, and one of the very first safe spaces for some of these students was to come to the Urban Environmental Lab,” said Dawn King, director of undergraduate studies at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

In the days and weeks following the election, students concerned about environmental issues congregated in the UEL to discuss the impact of the election in frank terms and rely on the community that naturally resides there, King added. “Students feel, rightfully so, that this building is their own, that this is a home for them.”

Red elephants in the room, blue donkeys on the move

“Trump’s character is antithetical to the standards of common decency. From outright racist comments about a federal judge early in his campaign to his utterly unconscionable brags about sexually assaulting women, Trump has continually shown that he is unfit to lead the nation.”

That statement reads like it could have been written by any number of liberal sources on Brown’s campus, but one would likely not assume that it came from the Brown College Republican board members who drafted it. Citing Trump’s paucity of support among Republicans on campus — only about a third of the club supported endorsing him, and no students, to the knowledge of club president Ethan Shire ’19, were involved with the national campaign — the group published an op-ed in The Herald in October explaining why it would not be endorsing the Republican presidential candidate.

The group’s decision not to support its party’s nominee echoed the difficulty many Republicans faced in deciding whether or not to support Trump throughout the campaign. The Brown chapter’s rejection followed similar statements from Republican student organizations at Princeton and Harvard. At Yale, frustration over Trump caused a rift in the school’s College Republican chapter that led a portion of the club — including the majority of its leadership — to secede and form the Yale New Republicans, which refused to endorse Trump.

In light of such divisions, deciding how exactly to handle Trump’s unexpected victory has put Brown College Republican board members in a sticky situation. “We wanted to create an avenue for people to celebrate when there was no other avenue for that,” Shire said. On the other hand, “I’m not a Trump supporter, (and) I was not enthused election night whatsoever,” he added.

“Generally, (we’re) proceeding in much the same manner that we have been for the last eight years,” said Austin Rose ’19, former treasurer of the Brown College Republicans. “There’s an executive that we don’t really like, and people below him that are politicians (and) disappoint you at every turn.”

Though many Republicans on campus were nearly as shocked and worried by the result of the election as their more liberal classmates, few found spaces of student grief and support accessible. “It’s not like prior to the election, Brown was such a welcoming place for conservative voices,” Shire said, adding that he and many Republicans have only felt more alienated from the community since the election.

“We’re treated like a monolith,” Rose said, adding that this generalized view of Republicans had been similarly leveraged against Trump voters throughout the election. Because Republicans and specifically Trump supporters are so stigmatized on campus, Rose said, there is little opportunity for learning on either side of the political spectrum.

“When you give people who disagree with you — and they may be 100 percent wrong — no feeling of enfranchisement in political discourse on campus, then they’re never going to talk to others,” Rose said. “They’re never going to break out of their bubble.”

A bubble of different sorts burst on Nov. 8, as Democrats and Clinton supporters heavily invested in the election began to grapple with a surprise result.

By 11 p.m. on election night, the watch party organized by the Brown Democrats and Brown Students for Hillary in the Friedman Auditorium in the Metcalf Research Building appeared a great deal different than when excited and optimistic supporters gathered to watch the first returns come in. “The mood was really low,” said Brian Cohn, president of the Brown Democrats. “People were shocked and sad. Some were crying; some were stupefied.”

“We were trying to let people know that it’s going to be okay, (that they) put in a lot of work, and that counts for something,” Cohn said. “But it was trying to put a positive spin on a very dark place.”

Having spent months campaigning — canvassing in New Hampshire and organizing phone banks — the biggest question for many Brown Democrats was where to go next. Besides just dealing with the stress and emotion of election night, Brown Democrats had to begin forging a new identity as the opposition. After eight years of Obama, even seniors had no experience working against a sitting president.

At a town hall meeting held the week after the election, the Brown Democrats set out to do just that. “We had huge attendance for that first meeting,” Cohn said, noting that the crowd took up two rooms of Wilson Hall. In breakout sessions and a larger discussion, students compiled a list of what they wanted from the Brown Democrats, formulating their vision for the group.

“Activism, education in politics and policy (and) a space for marginalized peoples” were among the top issues students wanted to address, Cohn said. In addition, many expressed a desire to involve themselves more actively in state and local issues, something the Brown Democrats had focused on less in the past.

“Brown (Democrats) have been really good at being a space for people to talk about policy, politics and the Democratic Party,” Cohn said, adding that the group has been able to invite interesting speakers and host relevant policy discussions. “But we hadn’t done a lot of activism. The last time the Brown (Democrats) got really involved in anything locally was for marriage equality in 2012,” he said, referring to scattered phone banks for specific issues. “But nothing on any meaningful scale.”

Students take action

Days after the signing of Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and indefinitely halting the arrival of Syrian refugees, the American Civil Liberties Union reported something unexpected. Donations to ACLU chapters around the country were surging in the wake of an order many saw as xenophobic and, pertinently, illegal. In only two days, contributions to the historic legal advocacy organization topped $24 million — a considerable bump from the $3.5 million in online contributions raised across the whole of 2015. ACLU membership ballooned as well, with nearly 200,000 new registrants joining in the same two-day period.

This trend surfaced in Brown’s student-run chapter as well. “We went from about 15 to 20 people regularly to I think 60 at our first meeting the week after election night,” said Abel Girma ’18, former president of the Brown ACLU. For the first time in recent memory, most of the club’s supporters are card-holding members of the ACLU — a commitment that stipulates an annual due of about $35, he added. Since the election, the Rhode Island ACLU has made note of an increase in donations specifically from Brown students.

“We realized that some of our most committed members wanted to dedicate a lot more time to actively resisting Trump,” Girma said, adding that weekly meetings for the club have changed in tone to reflect a more resistive post-election spirit.

Breakout sessions devoted to specific issues — voter protections, abortion rights and fundraising for the ACLU — have allowed members to research and engage with topics in which they are most invested. Each working group presents its findings to the larger group, and then all members reconvene for a more explicit discussion of the administration. In several meetings, the group has read the text of Trump’s executive orders together, analyzing their legal implications and impact on issues such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and the rights of Muslim Americans and immigrants.

The group’s specifically legalistic breakdown of emerging policy has attracted unfamiliar faces at meetings following the announcement of new orders, Girma said. Students have come looking for answers from their wonky peers.

The transformation of the Brown ACLU into a force for the opposition was just one manifestation of a larger groundswell of resistance to the Trump administration. Post-election turmoil also gave rise to activist groups like Indivisible and Resist Hate RI, grassroots networks mobilizing to obstruct the Trump agenda. At Brown, there was the Brown Progressive Action Committee.

The idea for BPAC originated with Jeffrey Salvadore ’17, a former president of Brown Democrats and of Brown Students for Hillary. In leading the latter, Salvadore saw countless Brown students who had not previously associated with the Brown Democrats actively engage with progressive politics in the context of the high-stakes election.

“We wanted to keep those people and refocus their efforts towards action,” he said. “To do that, we did need a new structure and organization, because the (Brown Democrats) does what it does pretty well, and what it does is not necessarily activism. So we thought, ‘Let’s do a new group just focused on that.’”

Salvadore brought the idea to other members of the Brown Democrats and Brown Students for Hillary. The BPAC board appointments and launch were orchestrated by the Brown Democrats.

BPAC “is designed to be a space for students at Brown to come together and take political action regardless of their ideology,” said Aidan Calvelli ’19, founding chair of the group. The self-identified nonpartisan nature of the group is what distinguishes it from others on campus and situates it for long-term “progressive” action, he added.

“Many people in this country and at this school don’t necessarily identify” as Democrats, Calvelli said. “When you start labeling yourself like that at Brown, you limit the people who would otherwise agree with you on the issues.”

The group is structured to allow individuals to actively work on issues they care most about while still being part of a larger network, said Fernando Medina ’19, BPAC’s engagement director. Members divide themselves into subcommittees — immigration and refugee rights, education and health, voting rights and racial justice — to organize around students’ most pressing interests. From there, BPAC serves most like a point of connection for members, relaying information about protests, legislative hearings or local politicians in need of a coordinated email barrage.

“We didn’t want to say, ‘Look, we made this new student group at Brown, and now we’ve come to be the saviors of Providence and Rhode Island politics,’” Calvelli said. “The activists that have been on the ground organizing for years know a lot better what’s important and what works than some students who just started a club,” he added.  “We’re saying, ‘Here are these things that are going on, and we’re going to tap into this.’”

Despite an issue-based approach, many of these groups bear the makings of party lines. The ACLU is a self-professed apolitical animal but has dedicated millions of dollars and an army of legal soldiers explicitly to fight back against the president’s legislative agenda.

“While the ACLU is fundamentally nonpartisan, the Trump administration in particular stands against everything we stand for, and so there’s no sugar coating needed,” Girma said. “The national ACLU has made a note that whenever Trump strikes, we strike back.”

BPAC, though claiming to be a space for members of all political identities, has devoted itself to resistance against policies championed by the Republican Party. Cohn sits on the board of BPAC and Calvelli on the board of the Brown Democrats. But for Calvelli, the issues BPAC addresses are not owned by Democrats. “Those aren’t partisan, and they don’t have to be in line with the Democratic Party at all,” he said.

To Calvelli, the future of politics at Brown in the Trump era seems much more open than it did prior to the election. Avenues for new supporters to get involved in campus political activity are a product of the post-election environment and represent the beginning of something new.

“It’s important to understand there’s a history of Brown students not really doing anything, or taking over events and taking up a lot of space,” Calvelli said. The efforts students are now taking are “more about trying to be open to helping in whatever ways people want us to help, not coming in like we have all the solutions. Because we’re students here.”

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