Susan Amussen of UC Merced on what it’s like when it’s your campus: “Violence ripples out, affecting far more people than we expect.”

Photo of vigil at UC-Merced, November 6, 2015. Courtesy of Susan Amussen.

Photo of vigil at UC-Merced, November 6, 2015
Courtesy of Susan Amussen

Today’s guest post is from yet another friend of the blog whose campus sustained a knife attack by a student that was ended when he was shot and killed by campus police.  Fortunately and significantly, the only fatality in this incident was the perpetrator–he inflicted no fatal injuries because his weapon of choice was not a gun.  Susan Amussen, Professor of History at the University of California, Merced, sent this in on Thursday night and updated it last night after the vigil for the victims. 

By now, most of you know that on Wednesday morning, a student at UC Merced named Faisal Mohammed attacked a fellow student in a classroom with a knife.  He proceeded to stab a contract worker who had intervened when he heard the noise.   He then went outside and stabbed one of our staff advisors, and another student who tried to help that advisor.  As he ran from the campus police he was shot; he later died of his wounds.

As these stories go, it’s not as bad as it could have been.   He didn’t have a gun.  That was my first thought, and I can’t tell you how many of the messages I’ve received have commented on that.   It was early (a 7:30 AM class) so the campus was relatively empty.  All the victims are alive, and will make a full recovery.  Only the student who wielded the knife is dead.  Faisal (who I hadn’t known) was a first year student, and really, at this point that’s all we know.  While Fox News has tried to talk about jihad, as our Chancellor has said, there is no evidence that the initial attack involved anything but personal antagonism.  His roommate reports that he kept to himself, and didn’t seem to have friends.  All of us who teach know how complicated the transition to college is for many kids, and I keep thinking of him as a child.  I can’t use the words that are used so often – suspect, perpetrator, etc.  He was a kid, a student, with some kind of problem, but we don’t know what.

So what’s it like to have your campus the site of one of these violent events?  First, it’s profoundly disorienting.  We all – and by that I mean all faculty – walk around as if our campuses are safe places.  And we want them to be safe places, so that our students can take risks in their learning.   Of course, we also all know on a certain level that it’s not true, but even if we know it could happen here, we live as if it won’t.  So the first thing that’s shattered is a core sense of what an educational institution should be.   Everyone I know was in shock.   Distressed, shocked, concerned.  We were concerned about the students who were victims, who were witnesses, and the student who did it; we worried about our faculty colleagues who were teaching at the time, and the staff who were nearby.  And we were concerned about students who were not on campus, and about each other.  Our students have been terrific, but we know this is hard for all of them.  Our campus is small, and people know each other.  That’s helped, but it also makes it hard.

The shock and disorientation were compounded by the lack of information.  For most of the day Wednesday, we really didn’t know much more than was publically reported.  That was largely because not much was known, and the identity of the attacker was not released until his parents had been notified.   A few rumors circulated – which class it was, that one of our advisors was a victim; but we really didn’t know much. Even the afternoon press conference added little information.  Those who had been on campus gave us a bit of information.  We got very occasional emails, but the reality was there was nothing to tell us.  Campus is closed for the day.  Classes are cancelled tomorrow.  Faisal had not (apparently) left a manifesto of any kind, and no one reported him saying anything as he attacked, so it was not as if we could have – even before he was identified – try to figure out why he did it.  One colleague wrote on Facebook, “The most heartbreaking thing is that there are so very many troubled students that I can imagine scenarios in which a student I know and worry about could have been the assailant.”  You learned a bit more from following the campus twitter feed, but not much.

By the end of the day, we had enough information to begin asking questions, the biggest of which was why the campus cops shot a kid who was (apparently) running away from them and to the best of anyone’s knowledge, only had a knife?  What were our campus police force’s rules of engagement?  How was it, if it was, connected to larger issues of police over-reaction? But also, how will I address this in my class?  Still, as one colleague who blogs said, we weren’t sure what to do because there was our humane response (hug all our students), our professional/analytical one, and our activist/political one.   In due course, we will need all three.

Thursday – the campus open as of noon, but no classes – was a day in limbo.  We were over the first shock, but not really facing the next step.  Since the attack began in the building which houses my office, I would still need a police escort to go in, so stayed off campus.  Friday, the next phase began – reclaiming the campus as a place of learning, figuring out whether and how to address what happened in our classes.  (I’m not teaching this semester, so I don’t have to figure that out, but there have been long conversations with colleagues.)  At the end of the day, there will be a vigil, organized by the students, and students, faculty and staff will walk together across the bridge where Faisal died, to reclaim the space for positive meaning.  And every day, we’ll show up, and once again try to make the campus a safe place for students to learn and take risks.

What strikes me in all this is that no one on the faculty was prepared for this.  There is nothing you learn in graduate school that helps you respond.  One colleague, teaching down the hall from the class where it all happened, had watched the videos about a live shooter situation, and sheltered his students in place until someone came to get them.  Another had a midterm scheduled for 9:30 on Wednesday: she was responding to panicked emails in the moment, long before the counseling services were available, to students who wanted to know what would happen.  All she could say was, “At the moment I think X”.  Throughout, it was our shared humanity and our community that was important.   And, of course, that’s the one thing that we don’t – and can’t – evaluate in advance.

*                                                                       *                                                           *

I wrote this on Thursday.  It’s now Friday night, and more information has come out, officially and unofficially.   And I’m writing this separately to emphasize how partial knowledge is, how powerful stories are, and how they change.   (And of course, as the investigation continues, it will change some more.)  That’s part of what you learn/remember when you’re in the middle of a news story.   The whole thing is a learning experience.  The campus policeman, according to one witness, sought to disarm Faisal peacefully, and only pulled his gun after a long back and forth, and shot when Faisal lunged at him.  The motive, apparently, was revenge for being kicked out of a study group; he had put together an elaborate 24 step plan, but when things didn’t go according to the plan, he panicked.  There has been extensive publicity about the construction worker who confronted Faisal; but I’ve heard through the grapevine that even before he intervened, a student in the class who had been trained in crisis response had interrupted the plan and was trying to talk him down.

The students have been extraordinary.  They are all shaken, but while Fox News and the Twittersphere was full of charges that this was jihad, our students rejected that, and came together to counter hate with mutual support.  We have much to learn from them.   The students were not the only ones traumatized.   A staff member who witnessed the shooting was (understandably) still haunted. An office neighbor, working behind a closed door, was called out by the SWAT team, told to put his hands over his head, and then sequestered in a conference room for two hours.  Even those of us who’d been safely at home wanted to stay together.  Violence ripples out, affecting far more people than we expect.

At the campus vigil tonight – with staff, faculty and lots of students – we carried candles and walked across the bridge where Faisal was killed.  It is a bridge that students cross their first week on campus, and they cross it again on the way to graduation.   We crossed the bridge as the sun set.  The three people who spoke – the Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs, and the head of the student government – all highlighted the importance of community and caring in the campus response to something terrible, and the thing that gave us a way to move forward.   They all also talked about the importance of getting back to the usual work of the campus.  At the end, the Chancellor went off script, stepped back up to the mike, and simply said, “I love you.”

As I walked toward our office building with a colleague, one of her students approached with his parents and his nephew.  As she embraced them all, she turned to the parents and told them how good their son was.  We were back at work.  But all, I think, with an added appreciation for how precious it is.

For those of you, like me, who work in higher education, did you ever think that your chosen metier would put your life at risk?  Did you ever think your workplace would become so dangerous?  Boy howdy, this is an obscenity.  But like I said yesterday:  I will remain proudly unafraid, because it’s fear that drives violence.

10 thoughts on “Susan Amussen of UC Merced on what it’s like when it’s your campus: “Violence ripples out, affecting far more people than we expect.”

    • Thanks for the link to your post. I’d forgotten that one. Every time it happens, I think about the potential for violence, but I tend to forget about it between times. And if we thought about it every day, we’d be hypervigilant, which is a symptom of PTSD.

      One of the cool things was how many humanities people said, I can connect thinking about this to this part of the work in my class. We have this tool for thinking about what happened.

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  1. This was beautifully moving.

    One thing I think we need to start talking about more is the trauma caused to the police and others who shoot and kill violent offenders and even innocent people going about their business. U.S. Culture often places more guns, more shooters, as the solution to these incidents, but killing someone, even when trained, is horrific, traumatising and often has long term effects on mental and physical health – as the example of US Vets proves. I get that when police kill innocent people that we should hold them to account, but I suspect most aren’t serial killers but people whose training and ingrained racism causes them to respond in such ways – so they too likely have to live with trauma. If we want gun control, I think the conversation needs to extend beyond the impact on victims to that on who weilds guns – and the repercussions for what killing people actually means for everyone that has to do it. Because until we understand the horror of taking ANY life, then guns and bodies will continue to pile up.

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  2. Many thanks to Susan Amussen for sharing this. It sounds like you, your colleagues, students and campus community as a whole had a humane response to a profoundly disturbing experience. I can’t help but think of how awful the kid must have felt to think he had to go out and hurt someone.

    I can’t help but feel profound sadness for the campus police officer who thought he had to shoot a student run amok. Working on a university campus is s sweet job, for all of us faculty and staff alike. As much as we professors like to groan about the dumb things our students do, we get to deal with the really capable and well adjusted 18-22 year-olds. Most police have to deal with the young ones that are in really rough shape and wrapped up in a lot of bad shit.

    My heart goes out to the stabbing victims. Their physical wounds will hurt for months on end, and the psychological ones even longer. Susan Amussen is right, violence ripples out effecting more people than you expect. And all because someone was kicked out of study group and was having a hard time finding a place for themselves in their first semester of college.

    I never expected to have to worry about workplace violence. It was always something that happened somewhere else. Remember the 1990s and “going postal”? So here we are in our gun crazed culture and it keeps getting worse. I am with Historiann, I refuse to engage with the gun culture in a Hobbesian race to the bottom. I have lived in, visited, and studied societies in post communist Eastern Europe with major deficits in social trust. The results are catastrophic.

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    • “I have lived in, visited, and studied societies in post communist Eastern Europe with major deficits in social trust. The results are catastrophic.” Wow–great point, Matt.

      I don’t have a great deal of respect or trust for campus “police” in general, but Susan told me off-blog that the word on her campus is that the uni police did not intend to inflict a mortal wound on the perp. They shot at his legs–but unfortunately hit an artery, and he bled out.

      Yes on the ripple effects of violence, and to the importance of caring for everyone in our communities. And once again: thank goodness the perpetrator in this case didn’t get his hands on a gun. It sounds like his plan was pretty baroque, which made it extremely easy to disrupt–and further proof that, as Susan says, he was just a kid. I’m sure that his family will forever mourn him, miss him, and wonder what happened and why he didn’t reach out for help, but how much easier it will be to mourn and miss him in the absence of other dead victims.

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  3. Pingback: Bill Kristol on the brilliance of Ben Carson’s Facebook post | Historiann

  4. Thanks for all your comments. And I agree about the campus cop: we are a small campus, in the middle of cow pastures, so the cops are very low key. There is one witness who has spoken publically: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/article43350324.html

    As a historian, it’s also fascinating to be reminded of how partial our knowledge at any given time is. Our chancellor keeps saying, the investigation is ongoing, we’ll learn more. And we will. But we keep wanting a neat story. And as we all know, it’s almost always messier than we would wish.

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