This is the first installment of Attack on Academia, a series of interviews with academics who have endured sustained campaigns of threats and harassment from the alt-right.
In March of 2016, University of North Dakota Associate Professor of English Heidi Czerwiec was in her office when, through the window, she observed two men dressed in camouflage and carrying guns. Doing exactly as she’d been trained in a suspected active shooter situation, she called the police. As it turned out, ROTC was conducting a drill on the campus quad.
After an email exchange with the ROTC commander proved unproductive, Dr. Czerwiec wrote a letter to her local paper. It was published on on March 20. On March 21, the story was written up on the Say Anything Blog, a local right-wing outlet, which condemned Dr. Czerwiec’s “overall paranoid attitude.” At 12:47 p.m. the next day, the story-- linking to the Say Anything Blog-- was reported by Campus Reform, a project of the conservative Leadership Institute that counts Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, and Karl Rove among its alums. By the end of the day, Fox News had republished Campus Reform’s piece, and Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller had published an article, also linking to the Say Anything Blog.
At 8:50 the next morning, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze had a piece up about the controversy, as did the conservative Washington Times (which linked to Campus Reform) as well as Alex Jones’ Infowars with “Paranoid Anti-Gun Professors Calls 9-1-1 Terrified By ROTC Exercises,” where a commenter added Czerwiec’s campus email and office phone.
By that night, World Net Daily had published an article largely drawn from Campus Reform, concluding with her then-current contact information: “Professor Czerwiec can be contacted at email@example.com or by phone at 701-777-2768.”
The message was clear-- attack. Dr. Czerwiec received around 100 phone calls and more than 500 emails. In April, she wrote about the experience for ROAR: Literature and Revolution by Feminist People in an essay, “Anatomy of an Outrage.”
Dr. Czerwiec was interviewed by Weave News reporter Sarita Farnelli to discuss activism, being a target of the alt-right, and how her administration handled the incident.
Weave News: This incident took place in March 2016. You have mentioned context sort of framing the events as being steeped in especially relevant tension. Just this week, Evergreen State College in Olympia has closed due to violent threats. What are some of the things leading up to this particular moment that had you on edge back in last March?
Heidi Czerwiec: Nothing exactly led up to it, other than the incident itself. I was just working, and outside my window I saw two young men in camouflage carrying guns and crouched, kind of hiding, in the bushes. And I did what I was trained to do, what you're supposed to do, which was call 911 and give them as much information as you can. So I did, and they responded "Oh, well it might be ROTC. They haven't told us whether they'd be doing anything today or not, but stay on the line, we're going to call ROTC and the campus police to get someone over there." They got back and said, "Well, it is ROTC, but we're sending over police anyway just to double check and make sure there's nothing going on." Five minutes later the campus police, not the city police, called me, and they were upset. They said "Why did you call this in?" and I said, "Because I was supposed to?" They said, "Well, it's just ROTC, and it made us look bad." I was furious. I said, "Well, you should have told everybody."
A lot of people who were attacking me were trying to say, "Well, they did tell you." But they had sent out a message about ten days earlier at the very beginning of March that said, "During the spring, ROTC may be doing maneuvers on the quad." It didn't give days, times, location other than the quad in general, and they weren't marked or anything and we hadn't gotten an update saying it was going to be that actual day or anything. To be honest, in a way I poked that bear because I got pissed off about it. I was already mad, the police said to take it up with ROTC so I left a voice message, and I was really angry because this was still less than ten minutes after it happened. I was still hyped up on adrenaline. Then when the ROTC commander emailed me the next day and was completely unapologetic saying it was very hostile, and was upset with me, I wrote the letter to the editor. That's what kicked it off, it wasn't exactly the event itself. That probably would have completely gone away if it wasn't for the letter to the editor, but I was angry and I thought that people should know about this because it seemed wildly inappropriate to me.
WN: This became a public issue first in local media. Do you think the setting and culture of North Dakota and midwestern conservatism had a lot to do with the rather extreme response to your reaction to being understandably startled and concerned about your safety and the safety of your campus?
HC: In some ways yes, as far as gun culture. There are a lot of people that hunt out there. I personally am not a hunter but I understand it. But being on campus itself, at least in North Dakota there's kind of a hostility towards higher education. They don't like it, they don't trust it, they don't want to have to fund it, even when the oil boom was going on in the state. They still weren't using the extra money to help fund higher education. I think that there was a tendency to just jump to "Oh, those crazy liberal professors in higher education" that may be worse there than countrywide. There was also the timing of it, it happened in March 2016. The fact that it was also during the presidential campaign seemed to feed into it too. There was a lot of entrenched political division too. Yes, I did vote for Hillary and that's not a problem, but people were saying "I bet you voted for Hillary too!" even though that wasn't part of the issue at all. It seemed to belie a certain amount of political divide, and North Dakota is largely conservative too, so yes.
WN: There’s been a Facebook page created against you, some of the outlets taking a very sensationalized, outraged take on your story include Fox News, The Blaze, Red Alert Politics; one website’s headline was “Idiot professor is calling the POLICE on ROTC drills on campus because guns SCARE her!”; several military-focused news outlets have put you on blast and many comments have encouraged parents to withdraw students from your classes; other comments are very negative and often explicit and misogynistic. One source published your email and phone number so readers could harass you. Was it a pretty constant bombardment or did you have any moments of peace? Has it slowed down at all?
HC: There were a few that were local right after the letter to the editor got published locally. It was really after Rob Port who writes the Say Anything Blog picked it up and twisted it in the blog and posted a picture along with it that showed ROTC like a stock photo, wearing parade uniform and bayonets and stuff like that as though that's what I had seen and thought we were under attack. That wasn't at all what I had seen. He tried to turn it into me being anti-ROTC and calling the police on ROTC, which I didn't do. I called the police on what I thought was an active shooter situation. It was really after that blog post went viral and got picked up within about a 24-hour period that I started getting emails. The first day it was something like 25 emails. The next day it was 80. The next day it was 150. The next day it was 300. Then I was getting something like 300 a day, and Facebook I didn't even deal with. I could tell I was getting messages but I didn't even bother to look at them. It lasted about a month at that intensity before tapering off. Then little bursts would come if someone would see the story and repost it, or if it got reposted during the Fourth of July or 9/11 or something like that there would be a flurry of them again. So it was constant for about a 4-6 week period.
WN: I think the “snowflake lady doesn’t support our troops” angle is one that has been used against you to conveniently outrage as many groups as possible. Have you had, in the midst of this, any strong supporters?
HC: Definitely other faculty have been supportive and said I did what we were told and expected to do. The administration was not. I didn't hear from anyone in the administration until a month later when it was pretty much over, and then not in any helpful way. Then they said, "Let's set up a meeting," so we did and then I sat there and I'm not sure what they wanted to talk about. I said, "You train us to do this, and then when someone does exactly what they're supposed to do you throw them under the bus, and now no one is going to report anything to you, which means you just made the campus a much less safe place." But faculty supported me, both at my school and across the country who saw it. Interestingly, quite a few law enforcement contacted me and said I had done exactly what I was supposed to do, and if they had been there it is possible they may have shot one of the boys because they did such a bad job. Some people who were military and had been part of ROTC, when they understood that I wasn't attacking ROTC, thought it was strange to have training right on the quad during classes. It seemed wrong. But other than that, outside of faculty there wasn't a lot of support.
WN: Do you feel that the administration's inaction enabled the personal attacks to escalate, and did you feel in any way protected by them or just let down?
HC: I felt incredibly let down. They completely threw me under the bus. The strongest thing they said at first was that I was entitled to my own opinion. That was it. They told me, when I did meet with the Interim President more than a month later, that the ROTC commander was in discussions about changing when they do maneuvers. The strongest thing they ever said was the communications failed, but that didn't get picked up very much. But the president said they talked with ROTC commander about needing to have better timing and communications about when they would be doing maneuvers, and that he had gotten in trouble with higher ups in national ROTC organization who thought what he had done had been stupid. So they had been meeting and talking with him, but nobody had been talking to me. They had been meeting in person. While I was being criticized publicly, all of this was allowed to go on privately. That really bugged me.
I should say that other than the campus police person who called and yelled at me, when I started getting threats, which I didn't even know about; it was on threads on YikYak or other threads I didn't see, and it was my graduate students who were seeing it and were upset and scared and wanted me to call the police. So I did, and they were looking at the messages I was getting and the stuff the grad students had copied and screenshot, they did a fantastic job of saying "What do you need?" and having the town's police also periodically check by my house. They left it up to me if I wanted an escort to and from class or to and from my car, because at the time I was teaching one night class. So I did say yes to that but not during the day, partly because I didn't feel that threatened on campus and because it pissed me off enough that I didn't want it to change my life. So outside of the initial phone call they were great. Campus police were taking it seriously and said that yes I should call and if I saw something like that again I absolutely should call.
My department chair was fantastic, but the administration above that level was just a no-show. They didn't want to talk about it and issued very bland statements that didn't support me or say that I did exactly what I was trained to do. The student senate said that yes, I had done exactly what I was supposed to do, but we don't like that she said the word "fuck." So they weren't supporting me at all. One of my best friends was the chair of the faculty senate, so she was getting it from student senate since she had to meet with them too. She would pass along what they were saying, and tell them that I was not going to apologize because I did nothing wrong.
WN: How did the students respond?
HC: I'm not sure if the students really knew what was going on. I couldn't tell. I did have some students in my classes who were in ROTC who I'm sure knew what was going on, but they never said anything to me about it, either in anger or in support, so I'm not sure if it affected them. The one thing I did think was weird and troublesome was, because North Dakota is a fairly conservative place, a lot of people who are in the university student senate or law school are often people who are trying to make a career in North Dakota politics. The president of the student senate was trying to get a lot of people on board and demand that I pretty much be publicly flogged for using the word "fuck" since they couldn't directly go after me for doing exactly what I was supposed to do. They recognized that even the university was saying that I did exactly what I was supposed to do, but they were saying that I should apologize for saying the word "fuck," which I had already done. It was a private message and I had privately apologized, but they wanted a public thing. I wasn't going to do that. It was being done to try to score political points for people trying to make a future career in politics. In order to get their cred as though they were taking down those crazy liberal professors.
But God bless my grad students. They were amazing, and so fierce. They were the ones who were catching things like people trashing my RateMyProfessor account, and people who had never been my students filling it out with things that weren't true. RateMyProfessor was great, saw what was going on and shut it down, unlike Amazon, who were not helpful at all while people were posting negative reviews on my books that weren't related at all, just attacks on my character.
WN: So there was a pretty extreme attempt to corner you from every angle?
HC: I think I was surprised at their persistence and creativity. They found so many different angles. The only thing that really upset me was when a few people who, because I had published an essay about our son's adoption and they were attempting to hunt me down and find anything they could use against me, were trying to say that people should contact the department of child and family services and report me and get my son taken away. Nothing happened, but it really upset me. Just the fact that people would try to do that really upset me.
WN: Going forward, how has this affected your career?
HC: I had already turned in my resignation effective May 2016, because my husband had accepted a job offer contingent on finishing law school in May, so we were moving to Minneapolis when he graduated. As soon as he'd gotten his job offer, I sent in my resignation effective the end of the year. So I was always going to be leaving in May 2016, and then this happened in March 2016. Everyone was calling for me to be fired, and the university was saying that I would no longer be teaching there after that, but they didn't say that I was already supposed to be leaving. They used that to throw a bone to people who were angry. They didn't say I wasn't fired, just that I would no longer be teaching there. A lot of the faculty were pissed off about that. It sounded like I was leaving under some disciplinary action, not that I would have been leaving anyway and that they had no reason to fire me. It was a lie of omission to make it sound like they were handling it and that I would no longer be teaching there. It hasn't hurt my career in that I am not in academia right now, and may or may not go back into it. We have a young son, so I was taking some time off since he was not at a full time daycare and I needed to be around here. I don't know if I will go back to academia or not, but I wouldn't say that the incident itself has affected my career.
WN: Has it affected how you feel about academia?
HC: In some ways it has. I don't know whether this incident would affect things if I was trying to apply for another job or not. I would hope not, but I don't know. It definitely soured me on UND, even though I wasn't really sad to be moving on since we were excited about moving to Minneapolis. After the incident happened, I was just like "well, fuck you, UND!" I was just burning bridges left and right behind me. I was just done with them. It definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. The exception is my friends, who were faculty members. I still keep up with them and they send me messages. Some of them have been references for me on some things. If this hadn't happened I would have felt that my time at UND had been great and I was moving on on great terms. But after the ROTC incident happened, I just felt like "No, fuck you."
Heidi Czerwiec's work can be found on her author site, HeidiCzerwiec.com.