Ottawa police are investigating an alleged hate crime committed against an accomplished Carleton University student.
Perpetrators manipulated a photo of openly gay undergraduate Arun Smith and created dozens of image macros on the website Quickmeme. The texts the offenders superimposed over Smith’s picture were homophobic, lewd and frequently violent.
John Medeiros, the Ottawa police officer in charge of the force’s diversity and race relations department, could not go into detail regarding the status of this investigation. However he did say that if police determine the accused did in fact commit a hate crime they will be charged accordingly. Medeiros acknowledges that some individuals are using legitimate electronic platforms to commit hate crimes.
When Smith first became aware of the memes on April 4, he says, he initially thought they would be simple juvenile jokes. When he viewed the images and saw they dealt with homophobia and sexual assault, his position immediately changed.
“We have had eight sexual assaults over the past few years here at Carleton. This speaks to a greater internet culture; rape and sexual assault aren’t funny. They are never funny,” Smith says.
A selection of the hate memes created against Smith.
(Source: Arun Smith)
Although Smith found several allies and supporters on campus, he was met with resistance from some faculty members and admits the lack of support drove him to have suicidal thoughts.
“The CUSA vice-president of student life was having none of my frustration. I felt very much like he and another student were attacking me, and it caused me to spiral out of control,” Smith says.
Recognizing he may hurt himself, Smith called a friend and requested they call police as a preventative measure.
“I tied myself down to my couch because the plan was to jump off the balcony. When the police knocked on my door, I had already managed to untie myself and was halfway to the balcony door,” he says. “If that had occurred, we wouldn`t be having any conversation. But the conversation that would be happening would be very different.”
Ryan Flannagan, Carleton University’s director of student affairs, acknowledges the severity of these crimes and the impact homophobic actions have on gay and lesbian students. He says Carleton is striving to make next year different.
“Moving into the fall we’re going to get more proactive in terms of talking about cyber bullying, talking about the responsibilities our students have as it relates to being on the internet and communicating with their friends,” Flannagan says. “We’re also looking to do an awareness campaign, specifically, during the fall that talks about these issues.”
When Carleton’s Graduate Student Association (GSA) learned about the memes the group immediately issued a statement denouncing any form of homophobia. The GSA’s vice-president of finance, Elizabeth Whyte, says Carleton’s GSA has noticed hateful memes popping up more frequently, and it is something her organization is concerned about, as the memes tend to be harassing, oppressive and intolerant. Whyte went on to praise Smith for his solid contributions to campus life.
“He’s been a strong advocate for safer spaces on campus and progressive causes. He’s a very impressive young man,” Whyte says.
Like a phoenix out of the ashes of hate, Smith has risen up to become the campus coordinator for the Canadian Federation of Students’ Challenge Homophobia and Transphobia campaign, a joint initiative with Youth Line. It debuted May 24 with the goal of building a broad-based coalition to understand how best to advance the campaign on Carleton’s campus; the coalition hopes to stage events in the future. The campaign's main message is that queer students need to fight back against discrimination.
“These are our identities. Our lives are being attacked viciously with violence and hate. It`s not something we can let continue,” Smith says. “Recognize that you are who you are and that`s something to be proud of; it doesn`t matter if people attack you for it -- and people will. Not everyone has the capacity to fight back, and I understand that, which is why those of us who do have the capacity to do so have to do it.”
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