Online agitators forced the Black Student Union to abruptly shut down its poetry slam Thursday after disruptors joined the virtual event and posted racist and pornographic materials.
The event, open to Salt Lake Community College and the community at large, was meant to be a space for creative expression and celebration, school officials said. As students gathered online for the Black History Month event, others with less sincere intentions joined the video call and soon began distributing with offensive content, including images showing anti-Black violence and inappropriate photos of children.
The images soon dominated the program, flooding out the Black voices. Organizers quickly suspended the event, calling the State Bureau of Investigations, SLCC cyber security team and Utah Highway Patrol, which offers law enforcement at the college. The SLCC Health and Wellness Center was also brought in to offer support.
“As our country has mourned and protested this year over other social injustices, inequities and harm experienced by our African American and Black community members, this incident reminds us that even very close to home there are people who are intentionally seeking to foster anti-Black messages of hate and new forums where they can find opportunities,” said SLCC President Deneece Huftalin in an institution-wide email Thursday evening.
Virtual meetings have become the standard for working, learning and gathering during the pandemic, and reports of disrupters flooding video platforms to stir discord have become commonplace. From kindergarten classes to town-hall meetings across the country, agitators have found ways to cause problems.
“We are not immune,” said Joy Tlou, SLCC public relations director, noting that initial information shows the disrupters’ digital locations were outside of Utah.
This, however, doesn’t mean agitators are out-of-state and could instead be an indication the actions were deliberate and pre-meditated.
The Globe reached out to the BSU but was declined an interview as students process the disruption, which has drawn local media attention. “At this moment, our students need space and time to heal,” said Glory Johnson-Stanton, BSU advisor.
Several other events are planned in celebration of Black History Month, both in person and via video platforms. Tlou stressed the importance of using the provided security tools and advised event organizers to actively monitor virtual gatherings from beginning to end. Many of the college’s events offer open access to include all those interested, but it is imperative to be mindful of the ways bad actors could cause harm.
“Sadly, we have to completely lock down the African American Read-In,” said Clint Gardner, program manager of College Writing and Reading Centers. “The audience won’t be able to celebrate the readings with others in the session in any interactive fashion.”
Like so many other pandemic-era events, the SLCC African American Read In, established in 1990, will be held virtually this year. In light of Thursday’s incident, Gardner and his committee will be using the video platform’s security tools extensively to keep the space safe.
“Having to take these measures that limit the celebration of African American writers is a direct knock-on effect of racism and white supremacy,” he said. “We won’t, however, let it stop us from engaging in that celebration.”
The Gender and Sexuality Student Resource Center is focusing its weekly Hit the GAS film discussions on Black movies all month and will continue to be aware of potential agitators after this week’s events, said Peter Moosman, Gender and Sexuality Student Resource Center coordinator.
“There are simple adjustments to settings that can help us manage and control our virtual programs that we can and will apply, but [we] don’t have any significant adjustments we will be making,” Moosman said. “As the institution moves forward with this investigation and effort to increase the safety and wellbeing of our students, we will absolutely be following the lead and instruction of SLCC moving forward.”
The Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs staff, advisors and BSU members have planned other events for Black History Month that include a virtual screening of “Black Panther” with the SLCC Student Association, the Cultural Fashion Extravaganza and a Black History Month speaker.
“My hope is that all of you will stand in support of their work by attending their events, engaging with them in community and conversation and finding ways to make your own spaces more inclusive,” said Huftalin. “There is no space for hateful and racist speech on our campuses.”
Update: The BSU will host a panel discussion about the events that transpired during the poetry slam on Friday, Feb. 12.