Granted, it’s Skidmore, so it’s not as if the children are capable of deep thought, but still. What did art prof David Peterson do wrong?
The Petersons arrived at a little after 7 p.m., watched from the edge of the crowd as “Back the Blue” supporters and counter-protesters traded barbs, then departed to get dinner after about 20 minutes. Neither thought much of it.
But that brief and quiet presence at the rally infuriated some student activists at the Saratoga Springs school. They’re demanding that Skidmore College fire a professor who has taught at the school for 31 years.
If he threw a Molotov Cocktail into a squad car, they would build him a statue. But he didn’t.
“Tonight, I and other Skidmore students witnessed Profs. David Peterson and Andrea Peterson at an anti-Black Lives Matter protest,” reads an email template posted to social media. “We demand the immediate dismissal of both Skidmore staff members for engaging in hateful conduct that threatens Black Skidmore students.”
Putting aside the demand that he (and his “staff” wife, Andrea, who doesn’t work at Skidmore) be fired, because they have no guillotines in Saratoga Springs, his presence at a rally in support of police is “hateful conduct that threatens Black Skidmore students.”
There are a few ways to respond to such a claim. One path is to minimize the wrongfulness of the conduct.
A supposedly damning photo of the Petersons (Andrea is not actually a Skidmore employee) circulated by students shows them standing at the rally, which was advertised as a “positive, all-inclusive event” designed to humanize and support officers. The Petersons weren’t wearing pro-police T-shirts. They weren’t carrying a banner, holding a sign or waving a black-and-blue flag. They appear to just be listening.
But merely listening to an opinion that some Skidmore students find objectionable is apparently enough to get a professor in hot water.
It’s reminiscent of saying he was only there for a research project. He wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t an actual cop supporter. At most, he just listened, and left after only 20 minutes, just to see what sort of horrible anti-black things they were saying. After all, know your enemy, right?
Not even close to good enough to assuage the fevered brows of the outraged.
Students have circulated their demands on social media, and even taped a note to the door of Peterson’s classroom advising his students that they are “crossing a campus-wide picket line and breaking the boycott against Professor David Peterson.” Peterson has attempted to make it clear that his presence at the rally did not constitute an endorsement of it; this matters very little to the students.
An opinion piece in the student newspaper included his explanation, but still accused him of failing to “reconcile with his behavior.” That piece also claimed that “there have been many claims of Mr. Peterson making students of color and queer students feel uncomfortable and unheard in his art classes prior to this,” but did not elaborate.
“I still have no indication of how [David and Andrea Peterson] plan to take accountability for their actions and make their classrooms a safe space for our communities of color,” wrote the student.
The “actions” at stake are his presence where no prof may go. The defense is that he didn’t mean it, it wasn’t an endorsement of racism, even putting aside the inane hint that maybe he would bring it into the classroom and maybe fail, maybe beat, maybe just soil the environment of the classroom, black students.
But these efforts at minimizing the significance of what Peterson did, even if the trivialization is entirely accurate in this instance, ignores the more salient problem. The students are demanding that their college be cleansed of anyone who might harbor any “unsafe” thought. It’s the intellectual cleansing of the campus. And if the administration doesn’t go along with it, the students will make them pay as well for being racist-adjacent.
In any case, the boycott is evidently succeeding: Peterson said that most of his students have dropped his classes: Those who think the boycott is ridiculous are afraid to speak up, one student told Churchill. Skidmore’s administration defended his free speech rights in a statement, but is nevertheless investigating the accusations of bias in the classroom.
What if a prof supports the police? What if his father was a police officer, his mother was an officers friend, and his kitten was saved from certain death by a kindly cop? He just likes cops. Or even worse, he’s of the view that while some cops do wrong, most are decent people who deserve not to be reviled for the actions of others? This was a broad and popular view among most people for a long time, of all races. Just because college students’ consciouness arose in the past few years doesn’t erase all of history before it. Just because college students have no clue what happened or why for generations that preceded them doesn’t it never happened.
In this moment of Black Lives Matter, there is a concomitant duty to hate cops as part of the affirmative duty to be anti-racist. Not only must you be actively against racism, as directed by Kendi, but actively hostile toward the police. Is that where it ends?
If this is how they treat a professor who is insufficiently committed to their causes, one wonders how progressive students would treat a professor who holds ardently conservative views—or whether they could peacefully engage with another student, administrator, or any human being who disagrees with them.
The language of unsafety is facile, which is obvious to anyone who doesn’t try to use it to justify their authoritarian demand that no one think wrongly about the enemy of the moment. But the need to rationalize his presence at a pro-cop rally just to survive at Skidmore, to keep his job, to not become a pariah to ardent students for whom anything less than a healthy hatred of police means you’re a threat to black students and their allies.
Peterson went to a rally in support of the police. This is America. He’s allowed. He can like cops. He can support cops. He can think they’ve been unfairly maligned in the mass delusion that all cops are on the street daily slaughtering black people for kicks. That he doesn’t believe any of these things is fine. But he shouldn’t need to make excuses for being there. He’s allowed.