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How Evergreen State College Became Ground Zero in America's Debate Over Free Speech and Race

The 'Day of Absence', an Evergreen College tradition where students and faculty of color voluntarily leave campus for one day, was turned on its head when white students and faculty were asked to leave instead, leading to a unending controversy

Washington state troopers stand between protesters with the conservative group Patriot Prayer and counter-protesters, Thursday, June 15, 2017
How Evergreen State College became ground zero in America's debate over free speech and race Ted S. Warren/AP

Controversy continues to simmer at Evergreen State College, centered around biology professor Bret Weinstein who spoke out against a proposed campus-wide event where white students and faculty would leave campus voluntarily for one day.

"The Day of Absence" is a decades-old tradition at the Washington state, based on the Douglas Turner Ward play by the same name. In past years, students and faculty of color used the Day of Absence to highlight their important role in the community by voluntarily leaving campus for one day. This year, however, it was proposed that it would be white students and faculty who'll be asked to leave.

Weinstein, a reported avid Bernie Sanders and Occupy Wall Street supporter, was among the first to speak out against the change. In an open letter to school administrators dated March 15th, Weinstein expressed his deep concerns over the new setup.

"There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles," he wrote, "and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away."

In an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience on June 2nd, Weinstein expanded on his dislike for the change, stating "I find [the decision] unacceptable, as a person, as somebody devoted to the gains of the civil rights movement, and I should probably also say, as a Jew. When people start telling me where I cannot be, it rings alarm bells."

Calls for his resignation followed, according to a Vice News segment aired on June 16th. One student interviewed for the Vice segment, identified as Haley, said that "we just wanted to be like, until you're accountable for these actions, you don't get to teach students at Evergreen." She continued, "at this point, we would like Bret to be fired. But that isn't happening. This administration is choosing to protect this white, cis-male professor over its students."

According to the New York Times, riot police and metal detectors were then brought to the school in the final days of the semester to help settle ongoing hostility. Patriot Prayer, an alt-right group unaffiliated with the college, came to the campus on June 15th bearing flags featuring alt-right symbol Pepe the Frog to show support for Weinstein.

Later in the interview, Haley accused Bret of indirectly provoking violence and of "validating white supremacists and Nazis in our community and in the nation." Another student in the Vice segment, Kirstin, expressed her hesitation to join the debate. "I'm afraid of having a nuanced opinion," she said, "because I'm afraid that my opinions and I will be stigmatized."

When told that many students had been calling him a white supremacist, of Evergreen State College President George Bridges expressed shock. "I'm assuming these students have said lots of things about me. I don't think I am [a white supremacist]." Though he adds later that "it depends on what you mean by a white supremacist. What does that mean? I am a white man in a position of privilege."