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'Conversation' begins at UMW

November 10, 2007 12:36 am

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University of Mary Washington senior Whitney Roberts holds a sign at a unity march held after a racially insensitive poster and comments created a stir on campus. lo1110March2PC.jpg

Evelyn Byrd, a UMW housekeeping supervisor, waves during the unity rally yesterday.

Click here to see video from the march.

BY JEFF BRANSCOME

About 100 University of Mary Washington students and employees marched for unity yesterday, after a racially insensitive poster caused an outcry on campus.

Housekeepers, who found the poster displayed in a refrigerator Oct. 15 while cleaning a dorm's lounge, joined the rally and were thanked and cheered by students. They reported the poster to university police, but Acting President Rick Hurley didn't find out about it until last week.

"I think this is the beginning of a conversation we should've had a long time ago," Hurley told the gathering after the march.

The controversy erupted when the school's student newspaper ran a story about the poster on Nov. 1. It pictures a black basketball player with his white coach and reads, "Slavery reinstated: Catch yourself a strong one."

Rob Mariani, a freshman on the fourth floor of Jefferson Hall, displayed the poster outside of his dorm room door but threw it away after being told it was a fire code violation, said fellow freshman Daniel Arias, who lives in the same dorm.

"I know Rob personally, and I know he's not a racist," Arias said, calling it a joke in poor taste. "He didn't mean any of it."

Arias said he doesn't know how the poster ended up inside the Jefferson Hall refrigerator. During the unity march, he wore a white T-shirt stating, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," a quote often attributed to 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire.

Hurley has said one student involved in the incident is facing disciplinary action for disorderly conduct and disrupting community values. He said he could not release the student's name.

However, he did say the university needs to be careful not to violate First Amendment rights. In addition to the poster, housekeepers complained that some areas of the dorm were trashed.

Meanwhile, Arias said Mariani and another student linked to the poster have received threats.

"Even in their classes, they're afraid to give their names," he said. UMW has upped its police presence at the dorm where the poster was found, Hurley said.

Before yesterday's march, a student with a megaphone encouraged passers-by to "show the world that the UMW community does not support intolerance."

"I don't see how you can't march for something like this," said freshman Travis May. "This is important."

Professors have set aside classroom time to discuss the issue.

"Seriously, I'm tired of talking about it in every single class," one student said as she walked by the rally.

The march ended at the steps of George Washington Hall, where a microphone had been set up for people to say what was on their minds.

Phil Arnone, president of the UMW Labor Rights Club, said he hopes the discussion will shed light on bigger issues.

"Most of the lowest-paid workers on campus are women of color," he said. Hurley said he thinks the university now has procedures in place to properly address salaries.

But for now, much of the conversation is centered on the offensive poster.

"When we speak messages of hate and intolerance, we marginalize," said junior Jason Walsh. "And when we marginalize a people, we take away their rights. And when we remain silent, we show our approval."

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402
Email: jbranscome@freelancestar.com



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