Early last Saturday, as students prepared for finals, two effigies were discovered hanging from UC Berkeley's famous Sather Gate. They were cardboard cutouts of blown-up photos: a black man and a black woman with the words "I can't breathe" stenciled across them. A similar figure was found hanging from a campus tree a block away.
Word spread like wildfire.
Students cramming for exams at the African American Studies department's "study jam" were shaken. "At first it was like: not again," said doctoral student Michael J. Myers II, 30, who fielded calls, texts and emails from family and friends. "There's no reprieve from everything that's been happening in the last several weeks."
Environmental engineering grad student Regan F. Patterson, 24, became angry. "The reaction was, 'Oh, my God, another racist attack on the black community.'"
Education graduate student Krista L. Cortes, 26, was finishing a paper when she saw the images on Instagram. "It seemed just cruel," she said, "kind of taunting, in a way."
But when people got a closer look, the message seemed the opposite of what it first appeared to be. Each figure was a photo of a real person who had been lynched by a white mob. Among them: Laura Nelson, who was hanged from a bridge in Oklahoma in 1911. Another appeared to be George Meadows, lynched in Alabama in 1889.
"I can't breathe" were the final words of Eric Garner, a black man who died after a white Staten Island police officer put him in a chokehold.
A day later, an anonymous group identifying itself only as a "Bay Area collective of queer black and PoC [people of color] artists" took responsibility, posting a three-paragraph statement on a student bulletin board near Sather Gate.
"These images connect past events to present ones," the group wrote, likening the deaths of Garner and Michael Brown, another black man killed by a white police officer, to the historical lynchings. "Our society must never forget," they wrote. "History must be confronted."
The group apologized "solely and profusely to black Americans who felt further attacked by this work."
But days later, many of Berkeley's black students were still unsettled.
"Who is your audience?" asked Patterson, when we met Monday in a Starbucks across from campus. "It upset the black community. So even though that might not have been your intent, that was the outcome."
Why did this act of agitprop, so quickly unmasked, cause such distress?
After conversations with Berkeley students, professors and a pastor, I'd offer this: It had no apparent context (the names on the photos were difficult to read), it hurt the very people it was meant to champion, and it fed their fears about negative racial undercurrents on campus.
Berkeley may be in love with its image as a tolerant paradise, but many black students say they feel isolated on a campus that is overwhelmingly white and Asian.
In 1997, 252 African American students enrolled as freshmen at Cal. In 2013, that number had plunged to 133, thanks to California voters, who banned consideration of race in admissions in 1996 amid hysteria over affirmative action's negative consequences on white students.
African American studies associate professor Leigh Raiford told me that many black students experience unintended racial insults (sociologists call this "microaggression"), and that racist expression, intended or not, often gets a pass. Two years ago, she said, a fraternity across the street from a black undergraduate dorm hung an effigy out its third-story window at Halloween. The fraternity apologized; the matter was dropped.
"That was never pursued as a hate crime," she said. (I don't think it was a hate crime, but it was certainly a glaring example of the free-range racial insensitivity that plagues many campuses.)
Raiford, who has written about the role that photography played in the anti-lynching movement, said the Sather Gate figures ended up being a distraction.
"My concern is that the focus on how harmful these images are to African Americans moves the debate away from the larger question that this group was trying to get at: How do these images indict white supremacy, and how do we understand that the fight that black lives matter is ongoing and unfinished?"
Pablo Gonzalez, a lecturer in the Chicano Studies Program, thought the "guerrilla art statement" was provocative, even as it outraged many of his students. "These universities are not shelters," he said. Maybe the art would provoke some "messy" conversations about "events that are happening in Ferguson, Staten Island, Oakland — and broader issues like the lack of black students on campus."
Still, the consensus among people with whom I spoke was that the effigies' powerful message was muted, if not canceled out, by the unclear intent.
"The relief does not negate the initial trauma," said the Rev. Michael McBride of the Way Christian Center, which serves Cal students. He rushed over to campus Saturday after receiving a tearful call from a student who had stumbled upon the cutouts. "As their pastor and a surrogate parent to many of them, I think it was deeply insensitive and inappropriate."
At the very least, he said, the Black Student Union deserved a heads up.
What would have happened, he asked, "if swastikas started popping up everywhere and were intended to be a teachable tool to remind people about the Holocaust but no one was there to associate them with the lesson?"