Name games

For passers-by, February 10, 2017 seemed like any other Friday in the year. A large group of protesters gathered in front of Calhoun College to rally against the name of a man alternately derided by people in the crowd as “racist,” “mud under the boots,” or, simply, “evil.” The rally moved to the corner of Elm and College, where chants such as “this is what democracy looks like” and “New Haven, united, we can never be defeated” echoed across the Green. Wendy Hamilton, a nurse and New Haven resident, read a written statement from Corey Menafee thanking the Change the Name Coalition for their continued and diligent support.

The coalition, an amalgam of 46 student-based, faith-based, and community-based local organizations, had received word that the Yale Corporation would be meeting that Friday to hold an official vote on the renaming of Calhoun College. They had planned accordingly, crunching through snow in order to stage one final act of civil disobedience, blocking Elm St. with their banners and their bodies. Police officers nonchalantly stood around the intersection while one man spoke slowly into the speaker of a patrol car: “You are being cited for disorderly conduct. Cease and desist. I will repeat: cease and desist.” The four protesters who had previously volunteered to be arrested were politely packed into the back of a van and driven away. The organizers who remained carefully rolled up the iconic orange “Yale: # Change the Name” banner and carried it away for future use.

By now, we all know where we stand. Calhoun College is no more, and the most buzzworthy debate is which insect will be the new mascot for Hopper College, named for Grace Murray Hopper ’30 M.A., ’34 Ph.D., an almost unassailable choice. In a conference call with student and national news organizations, various administrative officials claimed that Yale’s decision was based on stringent moral and intellectual precepts. Vice President of Communications Eileen O’Connor persistently re-emphasized the “strong presumption” of the Witt Committee (originally called the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming) against renaming. O’Connor was also sure to repeat several times that the administration sees this decision as one “made on principle,” unprovoked by “the actions of any specific individuals or groups.”

I wondered what those journalists from The New York Times or The Washington Post who were also listening in made of this decision; after all, they weren’t on campus last April, or even last Friday. As soon as Salovey joined the call, he told us, “I want to ensure that we don’t erase history, especially history that might embarrass us. Especially history that has university involvement. We need to confront that kind of history.” Salovey explained, “last spring I couldn’t imagine a way to accomplish that, to protect that,” before going on to reiterate how “renamings are going to be exceptional. These are exceptional circumstances.” Salovey noted, “judging Calhoun’s principles, his legacy as an ardent supporter of slavery as a positive good, are at odds with the values of this university.” He did not explain why he had not mentioned these principles or this legacy when the decision not to rename was announced by the university last April.

When asked about the impact of the Change the Name Coalition on the decision to rename, President Salovey replied, “this is an issue for many years that reasonable, wise people have disagreed about. This continues to be the case. We received many emails, phone calls, letters from all sides of this issue. We welcome that input, no matter the source.” He paused, before adding, “I wouldn’t say that any one group is privileged in providing information over another.” Roughly ten minutes after he had joined the conference call (which lasted 60 minutes in total), President Salovey had to run to a board meeting. When asked if Salovey had ever met with the leaders of the Change the Name Coalition, his deputies replied that they “often invited community groups and activists to 43 Hillhouse” and sometimes hand out “New Haven Civic Medals.”

The Change the Name Coalition began with the collective efforts of New Haven citizens to fight on behalf of Corey Menafee in court. Kica Matos, one of the leaders of the coalition and Director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change, commented, first we fought for Corey—and succeeded in getting him reinstated at his job and having the felony charges dropped against him. The coalition that formed to fight on his behalf decided to pivot our efforts to eliminate the systemic racism that affected Corey and many others like him.”

Matos also rejected the idea that the administration was always willing to work with the coalition. Although Matos and other leaders such as John Lugo of Unidad Latina en Acción had the chance to speak with members of the Witt Committee, the letter they sent to Salovey last October received only a cursory response deflecting them back towards the Witt Committee. When Matos went with other leaders to a rally last year at Woodbridge Hall, they asked to meet with him. Matos said, “we were told that he was not there, though we later found out that he was in his office but did not want to meet with us. When we delivered our basket of goods [including books and other items] to him, we asked to meet with him and again, we were told that he was unavailable. I left my card and reiterated our request to meet with him. But we never heard back from him.”

Although the administration seems reluctant to attribute the renaming decision to any forces it perceives as outside of Yale, there is certainly a community in New Haven that recognizes the coalition’s impact. Janis Jin, GH ’20, said, the renaming is cause for celebration. It is certainly a victory, and a victory that we owe entirely to the labor of student activists and organizers in New Haven for putting pressure on the university.”

Lindsey Hoggs, GH ’17, said, “the most important contributions from the New Haven coalition groups were their dedication, tenacity and energy. They were the ones who rallied for Corey Menafee over the summer, they were the ones hosting protests outside of Hopper college every Friday.”

Nonetheless, the coalition is primed to move on to bigger and more difficult issues. As Jin said, “changing the name isn’t the end. The point is to change Yale.” Lugo had a similar take, noting that “two blocks away from Calhoun is the courthouse of New Haven. It looks just like a plantation, and the majority of people judged in that courthouse are the descendants of slaves.” He went on to say,  “there needs to be bigger changes besides just changing the name of a building.” But regardless of what task the coalition chooses next, the ties it has forged between students and New Haven activists will prove vital. These connections are challenging to maintain due to the four-year turnover rate of the student population, but such maintenance is by no means impossible. When Jin wrote to me about the renaming debate in her college, she said, we weren’t here last year so a lot of our memories of last fall are inherited rather than experienced.” It is these inherited experiences, these inherited struggles, that we as students need to keep in the forefront of campus debates. The renaming of Calhoun College was not an empty, purely symbolic act. Whether or not the administration is aware of it, the name change attempts to address problems of physical, material violence perpetrated by citizens of this country against other citizens of this country. Jin ended her email by saying, “three years from now, I’ll graduate as an alum of Grace Hopper College, not Calhoun College.” And to the residents and students who have spent decades fighting for it, that matters.


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