A Lesson from 9/11 Memorial Vandalism at Middlebury

imagesThe one positive takeaway from the despicable desecration of a 9/11 Flag Memorial at Middlebury College is that the college’s student journalists are asking the right questions. The whole incident, as recounted in the Middlebury Campus, reads like a parody of campus extremism:

Middlebury student, Anna Shireman-Grabowski, alongside individuals claiming citizenship in the native Haudenosaunee Confederacy, removed the American flags that the College Republicans and Democrats had jointly placed in front of Mead Chapel and collected them into garbage bags. When her peers recognized Shierman-Grabowski in a picture documenting the vandalism, she issued the following dystopian statement:

My intention was not to cause pain but to visibilize [sic] the necessity of honoring all human life and to help a friend heal from the violence of genocide that she carries with her on a daily basis as an indigenous person. While the American flags on the Middlebury hillside symbolize to some the loss of innocent lives in New York, to others they represent centuries of bloody conquest and mass murder. As a settler on stolen land, I do not have the luxury of grieving without an eye to power. Three thousand flags is a lot, but the campus is not big enough to hold a marker for every life sacrificed in the history of American conquest and colonialism.

The emails filling my inbox indicate that this was not a productive way to start a dialogue about American imperialism. Nor did I imagine that it would be. Please understand that I am grappling with my complicity in the overwhelming legacy of settler colonialism. Part of this process for me is honoring the feelings and wishes of people who find themselves on the other side of this history….

Today I chose to act in solidarity with my friend, an Indigenous woman and a citizen of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy who was appalled to see the burial grounds of another Indigenous nation desecrated by piercing the ground that their remains lay beneath. I understand that this action is confusing and painful for many in my community. I don’t pretend to know if every action I take is right or justified—this process is multi-layered and nuanced. I do know that colonialism has been—and continues to be—a real and destructive force in the world that we live in. And for me, to honor life is to support those who struggle against it.

Amazingly, there is no record that the area in front of the chapel was a Native site. “It has never before been suggested that this is a Native American burial ground,” Sarah Ray, the college’s director of public affairs, told the Huffington Post.

The Middlebury Campus reports that this has been something of a pet-project for Shierman-Grabowski, who in January 2013, “presented the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate with the ‘Decolonizing Middlebury College Bill.’” The bill claimed that Middlebury was erected on land stolen from the Abensaki tribe and recommended ceding the entire college to its rightful owners.

The journalists at The Campus deserve praise for asking how the College would respond to Shierman-Grabowski’s egregious free speech violations and noting that Shierman-Grabowski’s “actions infringed upon multiple College community standards,” including disorderly protest and a damage of property. Apparently Middlebury Public Safety investigated shortly after the incident.

On September 12, Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz stated in a campus email:

Like many of you, I was deeply disturbed by the insensitivity of this act. Destruction of property and interfering with the rights of others to express themselves violates the standards of our community. The College has begun a disciplinary investigation of this incident.

There is always something to learn from differences of opinion. In this case the disrespectful methods of the protesters overshadowed anything that might have been learned from the convictions they claimed to promote. We will not tolerate this kind of behavior.

In a follow-up article, The Campus features a group of students, who with their own funds, purchased American flags at a local hardware store and worked to reinstall the memorial. Hopefully Swarthmore students would demonstrate similar resolve in the face of such illiberal behavior.

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