Jeremiah True is not going to kill anyone.
The 19-year-old Reed College freshman is calmly assuring me of this from inside his dorm room on the Southeast Portland campus, where he has agreed (after negotiating with Dean of Student Services Mike Brody) to stay under a sort of self-confinement until “this whole thing blows over.”
Last week, True became famous—some might say infamous—after circulating a petition demanding the college let him back into the mandatory first-year humanities class that he’d been asked to leave. True said he was booted from class because he questioned the concept of “rape culture” as well as the commonly cited “1 in 5” campus rape statistic. But Professor Pancho Savery, who asked True to leave his class, said that True had been disruptive in several ways that were making it hard for other students to continue their studies.
The disruptive behavior escalated, according to the college administration and reports from fellow students, to include yelling loudly in hallways to draw attention to himself, calling everyone who crossed his path a “n**ger” (True himself is biracial and identifies as black), posting inflammatory comments and name-calling online, and writing that he would “stake my life on this” and “I do not want to be a martyr, but I will do that if that is what is necessary to make a statement.”
True’s story has become a stand-in for free-speech issues relating to “trigger warnings,” campus sexual assault, and the men’s rights movement. True says he’s a free-speech activist, while critics say he misunderstands the First Amendment. Meanwhile, True has created a national controversy, and he’s not even old enough to drink beer.
Reed has a reputation both as an extremely challenging academic environment and a bastion of liberal approaches to campus policy. (Full disclosure: I also attended Reed, and graduated from the school in 2012.) Freedom of thought and speech is encouraged, and the tongue-in-cheek unofficial school motto, stamped for decades on T-shirts and coffee mugs, is Atheism, Communism, Free Love. The school tends to draw a self-selecting student who is both academically gifted and a little weird socially. Take a mildly autistic vegan genius with green hair, hop him up on Adderall, cram his brain with nuclear physics and classical Greek philosophy, and you’ve got your typical Reedie.
The Reed community is so used to being challenged by intense student engagement of one form or another, in fact, that the college community coined a word for it many years ago: spring crisis. According to a Reed Almanac published by the college’s alumni magazine, spring crisis is defined as the “annual campus controversy typically taking place in March or April, just as sunshine deprivation is reaching its nadir.” The spring crisis, says the almanac, dates all the way back to a 1924 campus debate about smallpox vaccination that became so heated, the college’s then-ill president perished from the stress.
“There are similar situations where issues of concern are brought to the college all the time, they just don’t usually play out in the media,” said Kevin Myers, Reed public affairs officer, in a Monday phone interview.
Reed’s latest “spring crisis” escalated on March 20, when True received a letter from the college explaining that he would have to shape up or face exclusion, then possibly expulsion, from campus. True posted the letter to his Facebook page, and allegedly asked a friend to circulate it to several private online Reed forums.
“The college has received numerous reports regarding your conduct over the past few days. These actions include forcefully and aggressively accosting multiple members of the community by using the ‘n’ word, and continuing to make loud and public references to death and martyrdom in ways that, in combination with similar references and aggressive written attacks online, have given multiple people cause to fear for their safety. In addition, by yelling and laughing loudly as you walk through the hallways and around campus, you are intentionally interrupting classes and other campus activities,” reads the March 20 letter from Reed to True.
“Your conduct has resulted in multiple requests from faculty and students to provide some assurance of safety, students seeking alternative housing, and some opting to not participate in elements of the educational program to which they have a right. These actions have been described as disruptive, threatening, erratic, aggressive, and dismissive of people’s expressed wishes for you to respect their personal boundaries. Your conduct is causing many community members—students, staff, and faculty alike—to report being afraid of what you might do to yourself and others,” the letter continues.
True responded with a letter to the administration that he included in a 16-page essay and posted to Facebook. In it, he said that his actions are part of a nonviolent protest and wrote, “I have a strategy.”
“I have not been forceful or aggressive in any way. I have been open and willing to discussion. I have pointedly used my word of choice, "n**ger," to startle, shock, and offend the student populace. I am free to refer to my death and my martyrdom as I so choose if I do not disrupt the academic environment of Reed,” wrote True.
Yet the letter ended with the latest in a series of highly disturbing statements that True had made over the past week. It warns, “If you exclude me from the campus, I will rain hell down upon you all.”
These kinds of statements have put some parents on edge, and understandably so. Just last summer, 22-year-old Eliot Rodger killed six people and wounded 14 more near the University of Santa Barbara campus after circulating online videos and manifestos referring to his “war on women.” In October, two anonymous letters threatened a mass shooting at Utah State if feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian was allowed to give a lecture. The threats of serious violence came after months of sometimes rational, sometimes trollish online criticisms of Sarkeesian’s feminist philosophy.
True told me over the phone that, despite his Facebook posts, he has no intention of acting violently in any way, and is simply protesting. “I was unfairly treated and in response I’m creating a huge media storm for Reed to deal with, as I told them I would if they did not respect my rights,” he said.
Reed public affairs officer Kevin Myers also waved away concerns that the situation might escalate.
“It’s easy to look at what’s going on online and see that sort of static snapshot and think that’s the whole picture,” Myers said via phone on Monday. “The staff is not dealing in speculation. They are acting in their many years of professional experience, and on the facts of the case. We actually feel things are in a really good place right now.”
On Monday, a letter of support backing Professor Savery’s decision to remove True started collecting signatures from alumni. The letter, which had collected about 50 signatures by evening, says that “free speech does not mean speech without consequences” and calls for the college to do even more to support sexual assault survivors at the school.
Meanwhile, English major Rosie Dempsey, who will graduate from the college this spring, drafted another support letter that is gathering student signatures on campus. She told me that students are nervous about campus safety and wigged out by the “media shitstorm.”
“The fact that [True] is interested in triggering students, causing psychological harm, through the use of language steeped in violent history does disturb the academic environment,” said Dempsey.
Dempsey is a sexual assault survivor and said that advocates have stepped up services on campus, and that the feminist student union has held numerous meetings and panels about “responsible student activism.”
“As an assault survivor I’m particularly offended by his claims that sexual assault victims are adding to the ‘hysteria’ of rape culture,” Dempsey said, “And his claims that people who have ‘only’ been sexually assaulted don’t experience the same trauma and invalidation of rape survivors is disgusting. That belief perpetuates rape culture.”
Spencer, a Reedie who graduated in 2014 and asked that only her first name be used, said True’s sexual assault comments were part of a larger problem of dismissing the experience of survivors like herself, and of reducing sexual assault and rape to a questionable abstraction.
“When someone doubts your experience, you start to wonder if it really happened the way you remember it, or if it was your fault, or if you’re some kind of rare outlier,” said Spencer, “You get tired of being disbelieved and having to explain and defend your experiences over and over again. It’s scary, because that kind of refusal to listen is often what leads to sexual assault in the first place.”
True told me that he feels “the utmost compassion” for survivors of rape and sexual assault, but that doesn’t believe the statistics and terms used to address campus rape are accurate. He says he’s done in-depth research into existing data, much of which is linked in his online petition. Any inflammatory antics since getting kicked out of the class, he says, are just part of his free-speech protest.
Protest or no, when you read True’s rants and online name-calling (he referred to one female commenter as “a bitch and a cunt” and called another “fatty”), it all starts to seem a bit nuts.
“I am the God of MRA’s [men’s rights activists], Antifeminists, AntiMarxists, Libertarians, and White, heternormative men and women everywhere,” wrote True in a different part of the 16-page essay posted on his Facebook page, “I am a misogynist and a misandrist, a racist, and a feminist. And now I’m here to call you out on your bullshit, Reed. I made my entire college run for cover because I’m an actual activist. I yelled “n**ger” in public places and nonviolently disrupted a forum on student activism when I felt my rights weren’t respected. Now that’s activism… Gender feminists. I am a biracial, bisexual, non-gender conforming Black n**ger. Suck. My. Enormous. Black. Dick.”
In the same essay, True writes separate missives to Savery, Barack Obama, “my n**gas in the hood,” Kevin Spacey, Emma Watson, and even Anita Sarkeesian (“I demand a formal apology from you to the entire gamergate movement.”) It’s rambling, but his point seems to be that he can use this moment to say anything he wants, and might as well while the public platform lasts.
In the meantime, True said he wants to be reinstated in Savery’s humanities class. Until that happens, he is protesting by refusing to attend any classes at all. Most of his time is spent in his room, reading alone.
“I want to go back to class. Then I intend to sue Reed and drop out and go on my merry way,” said True, noting that he wants to “make a career out of being a free-speech activist.”
The college administration hasn’t given up on negotiating a truce to this firestorm, though. Myers said that over the weekend, the school held a meeting with True that was open to students, and many came to hear him out and respond with their thoughts. After all, he’s still a member of the tight-knit Reed community.
“I think it was helpful for people to just kind of get in the same room and talk about what exactly is going on and what are the goals here,” Myers said, “These situations always evolve. We’re looking very hard for a way that this can end positively for everybody.”