OSWEGO — Local law enforcement agencies are investigating a recent uptick in reports of racist demonstrations at SUNY Oswego after a video over the weekend caused a firestorm of controversy.
In cell phone footage reviewed by The Palladium-Times, an unidentified person wearing what university officials described as a “Ku Klux Klan-style hood” roams a neighborhood on the west side of the city of Oswego. The video, which according to local officials was filmed two weeks ago, and a still frame from it circulated around social media this past week, causing a flurry of reactions across the community in the Port City including education leaders who swiftly condemned “oppressive and unacceptable” behavior.
“Let me make it absolutely clear; we have zero tolerance for such behavior,” said SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley in a statement issued Saturday. “Here at SUNY Oswego, as we toil to learn and grow — let us be united in the desire to move forward together with respect for one another and in peace.
In addition to the potential for punitive action to be taken, Stanley said the university is increasing its safety and surveillance measures.
“Our university police have increased surveillance of the campus and are partnering with the Oswego Police Department to elevate safety patrols in our community,” she continued.
University Police Chief Kevin Velzy told The Palladium-Times the joint effort with local law enforcement is prioritizing a safe environment for the community.
“We are stepping up patrols, and working with the city police in the neighborhoods, but we need the help of our students, faculty and staff to call us right away if they see anything suspicious,” Velzy said. “If concerning activity is occurring off campus, call 911 for the Oswego City Police. We are here to support all members of our community and will work tirelessly to keep everyone safe.”
Port City Mayor Billy Barlow also encouraged community members to actively communicate and report any racially-motivated incidents, and noted the city’s police department is currently investigating the matter.
“We’ve seen the video which is very grainy, taken from a distance, dark and at this time inconclusive,” he said in a Sunday interview. “We also have not had any direct reports or complaints other than what was posted on social media, which we’ve reviewed closely.”
Another source of concern for university officials in recent weeks is a set of reports of intolerant behaviors at online, university events over Zoom.
“We are also investigating reports of virtual events that have been ‘Zoom bombed’ by individuals who have made derogatory, vile and reprehensible remarks in the chat,” Stanley said. “We will pursue all appropriate action for violations of the student code of conduct.”
Student Association President Lizeth Ortega-Ramirez said she wants to see more focus on local race issues and involvement from concerned students seeking to collaborate with local officials in seeking a unified response to issues that may instigate racial tension.
“It is important to acknowledge the stress the video has caused on the student body, especially for (black, indigenous, people of color) students and community members,” Ortega told The Palladium-Times. “Student Association has been in contact with SUNY Oswego administration to ensure that students’ concerns are being heard. With local elected officials to advocate for students’ safety in the local community, our hope is that we can all come together as one community to root out injustice and racial discrimination.”
Other students said the newly reported incidents are reflective of a national miasma of division exuding from the leftovers of a largely polarizing national election.
“I am really disgusted by it all,” said Jessica Chachere, a journalism student at the college. “I really only hear about these things through social media, but it hurts to see people acting out on their bigotry and taking the election as a reason to harass people.”
Although Chachere deems the issue important. a heightened sense of overwatch by law enforcement and deployment of additional surveillance measures have her worried.
“I don’t love that they are increasing police presence,” Chachere said responding to Stanley’s letter and announcements. “It’s going to lead to more tension on campus rather than do anything (to address the issue),” she said. “The (person) in the (hood) wasn’t even on campus in the first place.
The university’s top diversity expert also echoed Stanley’s comments, noting the institution’s collective effort to provide a safe space for students.
"The faculty, staff, and administration at SUNY Oswego are dedicated to actively building and maintaining a fully inclusive community for all stakeholders,” said Rodmon King, the college’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. “We will continue to support and care for our community."
Stanley added the university is also organizing group trainings for student organizations and event organizers in order to make virtual gatherings secure. The effort, Stanley noted, will be led by a coalition of campus technology officers, university executives, and student leaders, and will be unveiled sometime this week.
“Our staff in (the student affairs department) and the counseling center are available to students should you need any resources or support,” Stanley said. “We will continue to closely monitor any reports where the safety and well being of any member of our campus community is in question.”
Authorities are encouraging anyone with direct information on these matters to contact investigator Bryan Thompson with the city’s police department at 315-342-8120, or University Police at 315-312-5555.