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ECU alumni condemn racist chant at Trump rally, want stronger statement from campus

When a crowd of President Trump supporters began shouting “send her back, send her back” at a political rally on East Carolina University’s campus last week, Tremayne Smith’s phone started buzzing incessantly.

Smith, an ECU alumnus and former student body president, said he received hundreds of text messages and phone calls from other alumni who were angry and shocked by what erupted at Minges Coliseum on campus. Smith said they were disgusted at the racist attacks targeted at U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, an American citizen, Muslim woman and refugee who immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia.

“My mouth dropped open. Just the hateful vitriol,” said Smith who graduated in 2011. “It was so disheartening and so not what ECU is.”

At the request of other alumni, Smith crafted a letter with three other ECU graduates condemning the actions of those Trump supporters in a way that the university did not. It’s been signed by more than 200 alumni, faculty members and former student leaders.

“As former student body leaders and proud alumni allow us to unequivocally express what the university’s official statement did not: we categorically denounce the expression of racism on our campus,” the letter says. “We are appalled by the racist chant that occurred at the President’s rally on the campus of our beloved alma mater.”

“[Omar] drew the ire of a racist tweet from the President of the United States, telling her to ‘go back to where she came from,’” the letter says. “This racist smear is unfortunately all too familiar for many people of color. Last week, supporters of Donald Trump doubled down on this racist trope and chanted “send her back.”

“Send her back” is not inclusive.

“Send her back” is not American.

“Send her back” is not East Carolina University.”

The letter went on to address all those who were offended, particularly people of color and immigrants of all religions.

“... know that as a university, this is not who we are. This is not how we are. The East Carolina University that we know is an institution that is inclusive and welcoming.”

ECU is a diverse campus — more than 20 percent of ECU students are Hispanic or black or African American, according to the university.

University officials have made it clear through multiple statements that it did not sponsor, host or endorse the rally. ECU said that it was following federal, state and UNC System free speech guidelines by allowing the Trump Campaign to rent the public space, just as it would for any other organization or political candidate.

Smith understands the policy and agrees that the university should bring various candidates to campus. But he’s disappointed that ECU has not officially condemned the chants.

“Silence by anyone in the face of blatant bigotry and racism is complicity,” the letter says. “So fellow Pirates, University administration, and all citizens for that matter, continue standing up and speaking out against hate in all forms.”

Smith sent the letter to ECU’s interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach on Tuesday. Smith told Gerlach he appreciated ECU “informing the general public as to the laws guiding events and rental of public/university facilities,” but felt ECU should’ve been stronger in its efforts to call out racism on campus that night.

“It is not a knock on the university’s response per se, but it is what we feel to be a more forceful, more pointed repudiation of the chant and against racism overall,” Smith said in the email to Gerlach.

Gerlach received the letter but hasn’t read it in-depth because he’s traveling, according to university spokeswoman Jamie Smith.

But she said Gerlach is not going to make an additional statement regarding the rally.

Two days after the rally, the university’s leadership clarified it’s policy again after receiving “a great deal of feedback since the Trump Campaign visit.”

ECU spokeswoman Jamie Smith said the communications office has fielded phone calls and emails from alumni and students who are angry that the rally took place. The office has also heard from supporters. She said most of the feedback asking for a stronger response from ECU has been on social media.

The mayor of Greenville, P.J. Connelly, sent out a more direct statement than ECU the day after the rally saying he was “extremely disappointed and disheartened by the chant.”

“Greenville is more than just a city. It is our home. It is a diverse place — a place of compassion and acceptance. An inclusive place where everyone, regardless of race, religion or political beliefs, is welcome. A place where we band together to help others who are in need. Hate will never have a place in our community. The behavior that was on display last night is not reflective of the Greenville I know and love.”

The rally was Trump’s first official campaign event for the 2020 election in North Carolina, but it might not be his last. Charlotte is hosting the Republican National Convention in August of 2020.

And if other presidential candidates make their way to Greenville, ECU will offer its facilities to them.

“We encourage and welcome civil discourse on our campus,” ECU said in a statement Friday. “The U.S. Constitution allows the intellectual and individual freedom of expression that enables us to live our mission. These freedoms do not protect the right to hear and listen to only what is convenient and agreeable but do protect the right to be able to respond and express one’s own views. We will facilitate such conversations on the campus in the fall.”

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