This is the second installment of Attack on Academia, a series of interviews with academics who have endured sustained campaigns of threats and harassment from the alt-right. The first installment, an interview with Heidi Czerwiec, can be found here.
On June 10th, 2017, right-wing organization ACT for America held “March Against Sharia” protests in 25 cities. In Syracuse, New York, Communication and Rhetorical Studies Professor Dana Cloud was among those counter-protesting the event. Dr. Cloud is an outspoken socialist and LGBTQ rights activist who attended the march to protest the islamophobic attitudes of ACT for America and the supporting hate groups present during the event. When the opposition to the March Against Sharia was nearly triumphant in shutting down the protest, Dr. Cloud posted to Twitter: “We almost have the fascists in on the run. Syracuse people come down to the federal building to finish them off.” Despite the success of the counter-protest, Dr. Cloud was singled out for her tweet and attacked by such prominent alt-right media figures as commentator Ann Coulter and Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Dr. Cloud received a multitude of hateful and threatening messages for her use of the phrase “finish them off,” taken out of the context of her tweet. In an interview with Weave News reporter Sarita Farnelli, Dr. Cloud discussed the nuances of the events that followed her tweet, the importance of organizing, and some of the strategies useful for protecting herself and other faculty in the midst of an ongoing right-wing war on academia.
Weave News: Let's go back to the counterprotest you attended. Why did you personally make the decision to attend, and what was the context?
Dana Cloud: I'm a member of the International Socialist Organization and we know a lot of history about far right wing movements in the US and elsewhere, and we have, as a matter of principle, organized to confront the far right when they appear in order to make them unwelcome in our communities, because we know that these are groups that commit and foster violence against Muslims and other minorities. So we knew that this particular group and its invocation of a fake problem with Sharia law in the United States-- because obviously there is not a crisis of Sharia law in the US-- was basically a pretext for whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment. We had a recent spate of murders of Muslims and people who support them and I think that's evidence that this movement has serious consequences. Also, since Trump's election, the far right has been extremely emboldened and so cutting back on their feelings of confidence and security and having a platform in our communities is very important. So that's why we socialists and other people in the community decided to confront them. The Islamic center also had a parallel event, a cultural celebration and a street picket, which was also very nice, but the Islamic center actually told us that they were appreciative of what we were doing as well. So that was really cool. What happened was we showed up and some other members of the community came; anarchists and antifa made quite a dramatic appearance with marching and chanting and flags, and they were pretty impressive even though we disagree with them politically and tactically. We were appreciative for their show because the ACT for America people had a group of paramilitary thugs who came to the federal building plaza where they were and were allegedly protecting them and were armed. There were members of groups called Proud Boys and Oathkeepers, and those are white supremacist militias. So it was serious.
People who are against taking action against these activists are totally not seeing the historical significance of what they're doing and the present day danger that they represent. So the rally itself was small at first. Their rally was only about 40 people but they had a ring of hardcore supporters. Our point was basically to make it challenging for them to have a rally and therefore to recruit any supporters. We did that very effectively and it was several hours before they started to pack up and leave, which was a victory for our side because they didn't even get to really have a rally. Toward the end of the rally I thought, "Well, they're trickling away but we could really make this powerful if a few more people were to come, maybe from the Islamic center or other groups in the Syracuse community," and that's why in the heat of the moment, while I was very angered by fascists, I tweeted for more people to come, and the language I used was, "We almost have the fascists in on the run. Syracuse people come down to the federal building to finish them off." That's when Campus Reform, that far-right website picked up what I said in my tweet. And they were good. They found other tweets of mine, they found pictures, they're like weasels with Twitter. They started circulating my tweet, right wingers started to come out of the woodwork. Ann Coulter picked it up, and Gavin McInnes from Proud Boys, so I started to get emails that week. I started to get a lot of hate mail. Twice before in my history as an activist, once in 2002 and once in 2006 I also had waves of hate mail in response to what I said in public; in 2002 because of what I said about the war in Afghanistan and in 2006 about the Israeli invasion of Gaza. In both of those cases I got dozens and dozens of pieces of hate mail and I ended up writing an academic article about hate mail as a right-wing social movement strategy, which it still is. What makes it scarier now is the fact that there are bona fide fascists and Nazis involved. I started getting the mail so I talked to my political comrades and leadership in my organizations and they wanted to ensure my safety and strategize about how to respond. That's basically the buildup to this situation.
WN: I suppose there are a number of ways you could interpret the phrase "finish them off," but you did contextualize in the tweet, in the first sentence that the fascists were already leaving. Do you think it's logical to read that as a call for violence?
DC: While the medium does not lend itself to rhetorical sophistication, and it is a phrase that does lend itself to multiple interpretations, it's extremely clear from context that I wasn't calling for physical violence. I was there in a nonviolent capacity of course. I've only ever been involved in peaceful protests and people around me were able to testify that they've known me as an activist for years and never known me to commit any violence.
WN: So it's not only an attack on your character, it's an attack on something out of your character. Does the fact that it is easy to disprove make it easier to keep yourself unharmed?
DC: It's not just that it was ludicrous for them to interpret it that way. The bigger point is political. These are people who are strategic and go looking for things they can pull out of context and circulate to whip up hatred and anger and agitate people who then fling themselves at intellectuals who are on the left. It's an organized and concerted culture war strategy where they go to any intellectuals who are left-wing and dig up things that they said and take them out of context. I'm not offended that they took something I said and twisted it because that's what they do. It's a political thing. That's what helps me, knowing it's part of a political movement. I've done a lot of analysis on this. There are opinion leaders on the right, like Coulter and McInnes, actual intentional organizers of ordinary people who they then fling like buckshot at faculty. That's what makes me feel better. It's not at all personal. It isn't even about what I said. That's the most important part for people to know: when it's political like this, it can be very hurtful, but you have to respond politically.
WN: Twitter has been a central ingredient to the recent trend of faculty being digitally tarred and feathered by the right-wing. As somebody whose focus is on communication and rhetoric, is Twitter a common medium for you to express yourself or do you prefer other mediums?
DC: Until that day I think it had actually been a matter of years since I'd used Twitter. I thought it would be the most efficient way, because it would appear on many people's feeds who were following me, and also it would appear on Facebook. It would reach a lot of people all at once and very quickly, so that's why I chose it. I wanted about 50 people to come join us. The two ironies of that are 1) I hardly ever use Twitter, and 2) actually more people really did come. It was effective in that context. The administration's first response was to have a chat with me about my language, which is so ridiculous because I study language, and I think I managed to convince the Chancellor that it really wasn't about what I said. I think that understanding politically and structurally what's going on here is the most important thing.
WN: How has the administration further responded since then?
DC: My chair of my department has always supported me politically. He knew when he hired me what he was getting into. He and I went and had a meeting with the Dean, where I showed him my statement and made the case to him about the politics of it all. I read him some of the hate mail and the threats I got and he was, to his credit, profoundly disturbed. He knew that these were the hateful people and I was not the hateful person. So he supported my statement and then he sent it to higher administration, urging them to meet with me and to ask me if they had any questions. So the Provost said that she wanted to meet with me and we set a meeting for July. In the meantime, after the statement went out, the Chancellor sent a statement yesterday in support of me, my free speech and my academic freedom.
I'm really grateful that he did the right thing and defended me, but I also think it didn't hurt that 1500 people signed a statement in my favor, the AAUP got behind it, and both my Chair and my Dean were supporting me. If I hadn't organized, if I hadn't been part of a political network that could stand up behind me, I think the Chancellor would not have felt the opening to do the right thing. It gave him a reason and the courage to do the right thing. So I thanked him, and someone said to me that we're thanking him for protecting free speech and doing the bare minimum, but another colleague of mine said that it's a non-trivial victory. In other words, yes, he should always defend free speech, but we know at Trinity, at Drexel, Illinois and all kinds of places, administrations do not even go that basic step, but they will investigate and fire. People can actually lose their jobs. You actually have to pressure administrations to even have the courage to take the minimum step. They're getting so much flak from these right wingers who are calling and calling and calling night and day. Somehow they have the Chancellor's cell-phone number. They're taking a lot of heat, and the natural but wrong response is to blame it on the faculty member or inquire about what they did wrong, and I think it's so important to turn that argument around. It's not about what I did wrong, it's about what these right wing agitators are doing to silence the left. You have to be very careful to turn the argument on them.
All the support I got is mindblowing, and I want to pay it forward and help others in my situation do the same organizing. We need to do that, to change the narrative in a big way. The way that the universities and faculty councils and so on are framing it is just completely backward. The result, whether or not it is the intention, when the administration acts on the demands of the far right, they are taking a stand that represents the entire institution.They don't know that's what is happening until those of us who know about history and sociology and social movements are saying this is what this is. It's not people complaining about what I said, it's part of a social movement and we need to understand this, politically and socially. They don't know, so we have to educate them. But I am gratified and honored by the massive support I received, and very happy with the outcome at the university. The university could do all kinds of things to make itself more democratic and protect the faculty, but even doing the bare minimum was something, in this case.
WN: What was your strategy for dealing with the outpouring of hate mail and threats?
DC: The left needs to be organized. Intellectuals sometimes are isolated. I happen to belong to a fairly large political organization, the International Socialist Organization, and there are a lot of intellectuals in the organization and we mobilized heavily immediately that Friday, with articles, the statement, a petition circulating, contacting the AAUP right away. Basically, setting everything in place so that the support could build quickly. I think in this historical moment, it is very important to be organized and to organize on campus. I'm thinking about revitalizing our AAUP chapter here, because even if faculty aren't going to join the socialists, they can become organized. I think that's very important. I always say if you're going to say or do something controversial, do it with a thousand people at your back. It made me safer, and it definitely was part of influencing the administration. I can't argue hard enough that in our time, when the election has emboldened the trolls to come out of the woodwork and they feel very confident about the white supremacist agenda, we have to organize. That's the only way we will be powerful and safe. The second things start happening, lining up your support, making the right argument with people that you aren't the one inciting violence or the one who should be investigated, and just explaining that this is a right wing strategy that is not personal or even about what you said. You have to turn that story around quickly, and with some sophistication.
WN: Have the attacks on you gone beyond your tweets into other aspects of your personal life?
DC: I was worried about my security for a while, because some of the threats were very ugly. In 2002 and 2006, people threatened to take away my daughter. This time they threatened my dog. They're not above crap like that. In my case I felt that there was not as much intrusion into my personal domain. It could have been, but maybe people were shut down by the amount of support I got. If I had been on my own, who knows what could have happened? Right now on Twitter, they're all kind of like "Poor us!" I haven't tweeted at them, but a lot of other people have. They're mad that I haven't been fired. They're licking their wounds. I still get mail, but nothing like at the beginning. The attacks on me have gone through "You're a fraud, you should not be teaching," to the second stage "bitch, cunt, dyke," and the third stage involving violent threats like "you should be raped," "you should be careful if you go anywhere dark at night," and "we're going to send people after you." I've analyzed these three stages of hate mail. I feel like if you just tell people that, they realize it's not about you. It's about them. Let the light bulbs go on, then you can have a real conversation.
WN: Are the violent threats and slurs coming from open white supremacists?
DC: Yes. You can tell, on Twitter at least. They have symbols. Common Nazi symbols like the double lightning bolts that make the shape of SS, the iron cross that is evenly squared so the bars meet at the very center, and a couple other ones that people use on their accounts. They're openly identifying themselves as white supremacists. If you don't know those symbols, you don't know, but to each other they signal with them. It's an organizational strategy. People asked me "Why are you saying those little lightning bolts are scary?" and I show them websites like the Southern Poverty Law Center where they identify these symbols. They are Nazi symbols. It's not a coincidence. It's not an accident. They are scary people.