Michael Wenye Li / Sun File Photo

The Student Assembly is no stranger to contentious votes — but Nov. 19's over police disarmament was its first over Zoom.

December 2, 2020

The Student Assembly Rejected Cornell Police Disarmament. The Aftermath Erupted Into a Week of Hate and Harassment.

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Uche Chukwukere ’21 was studying for a semi-final in his fraternity chapter house when he opened an email notification with the subject line: “Uche Chukwukere: Cornell Student Terroristic Threat.”

His first response was to laugh in disbelief. The email had been sent to a laundry list of academic and professional supervisors and advisers, plus several journalists and Cornell senior administrators, including President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff. 

Chukwukere was shocked, but the response was not surprising. In the four days following a contentious Student Assembly vote over police disarmament, Chukwukere received a flurry of anonymous racist and homophobic attacks online: “It felt like they were trying to, essentially, virtually lynch me,” he said.

The next step was to share the email, which called for his expulsion, on Twitter — the sender blind copied him on batches of emails to people in his life. 

“I couldn’t help but think, ‘This is the cost of being Black at Cornell, of speaking up and out for your people,’” the S.A. vice president of finance said. He had been a cosponsor of Resolution 11, an S.A. proposition which would have urged the University to disarm the Cornell University Police Department — it failed by just one vote on Nov. 19.

Conversations on campus about police reform are nothing new, but this one came to a head in the three-hour S. A. meeting in the middle of semi-finals. Now, the arguments of the issue have been largely left behind, with the meeting’s procedure and decorum at the heart of the conversation instead.

The tensions started with a meeting with Police Chief David Honan that happened without inviting Resolution 11 co-sponsors. The Zoom kinks of the meeting amplified feelings of being unheard and silenced at a meeting with over 200 attendees. These tensions ultimately boiled over and were exacerbated online, degenerating into harassment campaigns and online crusades against different S.A. members.

With a crowd behind them, Julia Feliz, a former fellow at the Alliance for Science, speaks about their experience at the Student Assembly meeting at Willard Straight Hall in October 2019. (Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor)

The S.A. is no stranger to contentious votes: Just in the past year and a half, the assembly voted on a resolution based on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and another over a public statement in support of Julia Feliz, who called Cornell racist after they were dismissed from the University’s Alliance for Science program. Both garnered significant controversy and debate. 

But usually, these votes don’t end in targeted attacks. 

Thursday, Nov. 19 — The Meeting

The meeting was unruly, filled with numerous interruptions that halted the debate over CUPD disarmament. According to veteran S.A. members, Zoom, not just the nature of the vote, could take some of the blame.

“The barrier to participate in a Zoom call is a lot smaller than to participate in an actual meeting,” said Michael Stefanko ’22, S.A. parliamentarian, whose job is to clarify confusion over rules. 

Logging into this semester’s S.A. meetings was more accessible than trekking to the Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room, but came with new challenges: Participants named “Back the Blue” and “All Cops Are Bastards” listened in with their cameras off, and interruptions devolved into yelling matches that concluded with everyone being muted.

“In person, you look someone in the eye when you address them. In person, you have to sit next to them, talk to them, work with them, face your words and your actions,” Freshman representative Kayla Butler ’24 wrote in a statement to The Sun. “Being over Zoom has almost permitted a certain impersonality.”

Usually, community members stand in lines for microphones to speak during open comment periods, making it clear whose turn it is. But on Zoom, speakers use the “raise hand” function and the chair keeps track of the order — everyone has immediate access to a microphone, should they unmute.

Generally, people are only allowed to interrupt to call points of information or points of order, to correct a detail or misunderstanding or to clarify procedural rules. But during the meeting, S.A. President Cat Huang ’21 frequently muted S.A. and community members for speaking out of turn — a response to the parliamentary procedures being “weaponized” to interrupt without proper cause, according to Stefanko.

“They’re supposed to be used in a very good faith manner. You’re not supposed to make specific debate points,” he explained. “[The points of order and information] enable you to interrupt the speaking order, which is there for an important reason.”

Beyond interruptions, other diversions were newly possible on Zoom, including noiseless chat messages heckling the police chief and louder invitations to “pull up” to the second floor of the Physical Sciences Building to fight. 

One speaker sat behind a photo of Chinese communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong and, when called on, railed on Cornell Police for “doing nothing” to protect him from being “forcibly and involuntarily circumcised.”

Ultimately, after three hours of back-and-forth and Zoom chaos, the assembly decided to vote, rather than tabling the resolution for a second time

Moriah Adeghe ’21, ex-officio member and former vice president of finance, motioned to vote by roll call to have a public record of each members’ vote, which passed 13-12-4 after a couple minutes of interruptions and arguments over making the change. 

“I’m decently confident we should be voting,” Stefanko said during the meeting, after the assembly quickly voted to vote, passing 14-5-10. People had brought up a community vote again, but it was ultimately dropped because they had to continue with the final vote. 

After a revote over confusion about numbers and proxy votes, the contentious resolution ultimately failed 14-15-1 — but the conversation was not over.

Summing up the procedural vibe of the meeting, Stefanko said he received a message from another member during the meeting: “I think you’re officially the most called upon parliamentarian in history.”

The Meeting’s Aftermath

After many hiccups, numerous people left the three-hour meeting still unheard. Hands were still raised by the time the assembly decided to vote and two minute time-limits and interruptions left speakers cut-off. 

After the vote, Huang and other S.A. members left, but many stayed on the call, as if milling about and walking out of Willard Straight together. Unmuted, complaints of “this sucks” and “you fucking idiots” came from different attendees. 

Supporters of Resolution 11 commiserated over their disappointment in the actions of the S.A. members who voted “no,” using the still open call to debrief their feelings, which they said was exacerbated by the fact that some opponents stayed on the call.

On Twitter after the Zoom call ended, a video of these comments circulated, where disarmament supporters can be heard saying, “Zion, I will beat your ass,” and, “Suck my ass,” directed at Zion Sherin ’22, a vocal opponent of Resolution 11. 

According to multiple opponents of Resolution 11, they received a deluge of harassment and bullying after the meeting, pointing to the threats on the Zoom call and the response on social media. People circulated lists of the “no” voters, their Instagram usernames and their netIDs, and many reached out to the members directly.

The posts also frequently referenced a competing failed proposition, self-dubbed “Resolution XX,” the second campus policing reform resolution and alternative to disarmament that never made it to the floor. All of the “no” votes, except College of Engineering representative Sonu Kapoor ’21, were co-sponsors of Resolution XX. Sherin was the only non-S.A. member to co-sponsor it.

According to Sherin, this resolution was not “pro- or anti-cop,” but sought to “maintain safety for everyone” including the students who feel unsafe around police. This meant taking into consideration research on New York gun laws, area crime statistics and the campus police chief Honan’s perspective — from a meeting some S.A. members decried for its “secrecy,” since the meeting invitation was not extended to everyone.

As a result of his participation in the call, especially in the post-meeting debrief, Sherin said he received upwards of 450 messages by the next day. Many of them were “fairly aggressive,” and some included the details of where he lives, causing him to fear for his safety and that his belongings may be damaged or stolen. 

Butler said she also received threats of violence through phone calls and messages from individuals telling her they know which dorm she lives in. Many of the messages also targeted her race, telling her she “hates Black people” and is an “absolute disgrace to the Black community” because of her “no” vote.

 “Anger and frustration are normal reactions, and honestly encouraged,” Butler wrote. “What we do with that anger and frustration, however, is a different story.” 

“My body hurts over the amount of stress, fear, emotional labor and physical labor I’ve put into this situation,” she continued. “My heart still beats faster opening my campaign account, I still get tense receiving an unknown call.”

Other members received messages telling them to “get off [their] high horse,” that they should be “ashamed” of themselves. Largely, if they were anonymous, they were more vitriolic and disrespectful, said international students liaison at-large Youhan Yuan ’21 and freshman representative Claire Tempelman ’24.

The Resolution XX supporters generally said they wanted to engage in dialogue about their perspectives, to listen to their constituents and offer explanations for their votes — trying their “best to hear people through the noise,” Butler said. Largely, they supported police reform and even partial disarmament, but felt like those concerns were ignored and dismissed as racist.

Disarmament supporters were upset that opponents called the responses — both the posting of their names and the outpouring into their inboxes — bullying. Instead, they maintained that they saw it as accountability. 

Supporters of Resolution 11 argued that the names were already part of the public record (ensured by the roll call vote) and that Cornellians can access student netIDs through the director. Because it was public information, sharing names was making it easier for constituents to hold their representatives accountable. 

Vice president of internal operations Laila Abd Elmagid ’21 said the disappointment and anger — cropping up in posts and in direct messages  — were calling out representatives’ “diversity and inclusion” platforms that some students felt were hollow. On the same grounds, other S.A. members advocated for recalling the 15 members who voted “no,” including at a rally the day after the meeting.

Clashing posts flooded social media: “No” voters explained their perspectives. Then, those posts were shared and annotated by disarmament supporters. Cornell Students 4 Black Lives, an Instagram account with 4,006 followers, posted an infographic explaining Resolution 11; its styling was co-opted by Student for S.A. Reform, an account with 319 followers, with a post titled, “Let’s really talk about Resolution 11.”

In many cases, the claims of post-meeting harassment equated the messages to “no” voters and the emails to Chukwukere — a comparison that angered Chukwukere and many Resolution 11 supporters. 

“[W]hile they’re out here claiming they’re anti-harassment, they have said NOTHING about the harassment that Uche has been receiving,” first generation student representative at-large Lucy Contreras ’21 wrote in a statement to The Sun.

Uche Chukwukere ’21, S.A. vice president of finance, speaks at the “Constituents Not Cops” rally outside Barton Hall on Nov. 20. (Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor)

At first, anonymous posts on Reddit and Greek Rank began cropping up, with many mocking Chukwukere’s name and culture, he said. People sent him screenshots of the posts, and he laughed them off. 

But then it sank further. Anonymous posters wrote that he was spreading COVID-19 and AIDS, and frequently using homophobic slurs and the n-word. “Page after page after page filled with content about me,” Chukwukere said. “It seemed like a coordinated attack.”

Eventually, the emails started on Nov. 22, attempting to disrupt his professional life, Chukwukere said: The recipients were people who would be his graduate school recommenders, and he knew he was trying to be silenced. 

He tweeted to “shatter the myth” of Cornell being an inclusive institution — a week later, the tweet had over 500 retweets and 1,200 likes, and he described an outpouring of support. 

And while the online conversation veered away from conversations about CUPD reform, the disarmament debate isn’t dead. 

Reviving Resolution 11

In the week and a half following the meeting, people on both sides described being left without a sense of closure. 

Shortly after the meeting, some disarmament supporters asked if the resolution could be brought back — and there’s nothing to say it couldn’t. 

Some arguments against reintroducing resolutions are that they could become a matter of public pressure campaigns, but in this case, at least one opinion has already changed. After the rally on Nov. 20 rebuking the outcome of the S.A. vote and calling for a recall of members who voted “no,” College of Agriculture and Life Sciences representative Carlo Castillo ’22 told The Sun he would flip his “no” vote to a “yes.”

In an explanation Instagram story the night of the meeting, Castillo had invited conversation with his constituents about the resolutions, and after speaking with over 50 students, Castillo asked the S.A. to withdraw his vote and have a recount.

“Although I had different views than the majority of CALS, I was elected to represent the college’s wishes, and I am aware by voting no, I have not,” he wrote in a statement to The Sun. “Cancel culture is so quick to make assumptions about someone based on their vote. I hope the students of CALS and Cornell see I am open for civil discourse that can change my opinion.”

The crowd for the April 2019 Student Assembly about BDS waits to vote in the community vote. (Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor)

Some — on both sides — have also suggested implementing a community vote. Undesignated at-large representative Lucas Smith ’22, who voted “no,” said he was concerned about the “large majority of students [who] have little trust [in the S.A.]” and if their voices were being heard. During the meeting, Smith was one of the members calling for a community vote, but the motion failed. 

The “sense of the body” votes have happened before in contentious votes, but it would look different this time, because of a rule change after the 2019 BDS vote. Now, a Qualtrics form would be emailed to the entire undergraduate population to vote.