Students Against Imperialism co-founders Diana Salazar and Jaki Salgado were prepared for controversy when they organized their mock border patrol checkpoint this past Thursday. They were not, however, expecting an altercation with University of Oregon faculty member James Olmsted.
“We were prepared for having people who were not going to agree with us,” Salgado said. “We never expected anyone to come up to the group and be so blatantly racist.”
Olmsted, an adjunct instructor in the UO Law School, was detained by the University of Oregon Police, cited for second-degree theft, two counts of physical harassment and barred indefinitely from campus. Olmsted’s alleged actions took place during the student group’s mock border checkpoint, a political theater demonstration meant to bring awareness to human rights issues of immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and of Palestinians in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
On Friday, the university announced that Olmsted’s teaching duties had been reassigned to Adell Amos, the law school’s associate dean for academic affairs. Olmsted’s name was also removed from the adjunct faculty website.
UO spokesperson Phil Weiler said the University cannot comment on personnel matters and that the law school is handling the issue.
“(The law school) is taking the appropriate steps,” Weiler said.
By that morning, videos of Olmsted cursing at and pushing students were spreading through campus after going viral Thursday night. UO law students and faculty received an email from Phillip H. Knight Dean of Law Michael Moffitt the next day addressing the issue.
“We are aware that Mr. Olmsted was involved in an incident with students on the afternoon of Thursday, March 14,” Moffitt wrote. “As dean, I expect all members of the University of Oregon School of Law community to conduct themselves with the highest degree of professionalism and respect for public discourse, especially with those with whom they may disagree.”
According to Salazar, Olmsted did not seem aggressive at first and the group engaged him in political discussion.
“At first he didn’t come off as aggressive … he was just trying to find out what we were (demonstrating),” Salazar said.
Students began recording when the situation escalated. According to Salazar, Olmsted began making radical racist statements, saying he wanted to nuke the Middle East and telling students to start a war if they wanted change.
“If you want this country back, start a fucking war and take it back,” Olmsted said in a seven-minute video Salgado posted to YouTube. “Instead of being pussies, do something.”
“This is what we’re doing,” a student protested.
Olmsted’s tone calmed.
“This is why I stopped,” he said. “I am proud of you for that.”
According to Olmsted’s attorney, Mike Arnold, there is information missing from the story despite recordings from multiple vantage points.
“Even with the ability to record parts of a situation with audio and video, you’re still going to have huge gaps in a story,” he said.
Additionally, the video recordings bring up legal matters of whether students had the right to record Olmsted, Arnold said. Under Oregon law, the subjects of audio recording one must be notified if he or she is being recorded. However, an exception has been made for recording with an unconcealed device in public places during an event. Arnold said that it is uncertain under Oregon law whether a cell phone qualifies as an unconcealed recording device.
“The recording of him that was seized is possibly an illegal recording,” Arnold said. “It could be argued as legal or illegal.”
However, UO communications law professor Kyu Ho Youm believes there was little ground to claim a specific violation of the law, especially since the use of the recordings is not commercial.
“Whatever he was doing at the EMU amphitheater was in a public place and everybody and anybody could see it,” Youm said.
Regardless of the recording’s legality, Arnold said that without Olmsted’s input, any account of it is one-sided.
“By virtue of this being taken into legal context, it makes it impossible for Mr. Olmsted or anyone involved with him to comment on the facts, which by virtue will make the reporting of the facts one-sided,” Arnold said. “It’s just the way it is.”
UO student Andrew Seng said he believed Olmsted was trying to play the devil’s advocate with the student group to engage its members in political debate.
“A lot of times when people are doing a demonstration … they don’t really know their facts, so a lot of people try to challenge them. I thought that’s what he was doing,” Seng said. “He was saying some pretty radical things so I don’t know why any normal person would say those things.”
Seng said he doesn’t know whether Olmsted believed what he was saying or trying to spark debate.
“In either case, he took it too far,” Seng said.
Despite Olmsted’s claim that he was part of the demonstration, Salazar said she was intimidated when he dropped the motorcycle helmet he was carrying to the ground, removed his jacket and came toward her.
“This is an aggressive tone,” Salazar said during the confrontation. “I am feeling pretty threatened right now.”
When an unidentified man, who Salazar and Salgado said was not part of Students Against Imperialism, stepped forward to intervene and placed his hand on Olmsted, the now-former law instructor pushed back.
Olmsted threw his glasses to the ground, and pushed Salazar out of the way when trying to reach for them. He then noticed Salgado recording the incident on her cell phone and seized it, claiming she had no right to record him. Shortly afterwards, two UOPD officers arrived on the scene and detained Olmsted.
Since the videos have been uploaded, Salazar said support has poured in from students, faculty and staff, as well as international news sources such as the Electronic Intifada, which covered the incident.
There has also been backlash. Salazar said students have been accused of provoking Olmsted.
Seng witnessed the incident and said that this is not the case.
“I was sort of waiting around for 3o minutes … and all the sudden this guy came out of nowhere,” Seng said. “A lot of people are wondering if he was provoked but he wasn’t provoked at all.”