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Milwaukee: Students honor Vanessa Guillén, protest UWM Professor Schoeller and administration

By Rory Donovan |
July 10, 2020
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 Milwaukee students honor the memory of Vanessa Guillén.
Milwaukee students honor the memory of Vanessa Guillén. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Milwaukee, WI - On the evening of July 8, students and community members rallied at Spaights Plaza on UW-Milwaukee’s campus. They came together to honor Texas’ Vanessa Guillén and others who have lost their lives to sexual violence, and to hold Professor Betsy Schoeller accountable for her harmful comments about the situation, and the administration of UW-Milwaukee accountable for not taking action on hate speech.

Professor Schoeller’s comment implies that she believes sexual harassment and assault is justifiable. After her comment got national attention, she responded that she meant to clarify the sexism present in the military, not to glorify it, or condemn people who try to speak against it. Regardless of her intention, UW-Milwaukee reacted quickly to protect Professor Schoeller on the grounds that they cannot do anything to address it because it would be an infringement on her freedom of speech.

This is not new behavior for UWM, whose administration consistently chooses not to address hate speech, or actively encourages it by punishing students who seek to prevent its spread on campus. For example, in May 2019, UWM student Grae Hosmanek was arrested by campus police after taking and ripping up an anti-Semitic sign that was held by a Nazi at an event organized by a Jewish student organization. She was charged with theft, vandalism, disorderly conduct and obstructing an officer. After students at UWM and trade unionists from the Milwaukee Area Labor Council’s Young Workers Committee rallied in solidarity, her charges were dropped.

The organizers of the July 8 event had two clear demands for UWM: to create clear steps and an accountability plan laid out publicly, including a thorough review and investigation of past complaints concerning Professor Schoeller; and that Professor Schoeller must resign or be terminated after making a public apology to Vanessa Guillén’s family and to all the people who she hurt and offended.

“We’re here because UWM took that repulsive comment for what it was, and used the excuse of free speech like they always do,” said Margarita Garcia Rojas, one of the event organizers. “We’re here to celebrate the life of Vanessa, and the thousands of lives that have been killed by white supremacy.”

Around 200 people turned out for the rally, which included several speakers, nine-minutes of silence, an altar to honor Guillén and others who lost their lives to sexual violence, and chalking messages and posting signs all over campus. Speakers included veterans, one of whom shared her story of surviving sexual assault in the military, a UWM staff member, and students, one of whom represented the new UW-Milwaukee chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

“What are you doing to make a change?” Emily Cruz, one of the event organizers, asked the crowd. “What are you doing to make sure what happened to Vanessa never happens again, and comments like Betsy Schoeller’s never go unchallenged?”

By the end of the event, campus was covered in messages of support for survivors of sexual assault and harassment, and demanding accountability from UWM. However, less than 24 hours later, UWM power washed these chalk messages away, answering Cruz’s question, and making their stance on the issue even more obvious.

“What did UWM do when made aware of our demands? They reflexively supported the faculty member. UWM’s immediately aggressive stance in defense of Professor Schoeller’s hate speech should leave us with one question: what are they doing for us?” said SDS member Jack Rongstad. “Either UWM listens to us and transforms, or they drop the pretensions and tell us to go to hell.”

SDS intends to keep the pressure on UWM administrators to ensure that the demands put forward at this action are not ignored. But this is just the beginning. Their goal is to address many of the other problems on campus.

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