Students stage walkout amid controversy surrounding destruction of 9/11 memorial

Students at Washington University in St. Louis staged a walkout from class Wednesday in response to the university's response to a student removing flags from a 9/11 display.

A group of students at Washington University in St. Louis staged a walkout from class Wednesday in response to alleged Islamophobia following an incident last weekend revolving around a memorial to the Americans killed in the September 11 attacks, according to Student Life, an independent student newspaper at the school.

The academic strike was organized by the Students for Black and Palestinian Liberation group, which criticized Chancellor Andrew Martin’s response to Fadel Alkilani’s removal of 9/11 commemorative flags.

In a joint statement signed by the group, students cited “Islamophobic and racist comments on social media” which, in combination with the University’s “lack of action,” have made Muslim students feel “unsafe and unwelcome on their own campus.”

Student Life reported that According Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Anna Gonzalez and the Washington University Police Department conducted an investigation and did not find a credible threat to students.

“Knowing that there was no credible threat, we didn’t want to amplify the rumors or say things that would add to the areas of anxiety of our community,” Gonzalez said. “If I were to say ‘yes, you can miss class,’ that would mean that there are credible threats, and that we should stay home out of fear.”

Washington University College Republicans, the group who originally set up flag display and captured video of Alkilani removing them, has issued several statements condemning the islamophobic messages.

“Regardless of our feelings on Alkilani’s conduct, any such threats deserve to be unequivocally condemned in the strongest terms available. Threats and harassment targeting community members for their religious beliefs are abhorrent--beyond simply unacceptable,” the organization wrote in an Instagram post on Wednesday. 

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“If any member of the Washington University College Republicans is found to have issued an islamophobic threat, they will be quickly and permanently removed from our organization, with no exceptions,” the statement read.

The group also reiterated that “Alkilani’s actions were an affront to the community, and especially cruel to those mourning the 20th anniversary of the deaths of lost friends and family members.” 

The online comments were sparked by a video of Alkilani, who serves as Student Union Vice President of Finance, removing the 2,977 flags that the College Republicans chapter had set up as a memorial of the lives lost on 9/11.

Washington University Chancellor Andrew Martin issued a condemnation of Alkilani’s actions, Student Life reported.

“I want to make it very clear that, as an institution, we find the actions of this student to be reprehensible,” Martin wrote. “The removal of the flags impeded the ability of individuals to commemorate the lives lost on 9/11 and to process the trauma of that day.”

Nick Rodriguez, president of the Washington University College Republicans, spoke to Campus Reform about the events surrounding the protests.

“It’s a little ridiculous that they’re essentially trying to bring these two issues into one,” Rodriguez told Campus Reform. “There are two separate things that have happened here. There was the desecration of a memorial, which in itself tramples on my group’s and my own freedom of speech and expression.” 

Rodriguez added that the incident was a “case of theft,” as well as a violation of university code, adding “Even though the student has claimed that he was not aware of it, you are well aware of that if you serve on Student Union and are the vice president of finance. You’re one of the most educated members of the community on what exactly university code is.”

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“Above all else, he took the symbolic equivalent of pissing on the grave of everyone of the 2977 people who tragically lost their lives on 9/11,” Rodriguez concluded. “His actions were gross, and as I and my organization have stated since the beginning, I think at minimum he needs to be removed from his leadership positions and optimally expelled from the university.”

However, Rodriguez also condemned the personal attacks directed at Alkilani. 

“That is a completely separate issue from the islamophobia he has received as a result, which is completely detestable and I’m really saddened to see that has happened,” Rodriguez said.

Alkilani defended his actions in his own statement, saying it was part of his own planned protest to “place the bags of flags on Mudd field, along with various statistics...explaining the human cost of 9/11 in the past 20 years.”

”Since 9/11, Islamophobic hate crimes have been higher than they ever were before,” Alkilani said. “The United States invaded countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, and over 900,000 people have been killed because of the wars the United States has propagated. 37 million people have been displaced, with some reports stating that number reaches up to 59 million.”

Alkilani continued, “Any memorial of 9/11 that does not contend with these facts is not only incomplete, but it also amplifies pro-imperialist sentiment and actively disrespects those who have died because of American Invasion.”

Campus Reform has reached out to Washington University and the offices of Chancellor Martin, and Vice Chancellor Gonzales for comment.