On Wednesday afternoon, students at American University filled the Kay Spiritual Life Center, a round building on campus. They packed the chapel’s pews. Some sat on the floor. Eventually, Sylvia M. Burwell, the university’s president, stood before the crowd.
And as Burwell spoke, she began to cry.
“This made me both angry and sad,” Burwell said, speaking about a disturbing discovery the night before. “Angry, because this behavior exists in our nation and sad because, as a person of faith, I don’t actually understand this kind of hate. Sad, as well, because people in our community are feeling pain and anger.”
The campus community came together just hours after students learned that Confederate flag posters bearing chunks of cotton had been found at the university, in Northwest Washington. School officials decried the displays, which were reported Tuesday night and remained under investigation Wednesday evening.
“Everyone is kind of on edge,” said Denise Moyo, an 18-year-old AU freshman. “At this point, we’re waiting to see how not only students will react, but how AU and the faculty will react.”
It was the latest in a series of racially charged episodes at the private university and arrived at a time when college campuses across the nation are embroiled in discussions and protests over free speech.
“We have to stop saying this is an everybody problem, because it’s clearly a black student problem,” said Sydney Jones, president of American University’s NAACP chapter.
At least 10 posters were discovered at a handful of locations on campus, including the Mary Graydon Center, said Fanta Aw, AU’s vice president of campus life.
Burwell, the university’s president, said in a statement that video evidence shows “the perpetrator(s)” coming onto the campus in Northwest Washington and posting the displays. Authorities said they believe the perpetrator is a white man who is about 40 years old. In the photo, the man is wearing what appears to be safety gear, including an orange hard hat and a yellow vest.
“We must stand together strongly against this act, which was intended to frighten and divide our community,” she said in the statement.
The incident comes as Burwell, the first woman to lead the school, is just three months into the job.
“I ask you to join me in standing together and show that we will not be intimidated,” she said in her statement. “AU will respond strongly to attempts designed to harm and create fear. Instead, we will recommit to creating a community that does not stand by. When one of us is attacked, all of us are attacked.”
Morse said the case was being handled by university police and was not being investigated by D.C. police or federal officials.
Aw’s statement noted that the Confederate posters appeared the same night that historian Ibram Kendi offered a presentation to introduce the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, a new initiative at AU that is designed to work on issues around racial inequality.
“AU is committed to the vision of the center and Dr. Kendi’s work and we will not be deterred by this cowardly attempt at intimidation,” Aw’s statement said.
Kendi said his event Tuesday night was a chance to lay out a vision for the center. He saw the posters himself, he said.
“I wasn’t surprised. I just felt sad and concerned for our students — for our students who had to endure other incidents, and who I know would become even more fearful as a result of these posters that were circulating around campus,” he said. “So my initial reaction was to really think about the students, and was more or less hoping that this incident, like any incident in the past and like any incident in the future, would not slow them down.”
Kendi said he was not sure if the posters were directly tied to the new center.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s either a coincidence, or it’s not a coincidence. But this isn’t going to, in any way, slow down the work of the center. If anything, it’s going to accelerate it.”
The university’s student government issued a statement praising those who reported the posters to campus police and thanking the university for acting quickly.
“To American University students who are concerned with their safety as a result of this and other acts that we have faced as a community this year, know that we will not stop advocating for a safer, more inclusive and united student body,” it read.
The Anti-Defamation League also expressed “deep concern” over the posters. The civil rights group noted that since Sept. 1, 2016, it has documented more than 200 incidents involving white supremacist flyers on campuses.
“These incidents are being used increasingly to create a climate of fear and intimidation,” Doron Ezickson, the ADL’s regional director in Washington, said in a statement. “These racist posters must always be taken seriously, and responded to appropriately.”
The Confederate posters appeared just months after another racially charged incident on AU’s campus. That episode in May involved bananas found hanging from strings “in the shape of nooses,” according to the school.
A statement released at the time explained that the bananas were “marked with the letters AKA.” Those are the letters for Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority with membership that is predominantly African-American. On Wednesday, Burwell said the number of security cameras on campus had increased from 400 to 600 since May.
In September 2016, a black student at AU reported that a banana was thrown at her in a dormitory. The same night, another black student discovered a rotten banana outside her dorm room door.
For American’s upperclassmen, the experience with the Confederate flag posters was “nothing new,” said Jones, the president of the AU chapter of the NAACP. Many students believe the school’s administration has been complacent in the past, and hasn’t embraced more enduring measures to assure change, she said.
“Because of AU, I have become more radical in my thought, which is unfortunate,” Jones said. “Now I think students really have to take what they want, and if we want something, be serious about it and organize accordingly.”