Competing Petitions Address Capitol Riot Controversy

In the aftermath of the attack in DC, students debate anti-racism and proposed bans.

By Helen Huiskes | News Editor
February 5, 2021
View of the Wheaton College campus in the snow. Photo: Harrison Wiggins.

Following a Jan. 11 statement from the Wheaton administration condemning the Capitol attack, students have drafted responses both affirming and criticizing the college’s response. Although Wheaton is one of the few CCCU schools to release a statement in response to the Capitol attack, petitioners say the college didn’t go far enough.   

On Jan. 13, one group of six students organized a petition through social media and Google Docs condemning the lack of “direct language” in the administration’s statement and calling for a ban on Trump paraphernalia on campus, describing it as a form of violence towards students of color. 

“The petition became the best way to get the whole student body involved to say there’s a communal ache and trauma from Trump utilizing power within a system that allows elected officials to enact their will at the expense of others,” said Dontay Givens, a sophomore sociology major who helped write the petition. 

Alyssa Miller, a senior business economics major who also made contributions to the draft, said she was concerned that the Senior Administrative Cabinet took five days to put out a statement. “I understand that you want to be careful with language sometimes as an administrative cabinet,” she said, “but it shouldn’t be that difficult to condemn what happened.”

The petition asked signatories to email the text directly to SAC members including President Philip Ryken, Vice President of Student Development Paul Chelsen and Provost Karen An-Hwei Lee, among others. According to the organizers, this measure was taken to avoid potential backlash from students, faculty or staff. 

The petition organizers also emailed the document to signatories of a separate statement drafted by faculty and staff. The language in the faculty statement, which was made public as a Google Doc on Jan. 16, went farther than the administration’s statement, calling out the “vicious lies, deplorable violence, white supremacy, white nationalism, and wicked leadership” that, according to the authors, characterized the Capitol attack. The statement also placed blame on evangelical leaders for “wittingly propagating lies” that contributed to the possibility of violence. Students involved in drafting the petition approved of the language used in the faculty statement, which was signed by 286 faculty, staff and administrators.

The administration’s message, emailed to the campus community and published on Wheaton’s website, called for prayer and lament, but the petitioners criticized the admonition as a “comfortable route,” something they also noticed in the school’s responses to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd this past summer. “We wanted Wheaton to have a solution of justice,” said one of the petition organizers. “Other than prayer, which has unfortunately become an act of passivity sometimes. Prayer is important, that should never be removed, but it does need to coincide with action.” 

Of the actions students call for in the petition, the most controversial is the banning of all paraphernalia related to former President Donald Trump.

“[Trump paraphernalia] can carry a lot of connotations for students,” said sophomore history major Morgan Brown, who signed the petition. Brown said she wants the school to be a politically neutral space where marginalized voices can be heard. She said politically-charged flags make free speech difficult and silence minority views. ”For example, you wouldn’t allow Confederate flags on campus. So I think it’s important to allow expression without creating alienating spaces.”

Monik Flores, a junior English major and vice president of Unidad, another organizer and contributor of the petition explained, “The goal was not to make it so that our fellow classmates can’t support this candidate, or anything like that, rather it was asking our classmates to be Christlike and not wear clothing that supports a person that has actively, continuously inflicted immense harm against [marginalized] communities.” 

Wheaton College Democrats emailed the petition to their mailing list on Jan. 14 with a call to sign and promote it if recipients were in agreement with its points. The club also shared the petition on their Instagram page, and President Sarah Penn endorsed the petition in an email to the Record, describing anti-racism as an act of love. 

Sophomore math major Luke Altorfer read the petition on the night of Jan. 13 and assumed it would go unnoticed by the administration. However, when the document started gaining traction on social media, Altofer worried that administrators might consider the petitioners’ opinions as representative of the majority of Wheaton students and decided it was necessary to voice a contrasting perspective.

“I wouldn’t recommend Wheaton ban BLM or Biden paraphernalia,” he said. “It’s just not why we go to school, to control each other’s political beliefs, and I don’t want [the ban] to become policy at Wheaton.” Altorfer started texting friends about drafting an open letter in response to the petition. 

The open letter was crafted by 14 students over the course of three Zoom meetings conducted over two days. “Throughout the entire process, we considered American values, Scripture and prayer a lot,” said junior economics major Penn Moffat. 

A few days after the petition circulated, the second student-created statement—“Open Letter Affirming Non-Partisan Institutions, Open Debate and Freedom of Speech at Wheaton College”— appeared on social media. The letter argues that a ban on Trump paraphernalia would “result in the suppression of discourse and compromise.” It also claims that “Wheaton’s non-partisanship is what allows for Christian students to discuss, pray for and properly discern the truth without fear of being silenced” and called on the administration not to codify any policy banning political paraphernalia from either side. 

Knowing that a lot of the student body probably wouldn’t agree with the petition, it seemed like a necessary thing to do to compile a series of arguments and allow people to express their perspective on the issue as well,” said Hayden Sledge, co-author and junior political science major. This letter, unlike the petition, allowed students to add their names as signatories and accumulated 288 student signatures and 22 alumni signatures.

“The way that Wheaton can stand against racism and be a diverse community is through doing what the Diversity Commitment states, which is to stand for inclusion of all people among all sides of the spectrum,” said Laurel Kruse, a sophomore psychology major who contributed some language to the open letter, signed it and promoted it on her Instagram. “I think the biggest way to do that is to encourage listening and freedom of speech.”

Wheaton College Republicans shared the open letter on Instagram. “Wheaton needs to be an open institution so people can learn to dialogue with other opinions,” said  club vice president and sophomore political science major Connor Woodin. “In the real world, you’re going to have somebody that offends you and there are ways to deal with it, but you can’t always just ban it.”

According to the letter authors, a ban on any type of political paraphernalia would eliminate open communication and healthy discourse on campus.

“The banning of Trump paraphernalia discourages unity through conversation,” said junior psychology major McKayla Jin, another author of the open letter. “At the end of the day, our goal is to uplift and encourage one another, and I don’t know if shielding one another from the sins of the world and the evil of the world is going to be better for the community as a whole.”

Multiple members of SAC declined the Record’s requests for an interview. According to an email from President Ryken, the administration is in direct communication with the petitioners and letter writers and plans on publicly responding in the coming weeks. 

Correction Feb. 5, 2021
A previous version of this story stated that Sarah Penn described the potential ban of Trump paraphernalia as an act of love. Penn described the petition, and not any one suggestion in it, as an act of love.

Wheaton College, IL

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