“Are you a person of color first, or a journalist first?”
In a way, this is a question I had prepared to answer my entire life. My reasons for wanting to become a journalist and my own background are inextricable. As a Mexican-American woman who grew up in a Texas border city, I’ve always been observing, asking questions, and writing. My journalism begins with my own family.
But there I was on February 7, 2018, being grilled by a group of two (and later three) students about my journalism in the context of my ethnic and racial identity. These students are part of the leadership of a student organization at St. John’s University in Queens, New York that is heading a movement to gain equity for marginalized students on campus.
I had worked with this particular group before, covering a demonstration they led in November 2017 that then turned into a meeting with an administrator. The article I wrote on that was published in December 2017.
Each time I feel victorious and hopeful for every advance that this group—in conjunction with other student organizations—makes in creating a more equitable environment for students of color at the university, I also think about how a few members of their leadership demeaned me and a fellow Torch editor. I think about the very incomplete story that these same members of the leadership circulated, and everything that followed. Needless to say, it’s a very complicated feeling and a complicated story.
February 1, 2018: The Demonstration
The previous Thursday, we had sent four students to cover a public demonstration that began as a march around campus and culminated in an airing of grievances in the Little Theatre, an auditorium on campus.
Dozens of Black students who had experienced racism at the university were brave enough to take to the stage and discuss their experiences, all of which were traumatic and painful for them to relay.
I was at my internship that day, but I remember tuning in to an Instagram livestream that evening during my commute home, courtesy of one of the social justice organizations present at the event.
I listened to fellow students recount their stories about racist incidences at the university. I tuned out of the livestream with a heaviness in my chest I’m all too familiar with.
I knew we needed to cover this story, and we needed to do it right. As the independent student newspaper, it’s our responsibility to be a part of the effort to prevent the university community from continuing to ignore reality: The deep, undeniable disparity between how students of color and white students are treated.
At the demonstration, one of our photographers, C, was jeered at by a group of attendees and told to leave the event. She felt uncomfortable and unwelcome, and left of her own accord.
One of our reporters, B—another fellow editor who was initially going to report on and write the story—identified herself as a reporter for the Torch, and was told by some attendees that the student newspaper was not welcome, and by others that they wanted this to be covered and more awareness drawn to it.
Despite the mixed reactions, she said she felt comfortable and welcome enough to stay, and even stepped onstage to share her own experiences as a Black woman and student at the university (this is the main reason she ended up not writing the article, as she said she felt her objectivity was compromised by participating in the event).
B’s reporting, alongside M and our editor-in-chief’s reporting, is what served as the basis for the article.
B also said that multiple students were recording and Snapchatting the event on their personal social media accounts, and no one asked her for permission to do so when it was her turn to speak.
(B later wrote an opinion piece about her experience at both the demonstration and town hall, as well as her overall view on the boycott situation.)
The entire event was also livestreamed on multiple organizations’ social media accounts, as well as on multiple students’ own personal social media accounts. There is a public video on YouTube filmed and edited by a student that also contains footage from the event.
A staff writer, S, was also covering the demonstration. She expressed her hesitance at covering the event, and said that members from the same organization—whose representatives we later sat down with the following Wednesday—were threatening to boycott the Torch if we reported on what was happening. I read this text and let the rest of the e-board know.
We were all confused about what had changed over Christmas break.
Our other photographer, J, arrived at the demonstration later. He was not asked by anyone to leave, and felt comfortable enough to stay and continue taking pictures.
February 7, 2018: Publication of the Demonstration Story
M, a fellow editor who helped write the story about the demonstration and who was with me during the meeting, reached out to the two individuals whose harrowing experience with racist students at the school prompted the demonstration.
They were onboard at first to speak with her, but soon changed their minds.
M and our EIC reached out to a student organization that was heavily centered in the situation — and who they believed had organized the demonstration— and did not receive a response. This was noted in the story.
We published the story next Wednesday; by the early afternoon, almost every social justice organization on campus made an Instagram post with a graphic of the Torch issue with “CANCELLED” in a large red font across it, accompanied by the hashtag #BoycottTheTorch. The caption accompanying each post:
The torch appeared in the little theater on Thursday February 1st, 2018. They publicly asked for permission to take notes without taking pictures and they were given a holistic disapproval by 100+ students present. This is not a juicy story to us, this is our narrative. We condemn any group that treats it as a way to exploit our trauma.
The Pan-African Students Council along with SJU BSU will be endorsing a narrative written BY US, FOR US: “The Hue
As soon as I saw it, I felt my heart drop into my stomach.
Instead of awareness being brought to the issues at hand and the difficult but important conversations being spurred on to enact change—the article’s primary function—the focus now seemed to be a boycott of the Torch.
Regardless, I had a class later that day and I tried to focus on doing my homework for it. That went out the window when around four that afternoon, I received a call while I was at home.
Representatives of this student organization were at the Torch office, and wanted to speak to a Torch editor. I didn’t even think twice about agreeing to meet them there in fifteen minutes. I hurriedly texted the editorial board group chat that I was going, and ran out the door.
One other editor, M, texted that she was also going to go, as the rest of our editorial board was either still in class or at work. Our editor-in-chief cautioned us to be calm and professional no matter what.
I walked into our basement-level office and saw M already seated with three students. A friend of M’s and mine, L—who is also a writer for the Torch—was also present in the office throughout the meeting. L had volunteered to sit in on the meeting with us, as they wanted to be there as a witness in case things escalated.
(While L told me that they did not listen to the conversation in its entirety—namely its beginning—they listened in as the meeting seemed to escalate further into personal attacks. They consider themselves a witness to this.)
We exchanged greetings and I said we wanted to delve into the organization’s issues with our reporting.
“This is trash, you’re trash,” their student leader said, gesturing to the issue with his face plastered on the cover, flipping through the issue to make a point. He made sure to let us know that it wasn’t the cover he had an issue with at all, but the article’s sympathetic tone toward the university and the image of a woman at the demonstration in the Little Theatre.
They expressed that many students were angry with our reporting, and wanted to demonstrate against the Torch by destroying and burning those issues and raiding our office.
I responded that it is a student’s right to interact with the newspaper in whatever way they see fit (I later learned this is not exactly the case, as it is technically considered arson to burn anything on campus). I then reiterated that M and I wanted to go over the issues they had with the reporting.
The two members wanted to let us know that they were doing a favor by meeting with us—this isn’t something I disagreed with, as I was intent on fixing whatever needed to be fixed.
“Are you a person of color first, or a journalist first?” One of the other members asked us. I responded that I’m a journalist of color, and M, not fully understanding the question, said she was a journalist first.
This incited a barrage of demeaning and condescending remarks, the student leader of the group and a member speaking over each other as they wanted to let M know just how wrong her answer was.
“I’ve never been met with a question like that,” M told me later. “I grew up in Puerto Rico, we are all people of color. I am innately a person of color, who is going to question that?” M is a Puerto Rican and Dominican woman who moved to the mainland U.S. when she was fifteen years old.
Throughout the meeting, they—and particularly, their leader—spoke down to us as though M and I were clueless about our own realities that we face as women of color.
About ten to fifteen minutes into the meeting, the group’s head of public relations joined us. She said that she had vouched for me, and their leader confirmed that this was the only reason the organization had worked with me for the article published in the December 7, 2017 issue.
The leader mentioned that he found problems with my reporting on that story. When I asked him to elaborate on what he found was inaccurate about my reporting, he said that he shouldn’t have to validate my question with a response.
(Full disclosure: I had not received any feedback from the organization on this previous story, other than a series of insistent texts from their public relations head who wanted several copies of the issue so she could distribute them as Christmas presents to friends.)
M and I kept trying to redirect the conversation back to their specific issues with our reporting, so we knew what to take another look at and address. But the conversation (if it could even be called that) was scattered and unclear, and kept coming back personally to M and me, and what we felt was them using our own identities against us.
For almost an hour, my fellow editor and I were degraded in a unique way that we had never experienced before, much less from people who claimed to be fighting for us.
At one point, one of the students threatened to hit M across the face.
The group brought up Hurricane Maria to make a point about systemic oppression, and almost brought M to tears in the process. Two of them pointed this out, and insisted she was crying because she is a tool of the university.
I’m sure they didn’t realize that the reason she got emotional is because she has numerous friends and family who live in Puerto Rico.
My notebook page where I took notes of their concerns remains sparse. It reads:
The event was private.
The group’s student leader insisted on this: The demonstration outside (when students were marching around campus), but once they stepped foot into the Little Theatre, it was a private one, closed off to the press.
We double-checked with the school and involved officials to make sure this was not the case. It was a public event, period.
Additionally, it was recorded and livestreamed by other students and all the organizations present.
Also, the airing of grievances in the Little Theatre was not planned by anyone involved in organizing the demonstration. Administration members directed students out of the staircase in Newman Hall to the Little Theatre.
They as a collective kicked out Torch people.
Thanks to B’s experience and reporting, we know this is not true. When we brought up B’s account, they dismissed her and said she was wrong. Their student leader brushed this off when we relayed this, insisting that we had been misinformed.
“Someone needs to be fired,” their student leader insisted.
Made students feel worse. Exacerbated trauma.
They brought up the woman in the photo we published, and spoke for her. We did not receive any sort of grievance or request from the student herself, we had only their word that she was upset.
If you are one of these people whose image was published in the Torch, and you do not want it there, I urge you to reach out to the editorial board by emailing email@example.com.
They insisted that most students involved in the movement were angry at the fact that our reporters even covered the event.
To date, no one else has reached out to us with specific concerns or grievances about our reporting. To date, many of the recordings of the demonstration are online.
Portrayed an easy struggle in terms of wording.
Looking back and examining the article, I can see how it could be perceived as being too neutral. The article contained an interview with a university official, but not one with students or even a statement from student organizations involved. However, this was not for lack of trying or reaching out.
The student leader we sat down with insisted that we should’ve reached out to their organization first, and said that they were actually the ones behind organizing the demonstration.
The editors who wrote the story had reached out to the organization that they had believed headed the demonstration, and that actually was at the center of what was going on.
One of the individuals—whose experience being harassed by racist students spurred on the demonstration—was a member of this organization. This particular organization had also been the first to post about it and called for justice for those two affected students.
The editors did not receive a response from them. (It should also be noted that this organization also took part in the boycott of the Torch).
The article did not go into detail about the painful experiences students experienced. This was because the editors could not corroborate them, as they would have had to get additional comment from every involved department that was mentioned.
Most importantly: We cannot publish the viewpoints of students who do not want to speak with us. We cannot speak for students, we can only give a platform for their voices by reporting on what they are saying and doing.
Another demand they had: Don’t cover the upcoming university-wide town hall with the president and members of the board of trustees, which was open to all students.
They added that they couldn’t control what students would do if Torch reporters were present at the town hall.
This event was supposed to be for students to voice their concerns and experiences to university leadership (and it should be noted that students had been demanding a meeting with the president since November, as we reported in the Torch).
They then ended the meeting with affirmations of love directed toward M and me: “We love you, you are our sisters,” they insisted.
They also said that if we didn’t remove every single copy of the issue from the university, they couldn’t control what would happen next.
They ended the meeting, grabbing stacks of Torch issues on their way out—about 100 copies.
“This is for your own good,” the head of PR told us as they walked out, stacks of issues in their arms.
M and I sat in shock, not quite sure what we had just experienced. Everything felt unreal. If M hadn’t been there and I had met with them alone, I would’ve been questioning my sanity even more.
We called our adviser for guidance, relaying what had just happened as clearly as we could. I appreciate him so much for being a voice of reason during the vulnerable, highly emotional time that followed that meeting. We also talked to our EIC, who similarly placed the focus on what was to come next.
I knew that people within these organizations clearly felt like we had wronged them, and I was prepared to listen and take notes.
My fellow editor and I sat down with members of their leadership to accomplish this, and instead, we both attempted to keep our composure as we were demeaned like never before, our identities picked apart for almost an hour.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from the meeting. I knew there would be anger, and I’m no stranger to it. I’ll admit that I was—and remain—angry about the state of affairs at our university and the way students of color have been dehumanized time and time again.
But even with months of reflection and conversation, I still can’t explain what that meeting was.
February 8, 2018: The Town Hall
One of our assistant editors, J, volunteered to cover the event after our editor-in-chief verified with the university that the town hall was open to the university community — meaning we were well within our rights, as students and journalists, to be there.
The town hall coverage went off without a hitch the day of (it should also be noted that the town hall turned into conflict among students who were divided about how to approach administrators —particularly those who were perceived as being inattentive to the students addressing them—and it ended with both students and the university leadership, including the president, walking out before it was set to end).
In a statement released the Saturday after the town hall, the group maintained that the decision to walk out “was not the decision of solely one person,” but the organization as a whole. The statement added, “We in no way meant to disrespect or antagonize anyone, but to make a statement towards the administration.”
Things didn’t remain quiet for long.
Despite the boycott, our editor-in-chief directed J to reach out to the various multicultural organizations on campus who had actively advertised the town hall, to get their perspectives on the matter.
Within less than an hour, I received a call from one of the same people who had sat with M and me that Wednesday. Once again, students demanded to meet with the Torch.
I wasn’t on campus that day, so I sent a text to our editorial board’s group chat about the phone call.
Our EIC, M, and J (who had worked on the town hall story) were in our office at the time. They said they were preparing to head home, and our EIC replied to me saying we could not meet with them at that time — she had been told previously to not do so without someone else present after what we had gone through just days before.
As they walked out, they said a group of students were already standing there waiting for them, some of which were the same students from the Wednesday meeting.
They asked to go down into our office to talk, and our editor-in-chief said no, that they could talk outside.
The students demanded to know why we had covered the town hall, and why our reporter, J, reached out to them for comment.
They asked if J had done it on his own or been “influenced.” When J asked what that meant, they asked if someone told him to do so. When our editor-in-chief said she had told him to, they asked her who she was.
The students proceeded to berate the three editors for a few minutes about our coverage, saying we only care about our newspaper and that we were re-traumatizing students and exploiting them by reporting on what had happened on campus.
Once more, they asked whether the story would be published. Our EIC said yes, and they once again said they couldn’t control what students would do when the story comes out.
The situation had come to a head.
Many members of our staff felt concerned about their safety in the wake of the events that had transpired that week. In the face of repeated threats, we were all unsure. Conversations swirled throughout the weekend on what to do, not only editorially, but also regarding the safety of our reporters and editorial board.
We decided to publish the entire issue, along with the story, not backing down to their demands. We also published an editorial that week defending our work and addressing some (not all) of the issues surrounding the boycott.
Additionally, because the situation had escalated into threats and our basement-level office was easily accessed from the outside with only one entrance and exit, we got the Office of Public Safety involved. They further limited the outside access on the doors leading to our office to e-board members only, and sent an officer to sit with us throughout that production night.
To say I was uncomfortable with this would be an understatement. Truthfully, I am still uncomfortable with it.
The options were incredibly limited, as was time, and I still don’t know what the right answer is. Should we have left the threats unreported?
Once it came to threats, this was no longer about me or anyone as an individual, but the safety of every Torch reporter and editor. I felt pushed into a corner like never before.
The aftermath of it all was even worse. To watch as other social justice organizations—many of whom we have all worked closely with throughout the years, who had even in the past thanked us for our work in reporting on them—stood with the actions of the leadership of this particular organization.
Student organizations at this university who claim to provide a space for people like me no longer feel welcoming. That door has been closed to me, and to my fellow editors and reporters of color and other marginalized identities. We can no longer look to these spaces for solidarity, learning, or healing.
People I had been friendly with and worked closely with went along with this condemnation of the Torch throughout social media. No one from any organization came to any of us to ask what was going on.
I consider myself lucky; other editors have lost close friends who can’t even look them in the eye anymore, or are living in constant discomfort and tension because their roommates have never even thought to ask about the details.
Online, students, alumni, and professors alike egged on some of the student orgs to take further action toward the Torch.
I kept asking myself, do they know? Are they aware of everything that happened, or are they only familiar with the narrative being circulated via social media about a collective, “holistic” demand that the Torch not cover the events that day in February?
I can’t exactly say if there’s a concrete lesson I’ve learned from this ordeal. At this point, I have sifted through every fact, every incident that made up this situation, trying to find real clarity.
There is undoubtedly an ethical (rather than legal) question about whether journalists should cover an event when its participants do not want it to be reported on. But when the narrative being circulated is a false one about a collective, “holistic” response?
The reality of that day in February is that some people didn’t want the Torch there, while others did.
What would it have meant for the independent student newspaper of the university to ignore such a significant occurrence?
I did not write this to discredit the collective student movement that is ongoing at St. John’s University.
I believe the university must listen to and collaborate with them, and other students pushing for change, in order to implement real change for students of color and students of other marginalized identities. The university must look into the material consequences of its repeated inaction, and the message it sends about how it regards its students of color.
I’d like to make it clear that the main issue we need to focus on is the university’s responsibility in fixing the way these students are treated, on an individual and systemic level.
Administration needs to confront these issues rather than waiting for students’ anger to seemingly die out so business can continue as usual. While there tends to be an ebb and flow of conversation and it can sometimes seem like students move on from these issues, I can guarantee that students will never truly forget the experience of being dehumanized and ignored at their own school.
If St. John’s wants to continue using the diversity of its students as a marketing tool, then at the very least, it needs to take this movement’s demands seriously.
However, accountability and transparency is something I believe is a necessary quality for leaders of any movement or organization. As a journalist, I’m certainly not excluded from this standard. I wrote this to relay my experience and to fill in some added details about what happened this past semester.
I have since graduated as of May 20 and am no longer part of the Torch; new editorial board elections were on April 8, 2018. I did not write this as a Torch editor, this is a heavily fact-checked reflection on my own experiences.