Hempstead, NY – Students at Hofstra University held dueling protests on Friday over whether or not to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president and a slaveholder, which stands in front of the campus student center.
What began as student activists at Hofstra University demanding the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson from campus morphed into competing protests. The statue was donated to Hofstra in 1999, and has been the subject of protests dating back to 2004.
Ja’Loni Owens, a Hofstra student and Black Lives Matter activist, organized the “Jefferson Has Gotta Go!” protest, and started a change.org petition that claims the Jefferson statue belongs in a museum with proper context of “slavery, rape, eugenics, anti-black racism,” and “not displayed on a college campus, especially not in front of a hub of student life.”
In response to the initiative to remove the statue, a counter-petition calling for the statue to remain began circulating. As of press time, the petition for removing the statue had close to 1,000 signatures, while the petition against had over 1,500.
Richard Caldwell, the student who created the petition in favor of keeping the statue, said “I was originally not going to get involved in this, even though I disagreed with the statue being taken down, until we were falsely accused of being white supremacists and racists for simply wanting the statue to stay up.”
“I was shocked at this accusation, because I’ve never been called that,” Caldwell continued, adding that the statue was important for a continuing dialogue on U.S. history.
Campus Reform reported that although the protest to remove the statue was “slated to be held outside the Hofstra student center, JaLoni Owens, the protest organizer, announced in a Facebook status that safety concerns had prompted the protest to be moved inside, elaborating that media wouldn’t be allowed in the event. ‘YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SPEAK TO PRESS!!!’ Owens emphasized to her peers.”
Campus Reform obtained an exclusive video of the event taken by Kenneth Mulvena, a senior at Hofstra, and reports “the event quickly turned into a back-and-forth dialogue.”
Commentary from the anti-Jefferson protesters included claims that the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence did nothing for anyone “except white, straight men:”
[Thomas Jefferson] literally did not give me any rights. He didn’t give half the people in this room any rights, so don’t tell me that he gave me rights, because he didn’t. He took them away from me a century before, when America stole Mexico’s land,” another protester told a cheering crowd.
America stole a lot from me, and from my people, so I don’t really give a shit about anything that created America, because they took it all from Mexico, and from other countries,” the protester continued, adding, “I want y’all to know, that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution didn’t do anything for people of color or queer people or nonbinary people or anybody else except white, straight men.
Hofstra student Conor Dawson, who gave a short speech advocating respectful dialogue, described how the notion was met with calls of “white supremacist” from the opposing side.
“Richard and I went up to give our speeches which equated to ‘listen to the other side and maybe you’ll like get a new perspective’ or something like that,” he told Campus Reform. “These were greeted with boos and jeers from the opposite crowd including one of them yelling at us that we were white supremacist.”
“We were disappointed with how it turned out because we felt that even though the whole point of the counter protest had been that we’d be heard as people, we really weren’t,” Dawson concluded.
Echoing similar sentiments as Dawson, Mulvena stated, “Some protesters were considerate and respectful of everybody, but many were very rude to those that wanted to make counterpoints and statements.”