Clemson student senator accused of racism for holding gun in campaign poster
A Clemson University student recently won re-election to the student Senate despite accusations of racism from students and faculty over a liberty-themed campaign poster some considered offensive.
Mitchell Gunter told Campus Reform that school officials initially expressed concerns about the poster—which depicts him standing in front of an American flag while holding a rifle and copy of the Constitution—when he brought it to them for approval on February 12, but eventually relented after failing to find a rule under which it could be prohibited.
“I walked into the Hendrix Center to get the posters approved, and I kind of thought there might be a little trouble because of the gun, but the student workers approved it without question. But as I was leaving, the director stopped me to say that school policy prohibits pictures of guns,” Gunter said. “She tried to say that the rule prohibits posters that ‘jeopardize campus safety,’ but I pointed out that the policy also says those restrictions don’t apply to Student Government campaign materials.”
Gunter prevailed, but faced an almost immediate backlash on social media, with several students and university employees indignantly posting pictures and comments about it on Facebook.
The poster first came to the attention of a student group called “See The Stripes,” which has been critical of Clemson for inadequately supporting minority students and is demanding the creation of safe spaces, increased funding for “under-represented groups,” and a greater number of students and faculty of color. The group posted a picture of Gunter’s poster on its Facebook page, and while the initial caption offers no judgment, visitors to the page quickly submitted highly critical comments.
“Ew … no,” one commenter wrote, while another attributed authoritarian impulses to Gunter, suggesting that the poster’s hidden message was “comply or die.”
“I bet he’s voting for Trump,” speculated another, accusing Gunter of “mimicking jihadist imagery, much in the way many xenophobic, faux-patriot groups in recent years have positioned themselves.”
Ironically, just a few days earlier, See The Stripes had posted a substantially similar picture on its page showing members of the Black Panther Party standing in front of a poster holding their own firearms.
The See The Stripes post was quickly picked up by others in the Clemson community, including Chenjerai Kumanyika, an assistant professor in the department of Communication Studies who made a local stir two days earlier when he was evicted from a Donald Trump rally for being disruptive and wearing an Islamic headscarf.
Kumanyika likewise offered no commentary of his own about the poster, but Gunter told Campus Reform he is convinced that the purpose was to disparage him.
“Prof. Kumanyika was very careful not to say anything specific, but he clearly disapproved,” Gunter said. “He didn’t say anything nasty, but he posted it on a page he uses basically for social justice and to expose racism and stuff.”
Kumanyika did not respond to requests for comment from Campus Reform, and most of the comments on the post in question have since been deleted, but screenshots provided to Campus Reform show that it had at least 34 comments at one point, including several casting aspersions on Gunter.
“Hahahaha,” one visitor commented succinctly.
“This is what he gets from the current situation ‘making America great again,’ code words for ‘let’s reverse freedom of slaves to supremacy shall rise again through arms’,” elaborates another.
Some of Gunter’s classmates also shared the photo, including LaDavia Prescott, who describes herself as an office assistant in the Department of Philosophy and Religion.
Gunter responded to the various Facebook posts about his poster with an explanation of his intent, but refused to offer any apologies.
“Basically I'm just trying to interject some fun and satire into an otherwise boring race for Senate, but if you don't like the Constitution, the 2nd Amendment, or the American flag, you probably shouldn't vote for me anyway!” he writes. “If you're drawing conclusions about me based on this poster, you probably just don't know me. Thanks guys!”
Prescott replied that she hadn’t been planning to vote for him anyway, whereupon Edith Dunlap, who claims to be a research assistant in the English Department, offered an even stronger critique, effectively accusing Gunter of racism.
“Holding up a rifle & the Constitution (which wasn’t written to uphold the rights of certain groups in America) in front of a flag that many Black & brown folks are still being murdered under for no reason other than the color of their skin is … fun & satire … interesting,” she wrote. “You want to make Clemson great again, don’t you?”
Gunter refused to rise to the bait, saying only that “you guys are something else,” and that “I pray you find inner peace.”
He subsequently addressed the controversy several days later on his campaign Facebook page, strongly denying that the poster had any “racial connotations” and decrying the efforts of students and faculty to have the poster removed.
“People were basically implying that this was either racist, or didn’t make any sense because Student Government doesn’t handle gun rights,” he told Campus Reform. “The whole poster was intended to be somewhat lighthearted, but the purpose was basically just to say that I support the Constitution, and with all the campus carry efforts going on in other states, this was my way of supporting that issue for South Carolina.”
Despite the outrage over his poster, Gunter managed to secure re-election with 272 votes, which he said is about twice as many as he received last year.
Now, inspired by the victory, he is banding together with the leaders of several other student groups to form a coalition called “WeRoar” to lobby the university for the repeal of policies that have been identified as First Amendment violations by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
“I think this was just a great experience, because a lot of people were criticizing me and trying to make me fold under pressure, but I think we achieved a major victory for free speech,” Gunter said. “Clemson actually has a lot of policies that restrict free speech, and that’s one of the issues we’re focused on.”
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