Students call for accountability over USG senator, affiliate’s racist, classist language

In the wake of a larger confrontation of USC’s anti-Blackness and amid calls for the resignations of Undergraduate Student Government President Truman Fritz and Vice President Rose Ritch, USG Sen. Isabel Washington resigned her position Wednesday. After screenshots of text messages and Instagram posts containing classist, racist and crude messages circulated, Washington announced she would leave her post from the Senate effective immediately and took full responsibility for her texts and Instagram posts that have been made public.

“I am making no excuses and I have a complete understanding of the pain, hurt and anguish that I have caused,” Washington wrote in a statement to USG. “I have proven time and time again that I am incapable of representing those that I have been elected to serve, and in the best interest of those in the USC community, I have chosen to step down.”

Washington’s resignation comes one day after the USC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine released a statement Tuesday calling for her resignation and for the prevention of her potential successor, Nathaniel Manor, from joining the Senate for similarly inappropriate and bigoted language. Manor, a former USG assistant director who garnered 976 votes during the 2020-21 USG Senate elections, narrowly missed out on becoming a senator after placing 13th in a race for 12 positions.

Manor would have succeeded Washington following her resignation, but a recent statement from USG clarified that Manor will not be joining the Senate and that the empty seat will not be filled until the first meeting of the Senate at the start of the academic year.

Students for Justice in Palestine, a national organization and student movement dedicated to the promotion of justice, human rights and self-determination for Palestinian people, wrote that these members of USG must be held accountable for their behavior. 

“Certain members and affiliates of the USG executive and legislative cabinets should also be held accountable for their vile words and actions against Black, Muslim and Palestinian individuals, as well as those of Middle Eastern and North African descent,” the statement read.

The statement referenced various images, text messages and videos of Washington and Manor displaying crude and bigoted language toward certain underrepresented groups. 

In a video posted to TikTok, Manor is seen acting out a sketch in which Arab states of the Persian Gulf in the Middle East start to “vibe” and become “seduced” by Israel. Manor, in a keffiyeh, a nonreligious head covering traditionally worn by men in Gulf countries and a symbol of Palestinian liberation, then acts scared and uses a screaming audio to mimic the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement, among other groups. Manor’s TikTok page also has other videos referencing anti-Palestinian sentiments.

In a statement to the USC community, USG said Manor was removed from the advocacy branch and is no longer a part of the organization. Manor has not responded to the Daily Trojan’s request for comment.

“These instances are in the process of being reported to the relevant USC offices,” USG wrote on its Instagram.

Additionally, in a screenshot circulating online, a post on Washington’s private Instagram page reads: “Me seeing people want to impeach Rose [because] she’s a Zionist, but they’d know I’d be the new VP and I’m also a Zionist.” Though the allegations about Ritch’s beliefs are unverified by the Daily Trojan, SJP and other student organizations expressed their concerns over Washington’s self-identification as a Zionist — an ideology that believes in the protection of Israel’s right to self-determination and the development of Israel as the Jewish ancestral homeland. Zionism can be viewed as dangerous by Arabs, Palestinians and some Jewish people.

Emad Askar, a rising senior majoring in public policy, expressed that it is important to differentiate Zionism from Judaism. Askar, a member of SJP and a Palestinian American, believes that Zionist beliefs promote the oppression of Palestinians. 

“I want to make clear that Zionism is not Judaism, and that is not coming from me, that is historical fact,” Askar said. “The occupation of Palestine represents a larger struggle of oppression for numerous groups in the United States and throughout the world.”

In response to ongoing discussions at USC about anti-Zionist and anti-Arab attitudes, USC Hillel released a statement Wednesday saying that they believe anti-Zionist rhetoric is anti-Semitic, and that Jewish students should not be singled out because of their identification with Zionism or beliefs about Israel.

“We have been rocked in recent days as hate-filled anti-Semitic attacks have been levied against USC students by their peers on social media,” the statement read. “We are stunned by how casually and how carelessly we have seen these views repeated and embraced.”

Other photos of messages sent from Washington and Manor in group chats have caused outrage among some students. Screenshots of these messages posted to Twitter and Reddit have been verified by the Daily Trojan. In one photo, Washington’s texts read: “Imagine being pro palestine lmfao” and “IF YOUR BITCH I[S] FROM PALESTINE I PULL UP IN MY TANK.”  

In an official letter to the student body, USG said the Senate is connecting with students to discuss resolutions that lift the voices and promote the safety of all students.

“Washington’s discriminatory behavior and anti-Palestinian actions and rhetoric go against that very obligation, and so, she will no longer be involved in legislative decisions effective immediately,” USG wrote.

In the last 10 years, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories reported that more than 3,500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces. And according to the American Journal of International Law, more than 400,000 Israelis live in the West Bank — which violates the 1949 Geneva Convention. According to Foreign Policy magazine, Israel may annex parts of the West Bank in early July, in a move that would further displace Palestinians and is deemed illegal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In light of these global concerns and developments on campus, Askar believes that now, more than ever, the USC community must take action to hold leaders accountable who fail to justly represent the student body.

“What we hope to bring from this is not just to help acknowledge and empower the Palestinian community, but to other historically oppressed groups in the world and on campus — we need each other more than ever,” he said.

Muhummad Yusuf Tarr, a 2019 graduate of USC’s Middle East Studies program and the former president of SJP, said that rhetoric and sentiment in line with that displayed by Washington and Manor is representative of an institutionalized problem at USC.

“USG as an institution has a lot issues — we are not just seeing one single person being accused of racism, of bigotry of some kind of form, it then trickles down and you see it, not only with the president and the vice president, but with the senators,” Tarr said. “Then you have someone coming in immediately after them holding the same views, and I think that the recognition of that is really important.”

Some of Washington and Manor’s messages also reference classist jokes and stereotypes of low-income individuals. In an exchange between Washington and Manor, Washington wrote that she “hit someone with her [car],” and in response, Manor asked “how many points” the hit was and asked if they were fat — then made a crude remark about natural selection. The messages also espouse bigoted rhetoric about people of Cuban and Haitian descent. 

“Images and videos of these individuals are currently circulating which clearly display behavior amounting to violations of the policies of Integrity, Professionalism, and Unethical Influence outlined by the USG Code of Ethics,” SJP’s statement read. “The negative impact these individuals have had on our campus community must be addressed by the University.”

A petition calling for the expulsion of Washington and Manor has gathered more than 580 signatures, and calls on USC to reevaluate if they should be allowed to continue as students, despite posing a “discomfort” and “danger” to others.

“[Washington] joins Nathaniel in texts mocking Haitian and Cuban people in Florida,” the petition read. “She implies they are to blame for an apparently ‘high STD rate’ in the state. Isabel’s track record of racism does not end there, as friends of hers have come forward and spoken up about xenophobic comments she has made about immigrants.”

Askar said that it’s critical to hold students accountable for their actions and stop this rhetoric early on.

“[We] want to stop that pain and suffering from happening, and how you stop that from happening is not changing a person, but the system,” Askar said. “Getting these people to resign — what that does — is open a discussion.”

SJP has also come forward to discuss the complicity of USG and the University in failing to promote and protect the voices of Palestinian students. While the organization pledges to demand accountability and present a list of future demands to the University, SJP’s members feel that their efforts have gone unrecognized. Tarr and Askar both said that SJP has felt pushback from USC administration and student government in the past few years. 

In April 2019, USG senators voted against a resolution calling for increased representation of historically underrepresented states and regions of the world on the flags displayed on The Center for International and Public Affairs, formerly named the Von Kleinsmid Center. The resolution also asked for transparency regarding how USC displays the flags of certain countries. 

Student activists and SJP members have called on USC to add the Palestiniain flag to the building. According to a petition outlining a USC divest campaign, students were informed that only countries recognized by the United States were allowed flags — despite the fact that the flag of Taiwan is displayed. The United States does not recognize the State of Palestine, but instead accepts the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Authority as the representative and governing body for Palestinian people, respectively. 

“USC picks and chooses which communities it wants to represent,” Tarr said.

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, the University said the traditional practice of displaying flags at CIPA has been to display flags of countries and territories of international students.

“We have an annual rotation system to display flags represented by just one visiting international student due to lack of available space,” USC wrote.

The University added on to their statement, explaining that in 2019, when the visa data was last pulled for students at USC on a nonimmigrant student visa, there were no Palestinians listed. Student activists believe this reasoning is flawed, as some Palestinian students do not hold properly attributed documentation of their residency. 

“I couldn’t get a flag up,” Askar said. “You know what’s said about it? If they added it, most people wouldn’t even know or care or notice — but it would mean something to me. How sad is that?”

SJP’s statement also calls for the resignation of Fritz and Ritch in the wake of allegations of Fritz’ microaggressions and racist rhetoric toward Black students. The Instagram account @black_at_usc, which now has more than 8,000 followers, details hundreds of racist experiences faced by Black students, faculty, staff and alumni at USC. 

A petition with more than 1,400 signatures calling for Fritz’s impeachment began circulating Friday following the publication of several anonymous posts alleging that he engaged in racial misconduct and microaggressive behavior toward Black students.

Tarr said it is important to recognize the connection between Palestinian oppression and Black liberation movements. He referenced a program in which U.S. law enforcement officials train in Israel with the Israeli Defense Forces. A report from Amnesty International found that Amnesty and the State Department have documented human rights violations and excessive force allegations among Israeli police — a link, Tarr said, that relates to ongoing issues of police brutality against Black Americans and the internal movement to address anti-Blackness at USC.

“When we talk about liberation, it is a collective experience. Intersectionality and solidarity is critical in global liberation — it’s not just about Islamaphobia versus anti-Semitism versus homophobia versus anti-Blackness, they are all connected,” Tarr said. “In this powerplay of ugliness, we see a beautiful unity between different marginalized on-campus groups supporting each other.”

This article was updated July 1 at 9:55 p.m. for clarity, to reflect that the Middle East North African Cultural Center played no part in ongoing developments within USG or the current situation. The petition to create a student assembly is a separate initiative and has no relationship to current debates.

This article was updated July 1 at 3:18 p.m. to include a statement from the University. An additional clarification was made to the article on July 13 at 1:50 p.m.