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Town police and Middlebury College close the book on Murray protest

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Posted on May 25, 2017 |
By Gaen Murphree



MIDDLEBURY — None of the demonstrators at the March 2 protest of a controversial political scientist at Middlebury College will face criminal charges, but scores of students have been disciplined by the school.

The Middlebury Police Department Tuesday announced it had concluded its investigation into the events surrounding Charles Murray’s visit to the college, with no charges forthcoming.

That same day the college announced it had disciplined 67 students with sanctions ranging from probation to official college discipline, which places a permanent record in the student’s file. Some graduate schools and employers require individuals to disclose official college discipline in their applications.

Students shouted so loudly when Murray stood before the podium at McCullough on March 2 that he left the stage and instead the college telecast a conversation between him and Middlebury Political Science professor Allison Stanger. As Murray, Stanger and a college official left the building later they were confronted by a group, many wearing masks, who jostled Murray and Stanger, injuring Stanger to the degree that she was treated at the Porter Hospital Emergency Department for neck pain.

Protesters also damaged the car that took the trio from the college and blocked its exit for a time.

Middlebury police on Tuesday said there was “insufficient evidence against any specific individual.” They could not identify any specific individual who hurt Stanger or who damaged or blocked the car.

Murray had been invited to campus by the student American Enterprise Institute Club for a lecture/discussion on his 2014 book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” The visit ignited protest over Murray’s visit to campus more than a decade ago and over Murray’s controversial 1994 bestseller “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” which posited that white men were innately more intelligent than women or people of color.

Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley emphasized that the student protests that occurred inside McCullough Student Center were not part of his investigation.

“People have a right to protest and voice dissent. We’re not going to interfere with that,” he said. Hanley then explained that the Middlebury police’s “concern was to reconstruct these events as they happened outside McCullough, first putting a timeline together, then filling in the pieces as to who was actually there.

“So we were able to construct the timeline and reconstruct the event; but actually putting an identity on any specific person there … to be able to prosecute them was where we had just had a bit of a shortcoming.”

PLANNING FOR PROTEST

Hanley said that in its planning, the college had requested a police presence at the Murray event. Town police assigned two plainclothes officers inside the lecture hall and had five officers standing by on the periphery near College Street.

“They were there in case things deteriorated to the point where people were getting hurt,” said Hanley.

The plainclothes officers called in the other officers once protestors started setting off fire alarms inside the building, but as the crowd began to disperse college officials told the police they could go, Hanley said.

“Things seemed to be getting quiet. They had their own security on site anyway. And they said, ‘Well, looks like things are winding down.’ So they had advised the police that we could leave,” Hanley said.

Middlebury police checked back about 15 minutes later, and were again told that things were winding down.

Events took a turn, however, as Murray left the building.

“They called us and said, ‘We need some help from the police here’ ... so we responded back there,” Hanley said. But by the time police arrived Murray, Stanger and college Vice President for Communications Bill Burger had already left.

“We spent a little bit of time there making sure things were settling down and then we left. At that point we had no reports of injuries. To us, the evening was over,” Hanley said.

Murray’s visit had been on a Thursday evening, and not until Sunday afternoon were police notified that the demonstration had gotten out of hand. Stanger and Burger came to the police department with written statements; police began their investigation the next day.

INVESTIGATION

Middlebury police interviewed more than 30 people, including students, administrators, faculty and some from outside the college. They also reviewed some cell phone videos taken at the outside protest and looked at emails inviting outside protestors.

Hanley said the college was very helpful with his investigation, but that while the college could make use of evidence from town police, his department legally couldn’t use evidence from the college’s own internal investigations. Hanley explained that “they can compel people to talk to them, so we can’t use that information.”

Hanley said the investigation determined that the outside protests involved a crowd of more than 20 people, “many of whom were not members of the college community.”

About eight masked individuals used tactics that Hanley said “indicated training in obstruction and intimidation.” The masked group — “faces covered in hoods, masks or scarves” — turned their backs and deliberately bumped into the Murray group as they exited to the car.

“We know that the way they coordinated this, the way they weren’t using their hands, they weren’t specifically pushing or hitting anybody, that they had been instructed on how to do civil disobedience without crossing the line,” Hanley said.

Police believe the eight masked people were all from outside the college community.

The crowd outside McCullough “were there to intimidate and harass Murray … And when he came out, he was like a little fish dropping into the shark pool.

“They all just were  shouting, yelling, banging on the drum, inciting people to intimidate. They separated them (Stanger, Murray, others with them) and they were pushing into them.

“It was a frenzy and a scrum. People were trying to intimidate and harass, shouting invectives. And they pretty much accomplished that.

“It was a frightening event.”

Potential criminal charges included vandalism (“unlawful mischief”) and “disorderly conduct.”

“Keeping people from moving freely, folks walking in front of the car, blocking the car that could be ‘disorderly conduct’ and also just intimidation can be disorderly conduct,” said Hanley. “Banging on the windows and screaming invectives at these people.”

He said that for Stanger’s injury to be considered an “assault,” the incident would have had to transpire with “intent to injury.”

Instead police determined that with all the pushing and shoving, Stanger’s hair got yanked accidentally.

Ultimately, said Hanley, with the dark, the number of faces obscured, the disorientation of those being threatened, the presence of outsiders, he and State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans determined it wasn’t possible to identify individuals such that a strong case could be prosecuted.

In its own investigation, Middlebury College said it reviewed photographic and video evidence of events and gathered multiple eyewitness statements and other accounts.

The sanctions were assessed following findings that students violated either or both of the institution’s polices regarding “Demonstrations and Protests” and “Respect for Persons.”

Forty-one students received sanctions from the college administration for participating in the first stage of the disruptive protest in hall where Murray was supposed to talk. The remaining 26 students, who faced more serious consequences for actions in the hall and outside the building, were sanctioned by the college’s Community Judicial Board, which held group and individual hearings in May. The Community Judicial Board is empaneled from a pool of trained community members and, when hearing a case, consists of up to four students, two faculty members, and two members of the staff.

College officials said information about individual student sanctions is considered confidential under federal law, and they declined to discuss the event further.

NATIONAL DIVIDE

Hanley contrasted the Murray events with the peaceful protests 15 or so years ago when thousands marched down Middlebury’s Main Street to protest presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer’s visit to campus.

“We did everything we could to accommodate them so they didn’t get hit by cars marching in the rain,” Hanley said. “They didn’t interfere with the speech that he gave. They stayed respectful. And they voiced their dissent.”

Asked about the number of violent protests that have erupted on campuses nationwide in response to controversial conservative speakers, Hanley said: “There’s just a general divisiveness now that I haven’t seen in a long time. There’s a divide, and it’s concerning. It’s fueled by people on both sides. And that’s concerning to me when we deal with social events like this. What are the passions that have built up so much that somebody can use vulgarities and obscenities and intimidating language against somebody that they disagree with?

“People have a right to protest and voice dissent. But there’s some decorum and there’s ways to do this that you can get your point across.

“This wasn’t a rah rah forum for Charles Murray by any means. They weren’t all going to hold hands, sing ‘Kumbaya’ and chant whatever his mantra was. This was a debate to really get into the substance of this and to question this, and they didn’t let the debate happen.”

Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected]

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