Cleveland State’s courtyard: a place where students are harassed and feel unsafe

Alec Popivker in CSU courtyard on Oct. 6th

Alec Popivker, a former Cleveland Heights City Council candidate, takes advantage of Cleveland State’s free-speech policy by proclaiming anti-Palestinian speech and objectives in CSU’s courtyard.

On Oct. 26, Popivker brought a Keffiyeh vandalized with a sharpie-drawn Swastika onto campus. While preaching hateful rhetoric like declaring, “Palestinians are Nazis” and “Palestinians are like the KKK.”

Cleveland State’s free-speech policy allows Popivker to do this, and the university provides him with police protection.

“Cleveland State University will make every effort to ensure the safety and security of the university community, including invited guest speakers, who have the right to express their views without obstruction or threats of vandalism or violence,” The policy reads. “This includes speakers who express views that many people may find morally repugnant or socially harmful.”

Students’ reactions to Popivker

From Popivker’s recurrent presence on campus, students have mixed reactions to him. Some say they try to ignore him, but most will attempt to converse with him peacefully. 

For example, a student attempted to describe what each part of the Keffiyeh represents to Popivker. She explained that the black lines on the white cloth represent fish nets.

However, Popivker is not there to have open discussions with students as Popivker replied to the student, “Yeah, I know, but this fits here well.” Popivker uses the Keffiyeh as a prop to attack Palestine’s culture and history.

The history of the Keffiyeh is long and rich to current Arab countries. The Keffiyeh primarily gained popularity in 19th-century Palestine because it symbolized resilience and rebellion against western invaders. 

Another student wanting to remain anonymous explained that their issue is not with Popivker himself but with what he says and how he acts by making people feel unsafe by just being themselves. 

“I wouldn’t have an issue with him {Popivker} coming to campus if he wasn’t so offensive. We all have a right to speak our minds, but this {gesturing to the Keffiyeh with the Swastika drawn} is offensive to both sides and it won’t get us anywhere.”

Popivker’s hateful rhetoric not only affects Palestinian students but the many women who attend the university that wear the hijab. 

“As a hijabi woman… his presence does make me feel uncomfortable,” a student told The Cauldron wanting to remain anonymous.

Alec Popovker following and harassing women wearing hijabis.

During his time on campus, Popivker followed two Muslim women walking through the courtyard. He began pestering them with questions regarding their thoughts on Palestine. As the two women were visibly uncomfortable, two students created a barrier between Popivker and the women so they could continue to walk peacefully. 

There are other ways Popivker initiates responses with people on campus. After speaking with other students about their opinion on his campus presence, a few mentioned his imposition on social media. One student confronted Popivker concerning the matter, “You added me on Instagram and argued with me all summer about this.”

While everyone has free reign over social media, Popivker’s use to directly target CSU students is troubling.

Cleveland State response to Popivker

The Cauldron reached out to Cleveland State for a comment on Popivker and his harassment and if they condemn it.

“We condemn any rhetoric directly targeting or demonizing a religious group or people for their religious beliefs. Diversity and inclusion are our core values and we want students to feel safe and to feel a sense of belonging at CSU,” the statement read. “CSU has several engagement opportunities (clubs, organizations, peer educator groups) to support and build community around spiritual or cultural identity.”

When asked how the university would ensure that Palestinians and Muslim students feel safe on campus, the university responded that visitors like Popivker are allowed on campus if they are not violating the expressive activity policy or other policies and that the university can not protect its students from hateful speech.

“Visitors who come to campus to exercise their free speech rights, if not violating the Expressive Activity or other policy, are allowed to be in the outdoor public areas of campus. Free speech is a bedrock principle of both higher education and the U.S. Constitution,” the statement read. “While the University cannot shield individuals from speech and ideas that they find unwelcome or even repugnant, we can encourage members of our community to uphold our values and treat one another with respect and to support members of our community who are targeted by outside speakers.”

In the statement, the university encouraged students to work with the Office of Institutional Equity or CSU PD if they feel like they are being harassed.

“We encourage students who feel they are being harassed to work with the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) or CSU PD to report their concerns. We also hope students will rely on safety measures offered through CSU PD and work with campus support services to care for their mental and emotional health.”