Matt Williams, Guardian (London), March 4, 2013
A liberal arts college in Ohio suspended classes on Monday after a series of racist and homophobic incidents on campus.
Over the past month at Oberlin College, swastikas have been daubed on windows, gay-rights flyers defaced and a poster for Black History Month overwritten to read “Nigger History Month”.
On Monday, police were called to investigate a sighting of someone dressed as a member of the Klu Klux Klan near the college’s Afrikan Heritage House in the early hours of the morning.
That prompted officials to suspend classes “to make a strong statement about the values that we cherish here at Oberlin: inclusion, respect for others, and a strong and abiding faith in the worth of every individual”.
Officers later indicated the KKK sighting could have been a case of mistaken identity, noting that college security found a student wrapped in a blanket nearby.
Oberlin is famed for its liberal and progressive politics, and has a long tradition of promoting civil rights. It was one of the first colleges in the US to admit black students, and its list of commencement speakers includes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Rev Jesse Jackson.
More recently, Oberlin has been noted as one of the most gay-friendly colleges in the country.
Its long tradition of progressive values made the recent spate of racist and homophobic graffiti all the more jarring for students and staff.
According to college newspaper The Oberlin Review, the vandalism began on 9 February, with the defacing of Black History Month and Year of the Queer posters.
This was followed three days later with a note found in the Multicultural Resource Center that read “Nigger + Faggot Center”. A “Whites Only” notice was written above a water fountain and a swastika was drawn on a window, the college newspaper also reported.
The final straw for college staff came with Monday’s reported sighting of a suspect in KKK robes.
A joint statement from faculty including college president Marvin Krislov and dean of students Eric Estes said it involved “a person wearing a hood and robe resembling a KKK outfit” and that police were investigating.
The statement read: “This event, in addition to the series of other hate-related incidents on campus, has precipitated our decision to suspend formal classes and non-essential activities for today.”
Instead, students and staff were encouraged to “gather for a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks”.
Lt Mike McCloskey of Oberlin police told the Guardian on Monday that officers were still following up the KKK sighting, but suggested that the only witness may have been mistaken.
“Officers checked the area and were unable to locate anybody. College security later saw a student wrapped in a blanket.”
McCloskey suggested that the apparent missighting may have been an innocent mistake. He also indicated that those responsible for the racist vandalism had now been caught and were being dealt with.
“My understanding is that the individuals are college students and they have been identified. They are no longer on campus. The college is dealing with it internally, and we have been working in co-operation with the college.”
He added: “Charges could be happening, depending on prosecutors’ review. Our case file has been forwarded to prosecutors.”
Two students are thought to be behind the vandalism, but it is unclear if they were motivated by racial hatred, or — as has been suggested — were attempting a commentary on free speech.