Defending Discussion: The Silencing of Professor Anna Hayward

On December 28th in Medford, New York, three police officers responded to a call for assistance from a social worker engaged in a wellness check. Wielding a fire extinguisher, the subject of the wellness check, a man named Enrique Lopez, was threatening a roommate in the shared facility. The police arrived on the scene. Why it happened we don’t know, but Lopez attacked the police and stabbed at least one of the officers, seriously wounding him. The officers then shot Lopez four times and he died.

Professor Anna Hayward of Stonybrook University in New York expressed her opinion on her personal Instagram account. She wrote, “This was a wellness check – why didn’t they [the police] de-escalate the situation? Why did a man have to die? What about the man they murdered?”

It is important to note that Professor Hayward is a professional social worker, so this is an area in which she has some domain expertise. In other words, it was reasonable for her to weigh in on the matter. 
However, she was met with a wave of recrimination, hate, and threats. A story in the New York Post slammed her as “anti-police.” The Suffolk County PBA (Police Benevolent Association) denounced Anna in a tweet, and their "supporters" published her personal phone number, email, and home address.

This opened the floodgates to numerous credible threats of violence against her and her family. She received vitriolic voice messages, emails, and text messages. Some of these threats and intimidation came from law enforcement officers (current and retired) and even a local elected official.

Her employer could have stepped in to help, but instead, the leadership of Stonybrook University issued this statement: 

To the Stony Brook University Community,

All members of the Stony Brook University Community possess free speech rights, but faculty members exercising those rights do not speak on behalf of the university.

The remarks recently made by one of our faculty members about Suffolk County Police do not represent the views of Stony Brook University.

Stony Brook University will continue its efforts to drive positive change in police encounters in our communities. However, the incendiary language used by this faculty member was inappropriate and does not correspond to the reported facts of the incident.

We hope for the speedy recovery of the three injured officers and are grateful to them and to the professionals at Stony Brook University Hospital who treated them.

Let’s return to the point that Anna is a professor of social work, with a very specific interest in the workings of the carceral system. She elected to use the word “murdered” in her post.

From Anna’s vantage point as someone who studies the criminal justice system, this might look like murder. I can also imagine that many Black, Latinx, and disabled people might make the same initial assessment. After all, there have been way too many similar incidents caught on video that were indeed deemed to be murder.

The defenders of the police had a different vantage point. They chose to use the word “self-defense.” I think it is a reasonable question to ask if self-defense had to result in the death of the suspect. The police have at their disposal all manner of weaponry, some lethal some non-lethal, with which to subdue a person.

So, we have two vantage points. I know Anna – she is a Lived Places Publishing collection editor. I believe that her intent was to provoke discussion. I also believe that, like many people, Anna was saddened, outraged, and concerned with the rise in incidents where unwell people die. But there was no discussion. Instead, Anna was objectified, threatened, and offered no support from the university.

None of us know what really happened that led to Enrique Lopez being killed. We may learn more facts about the case in the coming weeks and months. This will no doubt shape the continuing discussion we should be having about police interactions that end with suspects dead. In the end, this may resolve as a legitimate use of force in self-defense.

As a publisher devoted to telling the stories of people who are often disregarded or forgotten because of their social identity, I want to be on the record as supporting Anna’s right to initiate a discussion on behalf of those who do not have a voice. Furthermore, I believe we need to give people space to characterize situations and circumstances as they see them, even if we strenuously disagree with the words they choose. The line between self-defense and murder is often unclear, which makes it all the more important to hear different viewpoints.

In an ideal world, Anna’s Instagram post should have been seen as a provocative challenge to open up an earnest discussion. Instead:

  1. She was immediately characterized as “displaying a stunning level of ignorance” by the Vice President of the Suffolk Country police union
  2. She received death threats and a slew of toxic replies on social media
  3. She was then censured publicly by the university that employs her 

This strikes me as an effort to silence her rather than encourage discussion.

The best and bravest among us will leave open the possibility that this event might have turned out differently, at least until an investigation is complete. And our thought leaders, politicians, civil servants, professors, teachers, and activists need to summon courage and lead by example. Being brave means giving space to all reasoned and reasonable perspectives.

Lived Places Publishing exists to tell the stories of people in places or contexts and how their unique identities shaped their experiences. We welcome all reasoned and reasonable perspectives and the resulting discussions that enrich us all. We stand behind Professor Hayward and her courage in spurring this discourse. Ultimately, it makes us better as a society. 

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