Chelsea Clinton Being Confronted By Students Should Make Us Talk About Islamophobia

Jenna Milliner-Waddell

At a vigil in New York City Friday for the victims of the New Zealand mosque massacre, Chelsea Clinton was confronted by New York University students who characterized comments she made in opposition to Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweet last month as an incitement to the violence.

“This, right here, is a result of a massacre stoked by people like you and the words that you put out into the world,” a student said to Clinton, as seen in a video posted on Twitter. “And I want you to know that and I want you to feel that deep down inside. Forty-nine people died because of the rhetoric you put out there.”

The rhetoric the student in the video is referring to is Clinton’s response to Omar’s now-deleted tweet that critics said implied Jewish money drives the U.S.'s support for Israel, making the comment, "It's all about the Benjamins, baby."

An opinion editor at The Forward, a Jewish-American news outlet, quoted the tweet saying, “Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews.”

This is when Clinton chimed in to back the journalist up. “Co-signed as an American,” she replied. “We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism.”

Omar apologized “unequivocally” and thanked her colleagues and Jewish allies for “educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes."

Clinton, who attended as the co-founder and co-chair of NYU’s Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership, offered an apology that did not sit well with the students in the video. “I’m so sorry that you feel that way,” Clinton said. “Certainly, it was never my intention. I do believe words matter. I believe we have to show solidarity.”

The exchange has sparked a conversation on social media about whether or not the criticism of Clinton was deserved. Many felt that Clinton’s words couldn’t have inspired the massacre, which left 49 people dead, in which a desire to protect Clinton is clashing with a need to allow POC and Muslims to express their grief and rage.

“This is absolute horseshit. Chelsea Clinton calling out Ilhan Omar’s anti-semitism is not islamophobia and blaming her for Christchurch is completely uncalled for,” one tweet read. “I’m muslim and I thought Omar crossed the line into anti-semitism. Muslims need allies. this video ain’t it, chief.”

Others took issue with the fact that Clinton’s feelings were being valued more than those who were grieving.

“Took liberals less than 24 hours to forget their empty platitudes over the NZ terrorist attack and turn on a young Muslim woman for expressing her grief and uncomfort with the fact a person who contributed to Islamophobia was at a vigil, a space for Muslims to mourn their dead,”one tweet read.

Another tweet recognized support for Clinton in this moment as another example of white comfort being prioritized over the grieving Muslim community.

“I don't understand all of the concern about Chelsea Clinton,” one user wrote. “I know how the students approached aggressively and might have even hurt or embarrassed her. but those students were hurting too. We have got to stop valuing the comfort of white people over the well-being of POC.”

Other’s pointed out how Clinton’s actions show another side of Islamophobia.

“No one thinks the Christchurch shootings were inspired by Chelsea Clinton,”one tweet read. “The point is that Islamophobia doesn’t just exist on the far-right and we all have a responsibility to fight it, whether it’s of the subtle or “invading hordes” variety.”

Clinton’s actions have opened up a discourse, unwittingly, in which minorities speaking their truth to power is the focus. As many have pointed out, it is not up to the white majority to police the timing or tone in which a Muslim girl addresses Clinton, nor is it the responsibility of that girl to tone down her grief and emotions to make the conversation more comfortable for Clinton or her defenders.

It has also created a conversation of awareness around Islamophobia. While Omar admitted her blind spots in repeating tropes about Jews, the condemnation she was met with far stripped any that her colleagues in Congress have heard for their comments lambasting Black Lives Matter, Islam, and promoting white supremacy. That is why many feel Clinton’s comments disparaging Omar contributed to marginalizing her and may have helped further institutionalize Islamophobic rhetoric.

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Yet, in their fervor, it’s possible that some protesters have marched into dangerous territory, and might have lost the thread of the original message.Dr. Shirley Jackson, a professor who focuses on race and social movements in the Department of Black Studies at Portland State University, cites a few examples of events during the Portland protests that have both helped and hindered the cause. Jackson said that, on June 2, when thousands of protestors laid down on Portland’s Burnside Bridge for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time George Floyd was held in a chokehold by law enforcement, this was one of the most effective actions taken in the protests. “When the focus was on the police and demands were being made on the changes that the police department needed to make, that was clear. That was something that other cities could also rally around. They understood that because they were also experiencing the same thing,” Jackson told Refinery29. But, she added: “What we start to see now is some confusion around the meaning of current protest. This movement is now endangering the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s putting in the shadows the work of many of the African Americans who were really pushing that message forward. It is a movement that is no longer clear with respect to its message.”Jackson cited a number of issues at play that all contribute to the original message of the protests being lost. She mentioned a lack of clear direction after the focus shifted to the Federal Courthouse, a fear of questioning driven by an aversion to appearing “less liberal,” and creating a spectacle without considering its larger context.“Portland is a city that loves the progressive and liberal labels that have been attached to it,” said Jackson. “At the same time that makes it very difficult for people to have a difference of opinion about the nature of protest when it starts to go in a different direction. Even if you had people who were saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is not the direction of the movement,’ there may be people who feel silenced that they can’t say anything or else they will be perceived as anti-Black Lives Matter, pro-federal government, or pro-police.”There’s also the issue of media narratives now centering around grand gestures performed by white protesters. A woman posing nude in front of law enforcement was quickly dubbed “The Naked Athena,” but while some looked on in confusion, others questioned the purpose of her actions. Another example is The Wall of Moms that made a splash on social media for locking arms in protest. “No one seems to pay attention when Black mothers were marching in protest, especially those associated with Black Lives Matter. But now you have a group of white women and everybody is looking at this group as though Black women weren’t doing this sort of thing,” Jackson noted. “To see your movement taken over by people who aren’t understanding that by putting white faces at the forefront, it makes it easy for people to forget Black faces that we try to remember when we have Black Lives Matter protests.”Then there is the focus on the Federal Courthouse. “I’m not quite sure what the end game is in the siege of this particular location. That’s the thing that needs to be made clear in order to move forward,” said Jackson, adding that the longer there is a focus on the Federal Courthouse, the higher the chances are that things will escalate to further violence. “No one wants to back down. It’s a lose-lose situation. Chances are, the Feds will escalate or the crowds that are engaging in the more violent measures will also escalate. That is such a strong possibility.” But, What Protest Has Ever Been Perfect?“I think that we need to move away from a framing in which protests are something to be solved. Instead, look at protests as a tool to be used by our society and by our leaders and elected officials to move our community forward,” said McKelvey. “I don’t think protests are an obstacle that we should even be looking forward to the end of. If protests are sustained for a long period of time, I think that puts us in a better position to put pressure on our local officials as well as for our elected officials to have the capital that they need to move things forward.”The sign of a successful protest isn’t that it’s seen as perfect — or even as good — from beginning to end. Protests begin and end and there’s a lot that’s uncomfortable in the middle. The point is that a successful protest brings about change. But, it’s still important for a protest to be self-sustaining, and to progress in a way that indicates the potential for a better future — one that always has room for more change, and more protest. Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Federal Agents Are Finally Leaving PortlandNYPD Forced A Protestor Into An Unmarked VanPortland Protestors Abducted In Unmarked Vans