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AZHER: Moving beyond free speech — why I say F—k U.Va.

Conversations about Lawn room posters must move beyond free speech, and towards actual equity and justice for marginalized communities

<p>I was recently involved in several debates and controversy over a sign on my Lawn room door.</p>

I was recently involved in several debates and controversy over a sign on my Lawn room door.

I am an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, and I was recently involved in several debates and controversy over a sign on my Lawn room door, which states “Fuck UVA. UVA Operating Costs - KKKops, Genocide, Slavery, Disability, Black and Brown Life.”

I want to start off by explaining why I have been hesitant to speak thus far. To be very clear, it is not my job to justify my anger, and I have no obligation to rationalize my expression of that anger simply because it makes those complicit in mine and others’ oppression uncomfortable. As a Muslim woman of color at this University, I am constantly and painstakingly aware that this institution was not made for people like me, and everyday, the University continues to function and uphold white supremacist ideals that makes this very clear for marginalized students all across Grounds. I am aware that the University and the Lawn have always been, and will continue to function as, a space for whiteness in which I will never be fully welcomed. By writing this, I am also aware of how it will continue to endanger me as a student studying and living at the University. I do not write this to create a space for conversation with those that are offended by my expression of anger, including President Jim Ryan, because frankly that is a futile pursuit. I also do not write this as the spokesperson or the representative of these complicated issues. Rather, I write this to recontextualize my sign in a greater history and to push us to think beyond free speech. 

It is undeniable that white supremacy and settler-colonialism are foundational to the University of Virginia. The University was founded by a white supremacist rapist and enslaver on stolen Monacan and Manahoac land and built by enslaved laborers. The University continues to enforce these ideals through its current policing and surveillance, exploitation of students and their labor, harm to the Charlottesville community and constant violence towards Black and Brown lives.

In my own experience, this violence was enacted upon me most recently through the University’s blatant disregard for my life, health and safety as I lived in a Lawn room that was not at all physically accessible to me. This resulted in weeks during which I was left without a stable home, and constant movement between different housing, that further complicated my injury and compromised my health. Even now, as I recover from surgery, I am forced to live outside of my room because the University still refuses to make this campus safe and accessible.

I want to be clear that although the University’s disregard for my health was the most pressing concern I had at the time of this sign’s creation, the sign is not limited to this experience or to myself. Rather, this institution’s violence is prevalent from the very first day any Black person, Indigenous person or person of color enters Grounds. The violence within this institution reveals itself when a University Police Department officer waited outside of my door in the middle of the night, endangering me and my neighbors, simply because it had been reported that someone was “offended” by my sign. The violence within this institution reveals itself when Dean Allen Groves forwarded my contact information without my consent to University Police Department Chief, Timothy Longo, a man integral in the continued lack of justice in the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers. The violence within this institution reveals itself when a white, male alumnus felt entitled to harass me at my door using a razor blade. The violence within this institution reveals itself when administrators attempt to tone-police and quiet the voice of angry and grieving marginalized students. The violence within this institution reveals itself when the University publicly condemns its students and offers them no protection time and time again. The violence within this institution reveals itself when its president states, “As long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson.” It is clear that the violence of this institution is constant and all around us — it is this oppression on which we must focus our energy and effort. 

We need to move the conversation beyond the sign and beyond free speech. When I spoke with Jim Ryan prior to his statements, I set three strict boundaries — firstly, he could not simplify and minimize this to a conversation about free speech. Secondly, he could not publicly condemn my sign. Thirdly, he must acknowledge the truth and lived realities of the people who built and were exploited by this University currently and historically. With this knowledge, he chose not to follow any of these boundaries and disregarded my requests, protecting and prioritizing white supremacy over the lives of marginalized students again. It is also apparent that the University’s focus on free speech is intentional and calculated. The University, in the same fashion as white supremacists like Brit Hume, are using this shift of conversation as a tactic to delegitimize the sign and its critiques. Although we are rightfully upset by the threat of our messages being forcefully quieted, we must move the conversation beyond free speech. 

We cannot expect or rely on the University, a force of exploitation and violent oppression, to protect our voices. As the phrase goes, “we will always be too loud for a world not ready to hear us.” We all know that the uproar around this sign is not simply about profanity or free speech. It is about the shame and humiliation that those with privilege in this elitist space are forced to face. It is about the immense discomfort and fragile white guilt which arises when these people are addressed with their complacency and support in preserving a monument to white supremacy. We cannot appease them and we cannot rely on them to value us or our voices.  We do not rely on the University and its various violent bodies to protect us — we protect us. We, therefore, have to be as intentional about using our voices as the University is in silencing them. This is why we must focus our energy not on the sign or on free speech, but on the organizations and communities that have always created space for resistance to this oppression.

I will be very vulnerable and say that one of my greatest mistakes at U.Va. was my decision to live on the Lawn. Although I was given visibility through a platform, it was at the cost of my own and my community’s health, stability and safety. I will not tell you what to do, but I urge you all to consider this. Can you imagine a world in which we use our voices and our collective action to strip the lawn, and this larger institution, of its power to oppress us? The truth is that these spaces of resistance already exist and it is through these communities of radical love, communities of struggle, communities of faith and communities of resistance through which we gain our power. We refuse to be silenced because our communities and our movements refuse to be silenced. Thus I urge you all to move beyond free speech and support these movements. When we organize, come out, show up and make noise. When we make demands, sign and share them. When we say “Fuck U.Va.,” do not simply fight for our right to say it, but fight unapologetically against the injustices that have fueled it.

The following are links to various demands and campaigns currently in progress by grassroots organizations at the University and in Charlottesville.

Accessibility on Grounds: A Working Document

Young Democratic Socialists of America Demands: No In-Person Classes, No Acceptable Losses

UVA RA Demands

Black Student Alliance Demands

United Campus Workers of Virginia #ActFastUVA Campaign


Hira Azher is a fourth-year in the College. 

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.

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