Fort Lewis College students protested white supremecy after two men, accompanied by a boy, made pro-slavery comments outside of Reed Library the morning of Sept. 25.
The men made efforts to engage students in conversation, Julie Love, associate vice president of student affairs, said. She said she was told that the conversation topics varied from eternal life, to slavery and the economy.
Katherine Pamplin, a FLC student, said she received a text about the incident from a friend. Pamplin said she decided to go witness the incident.
Once there, Pamplin said she saw the men use the boy to approach students. The boy, who Pamplin estimated was about five or six years old, asked students about Jesus Christ, she said.
Pamplin said she witnessed her friend approach the men and confront them about an argument Pamplin’s friend had heard earlier about slavery.
The men said that slavery in the Bible was granted by God and therefore justified, Pamplin said.
Pamplin said she found a piece of paper and wrote down a phrase used by the men: “God gave us slavery as an economic safety net.”
When the men asked Pamplin about it, she told both men she was promoting their message with her sign ironically.
The men said that she was taking the phrase out of context, so Pamplin asked the men to give the students the context, she said.
“I was trying to make them uncomfortable with trying to preach to people,” Pamplin said.
FLC Student Zhaida Wilbanks said she approached Pamplin who had continued to hold her sign and talk to the men.
Wilbanks said Pamplin informed her of the pro-slavery comments the men were making and she later heard the men make those comments herself.
Wilbanks said that after she heard the men, she went to her dorm to make her sign which read “white supremacy will not be tolerated.”
Pamplin said she continued to hold her sign. She said she had been there for about 30 minutes before the men left.
By the time Wilbanks got back to Reed Library, the men were gone, she said.
Exactly who the men are is unclear, but Pamplin said they were wearing t-shirts from their church.
“The perception I had and the students had was that they were not students,” Love said.
Wilbanks sat outside Reed Library holding her sign for about two hours. A few people did stop to talk to her but that most would look away, she said.
Throughout the day, other students joined Wilbanks with signs of their own that read “white supremecy is terrorism” and “listen to people of color,” among other written rhetoric.
Love said that she did witness the men, and that she was also made aware of the incident because she oversees the FLC Police Department, and at 9 p.m. the same day of the incident there was a report that a sign used by students was hung on the flagpole.
The sign on the flagpole was a violation of the posting policy, she said.
She said that for the college, the incident is a matter of free speech. The college values free speech on campus as it is a public school, she said.
Speech that causes imminent harm is not allowed, but the men on campus were allowed to share their opinion because of the public nature of the college, she said.
This same protection of free speech was allotted to the students holding signs and the students who supported them, she said.
Love said that she has not received any other reports regarding the men, but urged students to come forward with how they were affected by the incident.
“Our campus has a long history of how these types of events have bubbled up,” she said.
In Nov. 2010, the Westboro Baptist Church gave the college only a few days notice that they planned to visit the campus, Love said.
In response, students organized a peace rally at the same time as when the church planned to be there. Thousands of people attended the peace rally, and the church representatives never arrived, she said.
Love said that the timing of the men on campus is interesting, given that the college had recently signed on to the Civility First pledge; a pledge for businesses that encourages community members to be civil when communicating.
FLC President Tom Stritikus signed the pledge at the end of September, she said.
“In an era where things are very polarized, nothing would make me more proud than to see our students take the lead on that,” Love said