The Safe Space That Became a Viral Nightmare – The New York Times

The Great ReadThe Education Issue
An argument at Arizona State’s multicultural center spiraled into a disaster for everyone involved. Who was to blame?
Clockwise from top left: Sarra Tekola, Miriam Araya, Mastaani Qureshi and Chase Beckerman.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times
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I first heard about the video from a colleague and friend at my university as we waited in line to pick up our kids after school in late September 2021. One of her students was in the video, and it had gone viral, she said. She’d posted something in support of that student, but then she also started getting attacked. Another professor at our university, Arizona State, would later call the attackers “vultures,” the kind of people who feed off moments of everyday life that morph into spectacle after an article or tweet or video goes viral. But at the time, I didn’t have that analogy. My friend told me she was scared, and I said I was sorry. By that point, she had already taken down her post.
Later that night, I watched the video for the first time. It was 7 minutes and 40 seconds, though the excerpt that was then going viral, that would eventually be watched by nearly six million people, was just over two minutes in length and had been posted alongside the descriptor: “This insanity is happening on college campuses.” What follows is intense, but I wouldn’t call it insane. It’s a nonviolent confrontation among several students in A.S.U.’s new multicultural room. What felt insane, if also predictable, was that Fox News reported on the incident, that a U.S. congressman called it an act of “segregation” and threatened my university’s funding, that hundreds of strangers emailed A.S.U. to opine on the video and tens of thousands more weighed in online after watching the brief drama on their own screens.
I’d been at A.S.U. for four years by that point, and in academia for more than a decade after leaving my job as a newspaper reporter in 2008, at a time when that industry felt similarly under duress. Our main campus is studded by palm trees and buildings the color of the desert, as well as the frequent reminder — from banners to brochures — that we are an innovative university, which is perhaps a way of saying that although dozens of colleges are now closing or consolidating every year, this one plans on surviving. It’s an identity that manifests in a number of ways, most notable of which is size: With almost 80,000 on-campus students and another 60,000 online, A.S.U. has the population of a small city.
It is in many ways the antithesis of where I went to college: a tiny, public liberal arts school called New College of Florida. We had 600 or so students and could invent our own majors. If an incident like this one had happened there, everyone would have been talking about it, processing it, reacting to it. But at A.S.U., in the days and weeks after that clip went viral, its reach was limited: It was brought up at a faculty meeting and after a visiting scholar’s lecture on how we’re losing a “common reality” in this country. Some faculty members and students organized a teach-in to process what had happened, and the university issued a news release chalking it up to a difference of opinions. It was, in other words, one incident among many on the campus.
Online, though, that viral video briefly came to represent not just our university in its entirety, but in some interpretations, the state of higher education in this country as a whole. It was a brief drama that was also a metaphor. But watching and rewatching that drama unfold from my computer, I kept asking myself: a metaphor for what?
When the video began, there were four students: two white men seated at a study table, and facing them, standing, two students of color. One of those students was Mastaani Qureshi, a 20-year-old history and justice-studies major at A.S.U. with long, sleek hair, a Pakistani American who would later be mistaken for Black by strangers on the internet using words that I won’t quote here. The other one standing, and also the one recording the incident, was Sarra Tekola, my friend’s student.
Tekola, who uses the pronouns they/them and is Black, appears only briefly in the video — their face mask blue and belly shirt banana yellow — but their voice, loud and resonant, is as close as we get to a narration during those nearly eight minutes. Tekola can be heard telling one of the seated men why the Police Lives Matter sticker on his laptop is racist, telling the other that white is not a culture and explaining to both the significance of the space they were in that day: a sprawling third-floor room with floor-to-ceiling windows, neatly organized study tables and a smattering of pleather-bound, square backed couches and chairs.
“Do you understand what a multicultural space is?” Tekola asks at a point in which all the voices in the video begin to rise. “It means you’re not being centered.”
A graduate student at the time studying colonialism and climate change, Tekola is also an activist, one successful enough that Outside magazine included them in its 2016 list of 30 under 30 who “are tackling the biggest challenges on the planet,” but also one who, in that same write-up, was nicknamed The Troublemaker — a moniker that Tekola both laughs about and takes some pride in. Because, while activists have become something of a boogeyman in the widening gyre of the culture wars, Tekola sees that work, which has ranged from confronting Bill Clinton about his 1994 crime bill during a publicity stop to pressuring their undergraduate university to divest in fossil fuels, as essential. “I’ve always been loud and outspoken and willing to make a difference,” Tekola told me.
On the morning of the video — Thursday, Sept. 23 — Tekola had car-pooled to A.S.U.’s Tempe campus with their good friend Miriam Araya, known as Mimi, who is also Black and an activist, as well as a graduate student. Araya never appears in the video, but she’s in the room that day, and in some ways all the events that unfold began with her. After she and Tekola got to campus that morning, Araya went to the multicultural room — officially called a Multicultural Communities of Excellence space — while Tekola met Qureshi and other student activists for their weekly meeting with university staff members about the room, which had just opened weeks before.
Araya sat at a table in the new space, she later told me, and pulled out her laptop with its Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro sticker on it. She was hosting a Black Graduate Student Association study session, so other students drifted in and out, and Araya at times stopped to chat with them. Then, at some point, she said she looked up and noticed two “white dudes” — one of them with a T-shirt that said “Did Not Vote for Biden” and the other with a Police Lives Matter sticker on his laptop.
The room was partly filled, mostly with students studying. Many of them were white, so it wasn’t the men’s skin color that Araya said she noticed. It was the iconography — the sticker and the T-shirt — but also, she said, the fact that the two of them seemed to have noticed her as well.
“I am chatting with another person,” Araya told me, “and that’s when the other dude directs his laptop toward me and kind of smirks. I am thinking he is starting shit with me because of my laptop sticker. They are laughing, and I am trying to type but they are looking over at me.”
The graduate student Araya was with said he had to leave, and after that she was alone. The two men kept gesturing toward her, she said, doing a “head nod thing” and laughing, and then without warning she started to feel vulnerable. Her mind slipped from the present to the past: to the stories her grandmother used to tell her about living in Louisiana, and the enduring fear of women in that community that white men would show up and pull them from their homes. Araya wanted to leave, but instead she snapped a photo of the man with the Police Lives Matter sticker and sent it to Tekola and Qureshi in their meeting with staff members about the multicultural center.
“White supremacists in the space,” she wrote. “Unacceptable.”
Tekola got the message just as that meeting was coming to an end and read it out loud to those in the room. It was just past noon.
There are “some Nazis located within the Multicultural space,” one of the staff members present later told a university investigator Tekola said, though Tekola doesn’t remember using those words. What they remember saying was this: “What are y’all going to do about it?”
Chase Beckerman was the one with the Police Lives Matter sticker. He was 24 that day, though he looks younger in the video: an undergraduate studying biological medical science, recently married with dreams of becoming a doctor. Beckerman’s parents are both nurses, as were two grandparents, and he hoped to be the first in his family to get his medical degree. Going to college was always part of that larger plan, and A.S.U. had long been where Beckerman hoped to go. He grew up attending university football games and said A.S.U. felt like a home years before it became one.
Beckerman works as a medical scribe doing clerical work at a local emergency room, and the evening before he had another night shift; that morning, he came straight to campus from work. He had a biology lab at 7:30 a.m. and afterward, he stuck around to study for an upcoming test on the human skeletal system. He met up with a student named Garrett Niles, who was wearing his “Did Not Vote for Biden” T-shirt, and the two went in search of a quiet place to study. They eventually found a table in a room on the third floor of a building called the Student Pavilion that Niles previously knew as a tutoring center. Beckerman said he didn’t notice the new sign out front, the one now designating it as a space for “Multicultural Communities of Excellence.”
“We study in that building daily, and it’s mostly just where you find a spot,” he told me when we talked over Zoom a few weeks after the video went viral. It was an explanation that would be questioned later by those convinced that Beckerman and Niles had intentionally trolled the multicultural space that day, but it squared with what I had noticed about the room when I met Tekola there for an interview: how nondescript it was, how little signage the university had put up to mark it and how many other students also seemed to be using it more as a study hall than as a cultural space.
Beckerman is a quiet talker with the small compact frame of a soccer player, which he was for two years while at A.S.U. before he blew out his knee. Niles, I know less about because he declined, via his lawyer, my requests for an interview, but in a taped Q. and A. following a lecture at A.S.U. months later, he identifies himself as a junior at A.S.U. and a Republican and talks about how the fallout of that video had left him feeling “confused” about his future at the university.
Beckerman told me that he and Niles met at the start of that semester, only a few weeks earlier. Both were into lifting weights, and both were majoring in the sciences. They had studied for two or three hours that morning, Beckerman estimates, when a group of people arrived and started making noise in a corner of the multicultural room near his table. He had his laptop out because it was running a program with three-dimensional images of the skeletal system. The Police Lives Matter sticker on it was scratched and worn; he’d had it there for years.
“Having a background as a first-line worker, I respect the good cops, the good police,” he said. “It changes at Blue Lives Matter. I don’t know. But I believe that could be in response to the Black Lives Matter.”
Beckerman denied ever making intimidating gestures or head nods at Araya or laughing with Niles while looking in her direction. He says he only really noticed Araya once those other students arrived. He looked up from his computer screen, and a woman from the group was walking toward him. Soon after that, someone else from the group followed, cellphone out, starting to record.
“I was speechless,” Beckerman said. “I think my mouth dropped. I can’t even recall how I was feeling at first because I was just so shocked. I didn’t know what was going on. What the motive was. Why me? What did I do?”
Qureshi approached Beckerman first. After Tekola read Araya’s message out loud in that morning meeting, two staff members present promised to send a “Situational Response Team” to talk to the men. These are A.S.U. staff members tasked with managing what the university refers to as “free-speech visitors,” a job that can involve anything from taking down antisemitic fliers to attending campus protests for or against Kyle Rittenhouse (who at one point was an online student at A.S.U.). When Tekola and Qureshi made their way back to the multicultural room after their meeting ended, however, the Situational Response Team hadn’t yet arrived. The friends debated what to do, and eventually Qureshi volunteered to talk to the guy with the Police Lives Matter sticker.
“I was like, ‘It’s not going to be a big deal,’” she said. “In my mind, I felt like if we approached him, it was going to be OK.”
Qureshi said she approached Beckerman’s table and, “in the softest voice ever,” asked “can you please put your laptop in your backpack because you are making people in this space uncomfortable.”
Beckerman took out his earbud and said, “What?” She said he looked surprised.
“He was starting to figure out his words, when the other student with the anti-Biden shirt jumps in,” Qureshi said about Niles. “He says, ‘You can’t be serious, you can’t be serious,’ and pushes his chair back. Now everyone who is studying is looking at us. He calls me snowflake. And he is being really loud.”
Watching this, Tekola decided to act. Qureshi is the youngest of their small group, and Tekola and Araya are protective of her.
“I was like, ‘There they are disrespecting Mastaani,’” Tekola told me, “so at that point, I came over, and I went live.”
The video starts, and you briefly see Qureshi standing beside a study table backlit by floor-to-ceiling windows. She is wearing glasses and a leopard-patterned shirt and has just said something you can’t quite hear. Then the camera shifts to Beckerman sitting at the table beside her: an earbud still in one ear, a Bass Pro Shops hat cupping his head and the Police Lives Matter sticker across the front of his laptop.
“What did I do wrong?” Beckerman asks, staring at the camera.
“You’re offensive,” Tekola says from behind the lens. “Police Lives Matter?”
“You have the same sticker,” Beckerman says.
“What?” Tekola asks, louder.
“You guys have the same sticker, but of the other…” Beckerman trails off.
“But this is our space,” Qureshi says.
That space is also an important character in this drama. Many of those posting about the video online mistook it for a library or neutral study space, and even those who recognized the room for what it was, a multicultural room, still couldn’t have known about the long and by some accounts contentious fight to bring it into existence.
Multicultural or identity-based cultural centers have been around since the late 1960s and ’70s, when Black students in particular pushed their universities to do more to protect them from the racism and isolation that many said they experienced in predominantly white universities. They are often referred to as so-called safe spaces, which is to say places where, if you are minority on campus, you can find brief respite from always being marked as different.
The verb “center” is used a lot when talking about these rooms, as in “this is a space that centers” the Black experience, say, or the L.G.B.T.Q. experience because, out in the rest of the world that perspective is only rarely, if at all, considered the norm. But Lori Patton Davis, an expert on Black cultural centers and a professor at Ohio State University, told me that many of these spaces also offer important academic and support services. They might provide tutoring or mentoring for disenfranchised students or host poetry readings and art shows. There is one at a majority white school, she said, that offers a Black barbershop.
Most of the time, Patton Davis said, universities like having multicultural centers, if only for the optics. If they do resist, it’s usually for financial reasons: They just don’t prioritize the work that those centers do, she said, often mistaking it for merely social instead of academic.
But cultural centers have also become something of a manufactured controversy as of late. According to some critics, these rooms and adjacent projects, like so-called affinity housing, in which students can elect to live in Black or Latino-themed dorms, for instance, are new forms of segregation, because they focus on the lives of minority students instead of the majority, which in most cases is white. None of these spaces exclude white students, but articles about them often imply that they do.
“I always talk about this as white people feeling they are being discriminated against because they haven’t been discriminated against,” Patton Davis told me. “It comes from a misunderstanding about how cultural centers came into existence in the first place. It was about exclusion on campuses.”
A desire for inclusion was one reason Tekola became such an advocate for multicultural centers. The University of Washington, where they were an undergraduate, had an ethnic cultural center, a center for multicultural education and a tutoring center for underrepresented minorities — all part of a multicultural office that Tekola told me made it possible for them to go to graduate school. “I wouldn’t be here without that office,” they said.
When Tekola showed up at A.S.U. in 2016, they were surprised to learn we had no multicultural center. Both of Arizona’s other public universities have either a multicultural room or multiple identity-based centers and A.S.U. had something similar — an intergroup-relations center — that was shuttered during the 2008 recession. Tekola asked around about opening one, and eventually formed an unofficial student coalition to advocate for a multicultural center, but the answer was always no. I’m still not exactly sure why. The university’s president, Michael Crow, declined an interview request via our press office, and officials there refused to make any administrator available to talk with me. A spokesman eventually clarified in an email that A.S.U. deans began meeting with Tekola and others about their proposal for a center in 2018 — the same year that Ronald Jackson, an associate dean, explained why A.S.U. wouldn’t be having a multicultural center anytime soon to the student-run State Press magazine. “We value all of our spaces being inclusive spaces,” Jackson told the publication. “The model of multicultural centers sometimes has a negative impact, but good intentions. What happens in some of those spaces is they become the place where all multicultural activity, sensitivity and understanding happens, and then no one else has to create that type of space in their academic department or building.”
Whatever the reason for A.S.U.’s resistance, Tekola’s coalition refused to give up. In addition to protests and press interviews, the group started petitions, screened films and, eventually, drafted a 20-page plan to address racial inequality at A.S.U. — a blueprint that included a multicultural center. Members also pointed out moments of racism and harassment at the university: a religious-right activist protesting while wearing a T-shirt that read “Muslims Will Rape You”; anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi fliers plastered around campus; a student group called College Republicans United whose members were caught sharing racist, homophobic and antisemitic messages online. (That group, still an official student organization, last year tweeted a Thanksgiving meme referring to Native Americans as “undocumented immigrants” who “refuse to learn local language” and “still get food assistance.”)
The group’s organizing likely would have been for naught, though, if not for the summer of 2020. Days after the murder of George Floyd, Crow issued a statement acknowledging that at A.S.U., “we need to do more.” Three months later, he released a second statement outlining a 25-point plan that included more faculty positions and fellowship programs for Black scholars, a study of race and discrimination at the university, an African American council to advise university leadership, and, No. 5 on the list, a multicultural space on campus.
It was a victory that started to feel less like one once Tekola and others realized how many meetings lay between them and an actual room of their own. For a year, students say they met weekly with faculty and staff members at A.S.U. to discuss, and at times debate, plans for that space, but when the room finally opened last year, just weeks before the video went viral, a sign out front still identified it as a tutoring center, and students say the university wouldn’t let them decorate the space or post rules for how to use it or provide them with dedicated staff members to help organize events, gather resources and ensure that the room itself was, in their words, “safe.”
All of which is to say that it seems clear to me now, watching and rewatching that video over the past year, that when Qureshi snaps, “But this is our space,” or when Tekola yells, “Do you understand what a multicultural space is?” the source of their anger was most likely not just Beckerman or Niles but also our university. It was A.S.U. that was on Tekola’s mind, too, when they pulled out their cellphone that day and hit record.
“Change only happens when we go live, when we do a news conference,” Tekola told me, “and that also informed our decision to say, ‘OK, let’s put this online.’”
When Tekola stopped recording that day, seven minutes and 40 seconds had elapsed. Beckerman had packed up his laptop and left the room. Niles was moving toward the door, saying something about how the women were treating him just as Black people had been treated during “the times of racism” in the United States. Both men had threatened to contact their deans, and at one point in the video — right after Qureshi can be heard cursing at the men — Niles says how “pissed” she and the others will be once their confrontation shows up on “conservative social media.”
Leaving the room, Beckerman told me he felt shaken and confused, but he still assumed that someone at the university he loved would rectify what felt like a wrong. Instead, he and Niles spent the next couple hours wandering around campus looking for help; they talked to student services, then the campus police and finally an assistant dean, Shari Gustafson. They wanted someone to assure them that they had a right to use the multicultural room, and that Tekola and Qureshi had been wrong to confront them in the way they had — but also, once they learned about the video, they wanted it taken down.
Beckerman said they even showed Gustafson the recording, which had been posted to the Instagram page for Tekola’s coalition. Hardly anyone had seen it at that point — the group had only a few hundred followers at the time. “For how powerful A.S.U. is, I thought 100 percent that evening that she or whoever it took would have dealt with that video,” Beckerman said.
But in a later statement to university investigators, Gustafson said she told the men the university had no power to remove content from a nonuniversity website. She or someone else from A.S.U. could have reached out to Tekola’s group and asked them to take the video down, though as far as I can tell from interviews and documents I’ve reviewed, that never happened. She or someone else also could have talked to Beckerman and Niles about the history and purpose of the room they were in, perhaps in a bid to build better understanding. But in that written statement to investigators, Gustafson says only that she assured the men that they were allowed in the room, she agreed to excuse them from their classes that day, and she told them an investigation would be opened into what had happened.
Beckerman got home later that afternoon, frustrated and exhausted, and started prepping for another night shift at the E.R. He hadn’t slept in almost 60 hours. “Then an hour before I had to be at work,” he said, “this went viral.”
Friends called from Georgia, then Virginia, saying they had recognized him in a video online. Beckerman drove to the E.R., scared someone there would recognize him, too, scared that his address would show up on online, that while he worked, his parents but also his little sisters and his wife might be in danger.
“I was mentally destroyed,” he said. “I was in the middle of a panic attack.”
Tekola remembers tracking some hateful posts on their group’s Instagram page and not thinking much of it until a friend reached out, most likely around the same time that Beckerman also heard from his friends. “They’re dragging you pretty hard on Twitter,” that person said.
Tekola had been identified online, and soon Qureshi was as well. Their Instagram page flooded with angry messages, and emails started stacking up in their inboxes. Strangers were calling, texting and posting about them online. “I was attacked at every intersection: homophobic and racist and sexist threats and rape threats and fat shaming,” Tekola told me. “They were sending pictures to us of Black people killed by the police, of dead Black bodies.” One email in particular haunted Tekola. “Youd be invited to the barbecue, not as a guest tho … lets have ourselves a ‘picnic,’” it read. “Take some time to learn about southern white culture.” Below that was a photo of the 1916 lynching of a 17-year-old named Jesse Washington.
By Friday morning, more than a million people had watched that two-minute excerpt from the video posted on Twitter — a clip that ends just as Beckerman gets frustrated and yells, “I’m working 60 hours a week and going to school because my parents don’t just give me money.” By the end of that day, 3.6 million people had seen the short clip. Beckerman got off the night shift and slept for an hour and a half. When he woke up, his mother had found him a lawyer, a man named Craig Morgan, who told me that people were already trying to “politicize” what had happened. “The Tucker Carlsons of the world wanted to talk to Chase,” he said. “There were these political websites offering him laptops and money. I was like, ‘Chase, I don’t think so,’ and Chase was like, ‘I just want this to go away.’”
The two talked and decided to put out a statement. Beckerman wanted to calm things down, but Morgan also wanted him to wrest control of his narrative. Although the bulk of the noise online at that point seemed to cast Beckerman and Niles as victims and Tekola and Qureshi as “self-entitled, hypocritical girls,” as one Reddit post put it, there was a sector of viewers who read the whole interaction as either a stunt propagated by the two men — whose responses at times do sound stilted — or a public scolding they deserved, given the T-shirt, the bumper sticker and the context: a multicultural room.
“Each of us has the right to our own beliefs and to express them through constructive and nonthreatening discourse,” Beckerman said in his eventual response. “I do not know the experiences of those who confronted me, and I am devastated that this misunderstanding is being highlighted by others in a way that perpetuates the continued racial divide in this country.”
He added that he hoped the video might lead to “meaningful change” and said he supported those who want to end racial and social injustice. Then he made the statement public on his Instagram page. (It has since been made private.) That night, Beckerman asked someone to cover his shift at the E.R., and, finally, he got some sleep. By the next morning, his post was flanked with messages of support. But elsewhere on the internet, the vultures were circling. The university’s College Republicans United club, for instance, reposted Beckerman’s statement on Twitter with the comment, “This is what selling out looks like.”
The question implicit to a lot of the outrage online was how my university would respond. There is a need in situations like this for someone to play the arbiter, but the arbiter of what? Theoretically A.S.U. needed to figure out what happened and decide if anyone that day violated its student code of conduct, but within 24 hours this had already become a symbolic fight, at least for those who saw Niles and Beckerman as victims. You could watch them constructing a binary — white versus Black, free speech versus wokeism — that for people like me on the ground made little sense. Or perhaps it made perfect sense, because by building that binary they were also asking A.S.U., and by extension all universities, to choose a side.
The day after Tekola’s video went up online, A.S.U. put out a statement saying that the dean’s office would be discussing the “incident” with those involved. “A.S.U. is a community of more than 100,000 people from all 50 states and more than 150 countries,” a university spokesman said. “Differences of opinion are part of the university experience. The university expects respectful dialogue between students in all engagements.”
It was a statement aiming at neutrality in a situation in which there seemed to be none.
“That’s not a statement,” tweeted Elinor Swanson, a former Libertarian congressional candidate from Montana. “That’s word salad. Two students were bullied while studying bc they had silent, politely-differing political views and the *wrong* skin color. This isn’t what college (or America) is about.”
According to Will Knight, the lawyer who represented Tekola, Qureshi and Araya in eventual disciplinary hearings, an A.S.U. investigator told him the university had received more than 1,500 email messages about the incident within the first week. I requested copies of those emails, and of those I received, almost all either criticized Tekola and Qureshi — one alumna called them “terrorists” in her email — or A.S.U. for not yet punishing them. A group of 20 Arizona state legislators signed an open letter threatening funding cuts against A.S.U. for “using taxpayer dollars to institutionalize racism and further divide our society by enabling neo-segregation.” Paul Gosar, a U.S. representative from Arizona, tagged Crow in a post that called the incident a “ racist attack.” Then, someone on the internet found out that Tekola had a fellowship from the Ford Foundation and Tucker Carlson invited the U.S. senatorial candidate J.D. Vance onto his show to discuss why that foundation and other organizations, like the Harvard Endowment, should lose their tax-exempt status.
“The Ford Foundation spends billions funding people like this, making them into radicals and placing them inside colleges,” Carlson said on Sept. 28, after playing a clip of the viral video and identifying Tekola by name.
The threats and harassment against Tekola and Qureshi, meanwhile, continued. Qureshi’s mother worried about letting her out of the house, and when she did leave one day, Qureshi said she was heckled by a crowd of students in a parking lot on campus. Tekola started sleeping at a friend’s place for safety and carrying a knife just in case. The university offered the students a police escort, but Tekola declined, pointing out that Law Enforcement Today, a website run by former police officers, had also posted derogatory statements about them online.
While many of the attacks focused on both students, Tekola received the bulk of the criticism — because of their Ford Fellowship, because they were a graduate student but also because internet sleuths had uncovered another useful fact: an arrest the year before during a Black Lives Matter protest.
In October 2020, Tekola was arrested by the Phoenix police along with six others after a march for Dion Johnson, a local man killed by an Arizona trooper earlier that year. The arrest was one of dozens later thrown out, after a local ABC News affiliate revealed that the police had been targeting protesters, including Tekola, in Phoenix and inventing lies about them, including in some cases trumped-up gang charges. The Department of Justice opened an investigation, and more than 20 protesters, including Tekola, sued the police and prosecutors for colluding to arrest them and trampling on their constitutional rights. (The suit is proceeding.) The district attorney for Maricopa County, Allister Adel, later resigned, and the police chief stepped down as well.
But much of the internet ignored that context, as did many of the letters sent to A.S.U. None of this was particularly surprising; what unsettled me was learning that A.S.U. also apparently failed to check the facts.
Two weeks after the video went viral, the university finally made a decision: Tekola, Qureshi and Araya would be investigated for two student code of conduct violations: “interfering with or disrupting university or university-sponsored activities” and “stalking or engaging in repeated or significant behavior toward another individual.” Possible sanctions against them ranged from writing an essay to suspension or expulsion. But Tekola was also being investigated for something else: that October 2020 arrest.
Although A.S.U. declined to discuss its investigations with me, Tekola shared a low-quality recording of a Zoom hearing they had with university investigators during which they first learned about the investigation into the arrest. I can only hear parts of what was said, but at one point, Tekola’s lawyer, Knight, can be heard explaining the larger context of that arrest, including the fact that the charges had been dismissed. He also notes that bringing up an arrest a year after the fact smacked of retaliation.
But the investigator present sounds unconvinced, at least in the parts of the meeting I can hear. (She did not respond to an interview request, and the university would only say that A.S.U. opens code-of-conduct investigations “for any potential violation.”) “Any time that a student is arrested,” the investigator says at one point, “that can be a potential student code-of-conduct violation.” She goes on to say, misgendering Tekola: “She was still arrested. She was arrested and charged.”
When the meeting ended, Tekola waited for a call from Knight to debrief, and that interaction was also recorded. Knight sounds rattled, as does Tekola. They discuss how A.S.U. investigators learned about the arrest — A.S.U.’s paperwork names the Phoenix Police Department as the reporting agency — then Knight asks Tekola how much longer until they graduated. His concern was that someone from the Phoenix police was trying to get Tekola kicked out of school months before they were about to graduate with their Ph.D., and that A.S.U. at least tacitly seemed to be aiding in that effort.
“We need to get you out of there,” he says of A.S.U. “It’s not safe.”
While Beckerman was relatively safe — he wasn’t investigated by the university, and most of those making noise online seemed to support him — he said he still felt shaken by the fallout from the video. In the days and weeks after it went viral, he had a hard time leaving his house, and he started attending classes online. A reporter reached out to Morgan asking about unfounded rumors that the former Arizona senator Jeff Flake, a possible distant relative, was working on Beckerman’s behalf behind the scenes. Beckerman was recognized at a restaurant when he finally did go out for dinner with his wife. But the lowest point for him was what happened a week after the video went viral. Tekola had set up a public Instagram account, mostly as a way of containing all hate, they told me, but also educating, and softly mocking, the angry hordes seeking them out online.
“So, I guess you guys are looking for me,” Tekola says in the first video posted at what they later called their “troll page.” “And since you guys are so interested in my work and have raised my profile, I’ll be sure to share more of my research so you guys can learn about critical race theory, white supremacy, climate change, and colonization.”
Managing the responses on that page soon became emotionally taxing, so Tekola recruited friends to draft posts and moderate comments. One of those moderators, Amanda Salvione, told university investigators that on Sept. 30 she posted an analysis of racism in the medical field and tagged Beckerman in it. “If he’s willing to insert himself intentionally in the only A.S.U. campus space not created with him central to its design,” that post read, “what harms will he be willing to commit behind closed doors one on one with a Black patient?”
Tekola says the post was taken down within hours of the university’s issuing a no-contact order among the students in the video, and the university ended up investigating Tekola for that post as well. But by the time Beckerman saw his name tagged on Tekola’s Instagram page, doctors he knew had already warned him that his dream of going to medical school might be in jeopardy, given that he’d been called a racist online. He didn’t interpret the post, then, as a critique of systemic racism or as an attempt to educate white supremacists. He saw it as Tekola’s going after him.
“The motive was to defame me,” he said. “This was an intentional attempt to ruin my entire life, my entire career.”
Morgan said it was the first time that he saw his client cry, and soon thereafter he shot off an email to A.S.U. “These statements about Chase are hurtful, libelous, and simply put: hate speech,” he wrote. “They are meant to be divisive, malicious, and clearly directed toward Chase — a continued victim of this person’s pattern of hurtful, baseless, and vitriolic misbehavior.”
When Beckerman and I met via Zoom a few weeks later, he told me one reason he decided to talk with me, and not anyone else from the media, was that he thought I would understand what he was going through. Two years ago, I wrote in this magazine about someone who tried to steal an academic job from me, in part by using anonymous emails to accuse me and my wife of something we didn’t do. I was confused by the connection when Beckerman first mentioned it, but to him, the similarity seemed simple: He felt as if he had just been going about his life when someone swooped in and upset everything.
It’s a version of events that I understand wanting to believe, but that never felt right in my own story and doesn’t feel appropriate in this one either. Instead, what I kept thinking about as I watched the video and talked to more and more people affected by it, was not who is a victim and who is an aggressor, who was innocent or guilty, but what allowed any of this to happen in the first place, and what might have been done to stop it.
In early November, faculty members — including my friend from the elementary-school pickup line — began circulating a letter asking our university not to punish Tekola, Qureshi and Araya. It opens by calling on Crow to live up to the promises he made in 2020 to better support Black faculty, staff members and students at A.S.U. and critiques the university for a series of failings: not staffing the multicultural space as promised, not sending help quickly enough when Araya complained and, in choosing to investigate Tekola, Qureshi and Araya for “disrupting” Beckerman and Niles as they studied, ignoring that the publicly stated purpose of that room was to “provide a sense of place and support for students of color.”
“We consider it shameful and cruel that instead of protecting students who are clearly vulnerable and being targeted, the university is siding with white nationalist media and downplaying the incident as an isolated disagreement between students,” the letter read.

The emails circulating the letter asked that it be kept internal, but someone from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies leaked it to a conservative website called Campus Reform, telling that publication that he or she was “very concerned about the potential for …intimidation and/or retaliation against members who do not sign this ‘letter of defense.’”
Campus Reform then published the letter in full alongside an article arguing that “leftist students and faculty across the country have used multicultural centers to discriminate against White students.” The individual who leaked the letter wasn’t named, but the person who had forwarded it to the religion department was: Leah Sarat, an associate professor of religion. Soon, she started receiving angry emails — not that many, but one in particular upset her. It focused on Sarat’s gender and her body, and ended with this line: “Your life has no value. Kill yourself.”
Sarat reported the email to A.S.U. campus police, who examined it, she said, and determined the author was not a threat. But she kept pushing. She told the faculty senate about the harassment, and members of the equity and justice committees she sits on. She stressed that attacks like these against individual faculty, students or staff members are not aberrant annoyances from internet trolls nor are they mere examples of a culture of toxic outrage slowly engulfing us all: They are part of a larger system.
It’s a system that another colleague of ours, the English professor Lee Bebout — the one who introduced me to the vulture metaphor — knows well, though not because of a viral video or a leaked letter of support but because of a class he taught at A.S.U. in 2015 called U.S. Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness. A student who wasn’t enrolled in that class criticized it in a post for Campus Reform in late January of that year, and by the next day, the student was on “Fox & Friends” critiquing the course and its reading list, books that, based on their titles alone, the student claimed were casting “all white people as the root cause of social injustices for this country.”
Threats and hate mail followed. Fliers were distributed around Bebout’s neighborhood, calling him “anti-White.” Supporters of the white supremacist group the National Youth Front demonstrated on campus, a state senator complained that Bebout’s class was racist and, according to an essay Bebout later wrote about the experience, “numerous people claiming to be donors, alumni, parents of prospective students and concerned citizens contacted A.S.U. demanding that I be fired.”
“The worst day I experienced was when a picture of my son was on a neo-Nazi site,” Bebout told me when we talked in the spring.
Part of what led him to write about those attacks after the fact was that Bebout felt that situations like his were becoming more common, yet universities seemed at a loss as to how to handle them. In fact, the same semester that Bebout was targeted, at least two other incidents at universities followed a similar trajectory: Campus Reform and similar conservative online sites — and there are a number of them — reported on a supposed transgression, Fox News amplified the story and the National Youth Front began targeting individual professors or college administrators, claiming that white people were facing discrimination. More recently, a survey by the American Association of University Professors found a similar trend: namely that Campus Reform articles often result in harassment and attacks. Of the faculty members surveyed, 40 percent of them had received “threats of harm, including physical violence or death” after being named in an article in Campus Reform, which is listed as a public charity in tax documents by the Leadership Institute, a conservative organization that owns the site. The study found that Black faculty members were disproportionally named in the articles themselves; L.G.B.T.Q. faculty were more likely to be harassed after publication; and prominent research institutions tended to be the primary focus of the website’s ire.
“Campus Reform’s overwhelming focus on the most prestigious universities suggests that an apparent goal of the website’s coverage is to delegitimize not just higher education generally but specifically those institutions that make the largest share of contributions to research production in the United States,” its authors wrote.
Sarat told me that those are the kinds of systemic issues she thinks A.S.U. ignores when it treats each emailed threat or nasty post online or menacing phone call as that of an individual actor, as disparate moments of free speech, which, while uncomfortable, are in no way linked to a larger, more menacing problem.
“There is no mechanism at A.S.U. for connecting the dots and looking at these threats systemically,” she said. “This was meant to intimidate me and attack my status as a woman. There are no structures for addressing that.”
In Bebout’s case, he said that A.S.U. similarly seemed to struggle with how to respond to the criticism aimed at the university and at him. The university’s instinct was to remain publicly neutral, he writes in his essay, while also supporting his academic freedom as a then-tenure-track professor (a freedom that is not always extended to nontenure-eligible faculty members). But that approach had the unintended consequence of neutralizing some of the white-supremacist rhetoric aimed at him and others, treating it, in a sense, like just another viewpoint.
“(W)hile I am sympathetic to administrative desires to let this die out because of the way the attention disrupted the university,” Bebout writes, “I am also keenly aware that they were caught flat-footed, without an ability to communicate about race beyond feel-good multiculturalism.”
The Anti-Defamation League eventually stepped in and began pressuring A.S.U. to take a more forceful stand against hate speech, according to reporting by The Arizona Republic at the time. The university was hesitant, but in April 2015, three months after Bebout made national news, A.S.U. finally signed onto a co-written editorial in that newspaper affirming that “we will not sit idly by when hate raises its ugly head in our community.”
In the years since then, Bebout told me that he has become something of an unofficial coach to academics who have been attacked by what he calls the “right-wing discourse community” and then doxxed or threatened after the fact. People reach out to him a few times a year, he said, but there are also moments when he reaches out himself. When Bebout saw that Tekola was named online last year, for instance, he knew what would most likely follow, so he decided to send a quick email of support.
“I heard that you had been outed as the person from the viral video,” he wrote. “I went through something similar a few years ago for a class I teach on white supremacy. It all goes away after the vultures move on to the next person.”

Recently, as I was trying to finish this article, I received an email invitation to a lecture at A.S.U. on a question that I’d been stuck on my myself as of late: “What is the purpose of universities?”
“For over a thousand years, the traditional purpose of a university has been the pursuit of truth, and universities have focused on the discovery and dissemination of knowledge,” read the announcement. “But in recent decades, as academic institutions became more inclusive, many universities seem to have adopted a different mission: the achievement of social justice.”
If I were still teaching rhetoric, I might use that argument as a lesson for my students, replete as it is in logical fallacies. If I were teaching political philosophy, I might point out how the critique replicates one of the more cynical interpretations of Plato’s “Republic”: that justice and truth are incompatible and, thus, colleges and universities, like democracies (or republics), must choose either one or the other, but not both. But I teach creative nonfiction now, so instead, that email made me think about storytelling and how many of the stories being told right now about higher education in this country just aren’t true.
It is true that early iterations of what would eventually become the first Western universities began to appear nearly 1,000 years ago — first in Bologna and later in Paris — but historians are still not completely sure why. One reason was likely job security. Scholars outside of monastic schools were often itinerant teachers, dependent on students who could accumulate enough learning to poach clients from their mentors and set up their own shops. Another cause may have been housing costs: In places like Bologna, students organized in order to negotiate lower rent in the cities to which they were moving so they could learn. “Universitas” in its original definition, after all, meant a corporation of workers, like a guild or, later, a union. These were organizations formed to give students and their professors more power via collective action.
The origin of the university more directly linked to learning itself, however, goes like this: Around the 12th century, new works from ancient Greece and Rome began making their way into Europe via Arab scholars who had read and studied them for centuries. All that new knowledge needed a repository, and the university became one.
Which means that this nearly millennial-old institution most likely got its start in the kind of organizing we’d later see reflected in students like Tekola but also in the thinking of philosophers like Aristotle, whose writing on anatomy would one day filter down to Beckerman, as he studied the skull and the spine, the rib cage and the sternum that day in the multicultural room. Aristotle believed we might best understand a species, as well as a tragedy, by examining its parts, and as such, his lessons have wormed their way into my thinking as well, as I write about the anatomy of one tiny tragedy and so many of us here watching it, trying to figure out what it means.
There are more times than not when A.S.U., like much of higher education, feels like a corporation among many, and within that analogy, this incident is just one more problem that has to be managed or contained. But I wonder if a better metaphor would be the body: each of us one part of that larger anatomy, all of us cognizant that caring for the other parts, tending to whatever wound afflicts us, ultimately means caring for the whole.
Late last year, A.S.U. cleared Araya of any wrongdoing. Tekola and Qureshi were left with just one code-of-conduct violation — interrupting a university-sanctioned activity — and were asked to write an essay explaining how they would be more “civil” in the future. They responded with a video in which they called the investigation itself a form of discrimination and criticized the university for failing to protect them from white supremacists online. They posted that video to their Instagram page in December, and another round of attacks from conservative media ensued, followed by more online harassment, as well as an invitation to be on the Dr. Phil show, which Tekola ignored.
But A.S.U. appears to have accepted the video as fair punishment, and in the months since then, all three students have tried to move on. Qureshi graduated in May, with plans to take a gap year before she applies to law school. Araya recently took her comprehensive exams and is waiting to hear if she passed. And Tekola successfully defended their dissertation, but since last January, they said they stopped going to the multicultural room and had given up on trying to make A.S.U. more inclusive.
“I just felt really betrayed,” Tekola told me the last time we talked. “I knew the university didn’t always like me, but I knew that they needed me. And so for them to do what they did, I just felt really betrayed.”
Beckerman didn’t want to have a follow-up conversation with me, but when we talked he told me that he, like me, kept watching and rewatching that video as if it might offer up some clue.
“I don’t know why I keep watching it,” he said. “At this point now, it’s out of frustration. I am heartbroken.”
His lawyer, Morgan, told me that Beckerman is worried about this article, and that maybe he made a mistake in talking to me. I said I hoped that wasn’t the case. To me, this article has never been about any of these individual students and what they supposedly did wrong or right. It’s about our rapt attention on them and how that attention keeps many of us from seeing the machinations taking place just off screen.
As for the multicultural room, it’s still there, but the meetings with Tekola’s coalition about the space have stopped. There was a final one last March with Cassandra Aska, the dean of students, in which Qureshi asked who was making decisions about the space now and was told that “leadership” was, though Aska wouldn’t specify who, exactly, that is, Qureshi said. Aska didn’t respond to my request for comment, but Sarat, the religious-studies professor, told me that she attended that meeting to provide faculty support to the students and found it to be both discouraging and surreal.
“I see it as a joke,” she said of the multicultural space. “I see the website makes A.S.U. look good, but it’s window dressing.”
Just beyond that window dressing, the university itself continues to operate as if it and we weren’t under attack. Elsewhere, seven censorship bills passed in states restricting what can be taught in colleges and universities, and 70 similar bills have been proposed since the beginning of last year. Elsewhere, millionaires who went to college themselves keep telling young people that it’s no longer worth their time. Elsewhere more states like mine are funding conservative schools within universities while refusing to fund the universities themselves at pre-recession levels. Elsewhere, polls show that more than 40 percent of Americans now believe higher education is bad for this country.
One interpretation of all of this is that it is just noise — words, freedom of speech, perhaps even a valid critique of powerful institutions. Another version might go something like this: There is a concerted campaign afoot to delegitimize academia in the United States, one that too many people seem unwilling to acknowledge and very likely will not respond to in time. Those most hurt by these attacks are not Marxist professors or wealthy elites but students like Beckerman, who for weeks was afraid to leave his house, and Tekola, who still feels abandoned by their university, and colleagues who, like me, keep looking up at the sky, watching for the circling of distant birds.
Sarah Viren is a contributing writer for the magazine. She’s the author of “Mine” and a forthcoming memoir, “To Name the Bigger Lie,” which draws from an article she wrote for the magazine two years ago about a false accusation. Philip Cheung is a photographer based in Los Angeles. He has worked extensively around the Middle East and documented the Russian invasion of Ukraine.



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