Climate of fear permeates Missouri campus

·Columnist

COLUMBIA, Missouri – As S. David Mitchell got ready to come to campus at the University of Missouri to teach on Wednesday morning, his wife pleaded with him to cancel his class.

“I said, ‘I can’t do that,’ ” the associate professor of law told her. “I can’t be bullied. I can’t be cowed.”

Students march on the Missouri campus Tuesday in support of the protests. (AP)
Students march on the Missouri campus Tuesday in support of the protests. (AP)

Mitchell, an African-American, is one of thousands of teachers and students who had to decide whether to come to campus after social media threats shook the university Tuesday night in the continued aftermath of protests of racial inequality.

“I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow,” one social media post read, “and shoot every black person I see.” A 19-year-old named Hunter Park, located roughly 100 miles from campus, was arrested early Wednesday on suspicion of making a terrorist threat.

“The last 24 hours have been very challenging for faculty of color on this campus,” Mitchell said. “For all our faculty, and for our students. I think it has been very fearful, it has been anxiety-producing. And I think the question is, how do we expect students and/or faculty and staff to come to work today?”

The posted threats, coming a day after the university president and chancellor resigned amid the pressure of the protesters, circulated rapidly and created a ripple of worry that was palpable even on a mostly silent campus. There were even false rumors of a KKK presence on campus that were quashed yet still added to the worry. On Wednesday morning, a student named Gabe Truby said he counted only seven people on a shuttle that is usually packed with people. A student from China, who gave her name as Jessica, was asked if she felt safe on campus.

“Not very much,” she said.

As the morning wore on, the campus became a bit more crowded but still felt eerily vacant. Some classes were canceled. Mitchell said he gave his students the option to skip without penalty.

“I was disheartened by the lateness of the general campus response,” he said, “or at least an alert of letting folks know.”

The online emergency information center “MU Alert” tweeted late on Tuesday: “There is no immediate threat to campus. Please do not spread rumors.” Yet the rumors did continue to spread. The worry lingered into the morning, even after the university decision to maintain a normal schedule.

“I can tell there’s a different aura, a different mood,” said Christina Oyelola, a junior whose parents are from Nigeria but raised her here in town. “I feel like there’s less people out.”

One of Oyelola’s classes was canceled on Wednesday, yet she came to campus for her job. “I’m going to work for four hours,” she said, “and then I’m going to go home.”

There were reports that minority students left campus altogether out of fear.

“Do I feel safe?” Mitchell said. “I don’t know. I’m concerned.”

One African-American student rushed through campus at just before 8 a.m. and declined to stop for an interview. “Let’s just say I’m looking behind me,” she said. “But I am going to class.”