Whose Rights Matter More?

Whose Rights Matter More? Negotiating Civil Rights in Farmington, NM

Danielle Sullivan & Christopher Schipper

Farmington’s remote location in a sparsely populated Northwest part of New Mexico means that few people outside the area are acquainted with its local history, which includes some very unfortunate instances of racial tension and crime. A clear understanding of the more recent case of censorship in Farmington requires a careful understanding of a tragic chapter in the city’s past.

Broken Circle: A True Story of Murder and Magic in Indian Country by Rodney Barker chronicles the fraught climate of racial unrest in Farmington, NM, as the mutilated bodies of three Navajo men were found - victims of the local practice of “Indian Rolling.” Alcoholic and semi-conscious Navajo men were targeted by Farmington teens for kidnapping, abuse, beating, and in this case, murder. The white teens were convicted of murder and were sent to reform school for several months. The crimes and the subsequent lenient sentences sparked civil unrest, marches, and riots, which resulted in a report written by the New Mexico Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and included a follow-up report thirty years later in 2004. Photographs of the riots in 1974 in Farmington later played a central role in the act of censorship that occurred recently at San Juan College (SJC), the community college that is also located in Farmington.

Like many communities and campuses, SJC participates in a community reads project; the SJC read program is called One Book/One Community. The book selected for the 2018-2019 academic year, March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, is a graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis’s early activism in the civil rights movement. In addition to a shared reading, associated events were planned, including a re-enactment of the infamous 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter protests, multiple lectures, and student presentations. The committee selected the book, in part, because of the connection to the community’s own civil rights history. The committee knew shortly after they selected the book that they wanted to include a photographic exhibit on campus that featured images from the riots of 1974. The committee obtained permission to reproduce the Bob Fitch photography archive Movements of Change: New Mexico Navajo Protest 1974. One committee member of One Book/One Community is a college librarian who is Navajo and remembers the protest during her childhood. She worked with a local high school librarian to select photos from the archives for the exhibit. The photos were reproduced and mounted on foam board.

The One Book/One Community committee set the exhibit dates for November 2018 and obtained permission to hang the reproduced photos in a common high-traffic area on the campus. This area used to be known as the Graphic Arts Court, though was later changed to the Veterans’ Memorial Lounge and houses a veterans’ memorial statue. It is a major passageway on campus and is frequently used as display area for art exhibits. While the committee was hanging the display, an unidentified man approached committee members and stated that the posters should not be displayed on the support beams in the center of the area near the memorial statue, because the placement was disrespectful to veterans. The director stated that she had not been made aware of these stipulations by the manager of the campus galleries, but she moved the photos, and the committee proceeded to hang all of the photos along the walls of the area. Twenty-two photos were hung, some of which included images of Navajo protestors who displayed the US flag upside down, an international signal of distress. Another photograph depicted a Navajo man holding a cardboard sign that stated, “Veteran WWII Holder Purple Heart. My son was kill [sic] by a white boy on the reservation.” As the the committee was hanging the photos, several students and other campus community members stopped by to look at them and indicated that they were fascinated by the photos and glad that One Book/One Community was honoring their heritage by showing photos of successful activism.

A few hours after the photos were hung, the One Book/One Community director was notified that several of the photos had been removed and that the photo of the WWII veteran holding the cardboard sign had been defaced by having a piece of paper taped to it stating, “Who cares if your son was killed by a white boy? If he’s dead, he’s dead.” The removal of the photographs and the defacement initially seemed to be related, but they were not. Further investigation revealed that all of the photos that were removed contained images of upside flags, images that offended a college employee, who turned out to be the unidentified man who had earlier that afternoon asked that the committee relocate the images. The man’s supervisor saw him removing the photos and took them and placed them in a college dean’s office. The photo defacement was done by a student. Within hours of the incidents, many campus entities were outraged, most notably the Native American Center, which was concerned that Native American voices were being suppressed on campus.

Several actions were taken as a result. After coordination with college administration, the committee reproduced and rehung the photos. They added a new poster to the exhibit to explain the context of the upside flag and placed the explanatory text about the exhibit in a more prominent position. The college deployed security guards to monitor the display for the next few days. Additionally, the college hosted a panel of speakers who were veterans and/or Native Americans to share their views on the photo removal/defacement. One of the speakers was the librarian who originally helped select the photos. During the panel, the librarian acknowledged that she was scared because of the events that had taken place on campus. The panel event had mixed reviews from many who attended. Some participants claimed that they felt that the panel provided an excellent opportunity for all voices to be heard, but many more felt that the voices of a few white veterans’ concerns about upside flag depictions were privileged over the many Native Americans’ concerns about suppression of voice and heritage.

In this instance, the actual act of censorship was perpetrated by two individuals, with the removal and defacement of the photographs from the exhibit. While we do not know if the perpetrators faced any real consequences for their actions, we are able to evaluate the college’s response to the self-appointed censors. The student who is thought to have vandalized the photographs was in attendance at the panel discussion, and campus security officers maintained a visible presence at the panel discussion. The fact that the panel discussion was organized is to SJC’s credit, but the fact that the format was framed as an opportunity to give voice to “both sides” represents a misread of the region’s entrenched racial issues. By applying a binary solution to a complex situation, the college perhaps unwittingly encouraged a false equivalence between the main stakeholders in the dispute. While few doubt the sincerity of the veterans who were reportedly troubled by the photo exhibit, those hurt feelings pale when compared with the systemic racism endured by the Indigenous peoples of the region, even to this day. By giving representation to persons who found the exhibit offensive, the college provided tacit approval to the act of censorship as an appropriate response to offensive material. A true “both sides” panel discussion would have filled the stage with Indigenous people, to better represent the scope of the issue; in fact, native voices were notably under-represented in the forum. We can only speculate regarding the motivation behind the structure and format for the forum, but it is fair to say that the event was another missed opportunity to facilitate a meaningful and representative discussion related to race relations in Farmington, New Mexico.

Christopher P. Schipper is the library director for Pima Community College’s West Campus in Tucson. He has been in this position for just over a year, after working at the San Juan College Library for thirteen years, and serving as the director there for ten years. Chris has a keen professional interest in Information Literacy, as well as Intellectual Freedom. He was named the Academic Librarian of the Year for 2016 in New Mexico, for his efforts to bridge the Digital Divide. Chris devotes off-work time to a variety of hobbies, including hiking, cooking, gardening, photography, film, music, and of course reading.

Danielle Kubasko Sullivan is an Associate Professor of English at San Juan College. She splits her time between teaching and administering the High-impact Practices Center on campus, which includes the One Book/One Community program. She is pursuing a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at New Mexico State University with an emphasis on social justice issues and equity.