Autumn Dixon and Nathan Tolfa
A man walked onto Whittier College’s campus last Saturday, March 10, wearing a black trenchcoat, sunglasses, and an American flag bandana to hide his face. A student saw him and called Campus Safety, who arrived at the North Lawn to find him burning an LGBTQIA+ pride flag that he had hung from a trash can. They approached him and he ran away, escaping off campus.
“[He] went towards Uptown Whittier,” said Dean of Students Joel Perez. “And . . . Whittier PD was notified.” The Whittier Police Department did not apprehend any suspects, so he presumably got away. Prior to the burning of the flag, a Twitter account posted numerous tweets claiming that the account’s author would burn a flag in protest against the LGBTQIA+ community. “This week I will burn a gay [sic] pride flag on a college campus,” the author wrote in a tweet posted on March 4. The day before the incident, March 9, they posted another tweet targeting Whittier College specifically. They posted a video to the account after the incident which shows the suspect briefly burning the flag, then running away after being confronted.
It is unclear from the account’s tweets why the suspect burned the flag on Whittier’s campus, especially given Whittier’s close proximity to other colleges — USC, UCLA, Cal Poly Pomona — with larger student bodies. “People obviously have the right to protest,” said Perez, “but to single us out as an institution is really bizarre to me.”
Students were alerted of the trespasser on campus via email and text message at 1:58 p.m., approximately two hours after the incident occured. “It gave me anxiety to know that an individual like that would be [on] Whittier [campus],” said third-year and member of the LGBTQIA+ community Molly Lowry. A number of students were alarmed by the near two-hour time gap between when the event occurred and when the campus-wide alert was sent out. Students voiced this concern at both the ASWC Senate meeting on Monday, March 12 and the Town Hall meeting on March 13 — a public meeting where students could speak with administrators including President Sharon Herzberger — that the time delay put them in potential danger.
“It’s always a tough call to make when you notify people, and I think it wasn’t a direct threat to any one individual,” said Perez, speaking about the delay. “It definitely was towards a certain group . . . I think we did the best we could given the information we had . . . it’s always tough to know how much notification you put out or how much attention you give to someone who, I think, we just felt at the time didn’t merit a lot of attention.”
There was some debate at the Senate meeting as to whether or not the suspect achieved his goal in burning the flag, due to the initial email from Perez stating that “[the individual] was not successful in his attempt [to burn the flag].” However, it is clear from the video that the flag does catch fire and does burn. Despite this, it is debatable if he truly succeeded.
“If I were to hear someone say they’re going to burn a flag,” said Perez. “to me, it would signify that they wanted it completely engulfed in flames and for it to be incinerated, in which case I would say he wasn’t successful.” Both the Whittier Police Department and Campus Safety have increased patrols around the Whittier campus. Perez feels that students can do their part to keep an eye out for suspicious people. “I think the one thing I want to get across to student is, if they see something, to let us know. Anything that looks strange [should be reported to Campus Safety],” said Perez. “And not always assume that [Campus Safety knows] things are happening because we’re not a closed campus, we’re an open campus. People come on and off campus as they choose. It’s really up to all of us to be extra vigilant.”