Black student censured in St. Louis for challenging Israeli spin

St. Louis University has upheld its punishment of a student for criticizing Israel.

During a student-organized event celebrating Israel’s humanitarian aid ventures around the world in April, Christopher Winston, then a sophomore, challenged the speakers with evidence of Israel’s human rights violations.

Student organizers threatened to call the campus police on Winston, the only Black person in the room. They subsequently filed a “no-contact” order against him, claiming they were “concerned for their health and well-being.”

The university charged that Winston was involved in a “bias-related incident.”

Along with mandating that he meet university officials and write a letter explaining his actions, St. Louis University gave Winston a disciplinary warning, which will be in effect until May 2017.

Winston complained about the punishment to the university’s appeal board, asserting that he was not given a proper chance to refute the allegations against him.

In a letter dated 8 June, the board said it upheld the university’s findings that he was responsible for “disruptive behavior.” The letter was seen by The Electronic Intifada.

The level of punishment “is outrageous,” said Rahul Saksena, staff attorney with the organization Palestine Legal.

Saksena had admonished the Missouri university’s initial decision to punish Winston. In a letter to the university’s president, he called the charges “baseless.”

Saksena wrote that the university’s treatment of Winston “insinuates discrimination based on race.”

“I asked questions”

A video posted to YouTube, above, shows Winston remarking on attacks by Israeli forces against Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances and politely challenging the presenters.

One of the presenters says, “If you want to have a discussion regarding the conflict between Israel and Palestine, this is not the event for it.”

In a statement, Winston says he “did not interrupt, disrupt, or ask questions during the presentation section of the event, out of respect for a Muslim friend who was also present at the event and wanted things to remain as civil as possible.”

“When the time for questions came, however, I asked questions,” he says.

But instead of answering Winston’s questions and engaging in debate, one of the student organizers of the event threatened to call campus police, Winston states, in order to remove him from the room.

Winston told The Electronic Intifada that the threat to call the police against a young Black man when he challenges viewpoints was “typical.”

“White settlers, whether they be in Israel, South Africa, or the United States, designed and armed the police and military to beat down struggle from the masses of people who rise against their genocidal activities and behavior,” he added, pointing out that the US police force is historically rooted in patrols against enslaved Africans.

“The police in Israel support settlers when they murder or attack Palestinian people. They know they stand on quicksand and can’t hold up against mountains of evidence against them in actual debate, so they seek instead to use armed force to silence and destroy instead,” Winston said.

After being threatened with campus security, Winston then left the room, saying “Thank you, your Zionist fascism is on full display today.”

Singled out for police threat

Christopher Winston

The event organizers singled out Winston in their threat to call police.

Winston “was not the only individual who asked questions perceived as being critical of Israel during the event,” says Saksena in his letter.

“At least one other student, Joe Milburn, reported to me that he asked a question about Israeli aid to Gaza,” Saksena adds. “The event organizers did not threaten to call campus security on Mr. Milburn, who is white. No charges were subsequently brought against Mr. Milburn.”

About a week after the event, Winston says he was told by the administration via email that he was the subject of a complaint by the lecture co-organizers, who are members of the Jewish Student Association.

He was asked to attend a meeting with the Department of Student Responsibility and Community Standards to offer his perspective of events.

However, during the meeting, Winston says, he was given a “no contact order,” granted by the university administration, which prohibits him from engaging in contact with the two students in person, via email or through social media.

The letter states that the students, Scott Lasky and David Weinstein, “feel concerned for their health and well-being” as a result of Winston’s “alleged disconcerting and inappropriate behavior.”

Winston was not notified that the complaints were made against him and was not given an opportunity to refute the allegations.

Less than one month later, Winson was told he was found guilty of involvement in a “bias-related incident.”

“The finding suggested that St. Louis University administrators interpreted Winston’s anti-Zionist commentary and criticism of Israeli human rights abuses as anti-Semitic hate speech,” reported AlterNet.

Israel advocates have long been attempting to conflate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism as a way to shut down debate and discussion of Israel’s human rights violations.

Such groups have pressured university officials to adopt this conflation and punish students and professors who criticize Israel.

University administrations have also punished students and academics over the concept of “civility.”

Saksena argued that “civility” is “used to stifle speech that might be unpopular.” Such suppression had occurred in Winston’s case, he added.

“If you watch the video, the tone and the manner in which [Winston] asks questions, the time in which he asks them, nothing about it was uncivil,” Saksena told The Electronic Intifada.

“He was completely polite. The problem that the organizers of the event had was that [the questions] were critical of Israeli government policy.”

St. Louis University did not respond to The Electronic Intifada’s request for comment.

“Principle”

In the letter of reflection he was required to write to the university as part of his punishment package, Winston told The Electronic Intifada that “I did not apologize to the university, and I certainly did not apologize to the Zionists who started this whole prairie fire in the first place.”

“I still have some semblance of principle; I didn’t capitulate or anything like that,” he said.

Saksena said that Palestine Legal is continuing to monitor St. Louis University “and the way in which they handle speech related to Palestine, and in particular Palestine advocacy by students of color.”

Winston and Palestine Legal are also considering legal action, Saksena said.

“He was given these disciplinary measures for doing nothing wrong,” said Saksena. “He was doing what he should have been doing as a student, which is challenging other people’s ideas and going to academic events to challenge his own ideas.”

Winston said he has received support from the Black Student Alliance at his university, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Palestine solidarity groups in St. Louis, as well as individual students.

He told The Electronic Intifada that the punishment has not deterred him from engaging in Palestine solidarity and political activism nor challenging speakers on Israeli policy in the future. He says he has not been compelled to transfer to another school.

“I am going to continue here as a student. If I drop out, it would be a victory for them,” he said.

“You do not check out from being a revolutionary.”

Meanwhile, in a reminder to students, Palestine Legal tweeted last month that students’ speech has a right to be impolite, controversial and “not civil” during campus events.

The group recently reported that it had responded to 171 incidents of repression in the first half of 2016 – 22 percent more than incidents reported during the same time period last year.

The incidents, which predominantly targeted students and scholars across the country, include “a variety of punitive measures such as administrative sanctions, censorship, intrusive investigations and other forms of discriminatory treatment targeting speech in favor of Palestinian rights,” Palestine Legal states.

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Does BDS have any support at St Louis University?

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Christopher Winston's interventions were entirely in order, and conducted in a spirit of civil and academic inquiry. The fact that the organizers of the meeting were completely unwilling to engage with his question is the only issue surrounding this incident. And it's certainly not one to be resolved by the university, least of all in the flagrantly biased manner displayed. Frankly, people are getting fed up with the phenomenon of right-wing advocates claiming to be in fear for their safety whenever their views are publicly challenged. The same thing is occurring in Britain with regard to the Blairite faction in the Labour Party. Criticism and critical thought are uncritically portrayed as dangerous, even violent.

So well done to this young student. He knows what he stands for, and he's unafraid to challenge these frauds.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).