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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, November 30, 2023

Community members react to defacement of pro-Palestinian messages on Tufts cannon

Members of SJP found the cannon vandalized with crude and vulgar images after they had painted it to mourn Palestinians who died in the war between Israel and Hamas on May 14, 2021.

After members of Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine painted the Tufts cannon in response to recent violence between Israel and Hamas, the group reported in a Facebook post on May 16 that its work had been vandalized and painted over with crude language and images.

According to the post, SJP had painted the cannon at a vigil on May 14 that was held in remembrance of Palestinians who had lost their lives due to recent violence in the region. They discovered their work vandalized that same night and repainted the cannon on May 16.

“This was a moment for our community to come together to remember those lost and for Palestinian students to have their voices, mourning and resilience recognized,” the statement read.

SJP immediately demanded that Tufts senior administration officials respond to the incident with an official statement. The group specifically requested that those officials outline potential action for the university to take in response to the incident.

“This is an act of racism and anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian hatred that can not be ignored by the university,” SJP’s statement said. “To destroy a site of mourning like this sends a devastating message to all Palestinian students and disregards their wellbeing and safety on campus.”

Members of Tufts Community Union Senate condemned the vandalism of the cannon.

“In this instance, we deemed this as not only a disrespectful act, [but as] a discriminatory [act] as well because not only do [the vandals] use derogatory terms, but they also use vulgar diagrams and images,” incoming TCU President Amma Agyei said in an interview with the Daily.

The TCU Senate Executive Board also released a statement, which voiced its support for the students affected by the vandalism and called for the university to take greater action in response to the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Tufts University has not only historically failed to condemn hateful instances like these, but actively contributes to the harm against Palestinian and all marginalized students through their investments, public affiliations, and the continued lack of support and silencing to these communities,” the statement read. It was signed by Agyei, incoming TCU Vice President Tim Leong, incoming TCU Treasurer Elizabeth Hom, incoming TCU Diversity Officer Jaden Pena, incoming TCU Parliamentarian Sarah Tata and incoming TCU Historian Mariana Janer-Agrelot.

On the evening of May 17, the Tufts administration responded in the form of an email sent to the entire community and signed by University President Anthony Monaco. The email announced that the Office of Equal Opportunity would investigate the matter through its adjudication process.

“Coming in the midst of the violence in the region and near one of the holiest days on the Muslim calendar, we cannot view this as simple graffiti,” Monaco wrote in the email. “Rather, it would appear to be an attack on the viewpoints expressed and those who expressed them. This is not acceptable, and we condemn these actions.”

Julia, a member of SJP who requested that part of their name be omitted due to concerns for their safety, said that the university’s response to the incident was inadequate and delayed.

“The administration’s response was delayed; the university only broke its silence after being pressured by Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members, allies, and friends,” Julia wrote in an email to the Daily. “The statement itself framed the vandalism as an ‘incident violating community values’ rather than as a hate crime against Palestinian students. This sort of mundane language highlights the biases the university holds towards Palestine-related issues and simultaneously normalizes anti-Palestinian sentiment on campus.”

Tufts Friends of Israel, a Zionist student group, similarly condemned the vandalism and defended students’ rights to advocate for Palestinian rights by painting the cannon.

“Those advocating for Palestinian rights have important things to say, and it is beneath any member of the Tufts community to try to deplatform or mock other members of our community,” FOI wrote in a statement. “The vandalism had nothing to do with Tufts Friends of Israel, and the perpetrator has no place in our club.”

However, FOI took issue with some of the language used in the TCU Senate Executive Board's statement, which called for Tufts to condemn “ongoing ethnic cleansing” against Palestinians.

“We are also concerned by the Board’s statement that Israel is engaged in ethnic cleansing, and that it has been since its inception,” the statement said. “Not only is this statement clearly false, but it also implies that there is something inherently genocidal about the existence of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. This is a dangerous idea with roots in antisemitism, and which is extremely hurtful to many members of the Jewish community, many of whom are descended from victims of genocide.”

According to Monaco’s email, Tufts’ administration only regulates the cannon for hate speech and symbols or sexually inappropriate graffiti. He emphasized the important role the cannon plays in promoting free expression among Tufts community members.

“There is a long tradition of students painting the cannon on our Medford/Somerville campus to promote events, share messages of joy and sorrow, and express views on world matters,” Monaco said. “The cannon is a celebrated place for students and community members to express free speech.”

Monaco acknowledged the importance of student advocacy, and he confirmed that student advocates and advocacy groups deserve and require protection from hate and intimidation.

“All students have a right to advocate on the cannon for issues of importance to themselves and their communities, and they have the right to do so without being faced with crude and offensive language or intimidation of any kind,” Monaco said. “Regardless of your views on current events, I hope we can all agree that defiling the messages on the cannon violates not just our rules and traditions, it also violates our values as a university.”

However, Agyei pointed to a perceived lack of protection for many students — particularly members of TCU Senate — who advocate for issues important to them. 

“I would say TCU Senate has always taken a surface-level stand because of that issue … as compared to diving deep into it because of the lack of protection,” Agyei, a rising senior, said. “And I would think that Tufts University would do more to protect their student body representatives, but they don’t.”