The motivated women behind the push for a welcoming campus
Written by Cael Shaw
Photographed by Riley Roliff
“Like life, peace begins with women…” - Zainab Salbi
Content warning: Islamophobia, racism, sexism
*All statements regarding Popivker have been fact-checked and proven by primary and secondary sources; videos, student statements, and photos*
For at least the last year and a half, journalists on Cleveland State’s campus have covered the presence and ill effects of Cleveland Heights resident Alexander Popivker on our campus. Their “saga” came to a peak within the last few months, as reports have come in that Popivker allegedly came to people’s private places of work, using duct tape on the CSU fountain, and the now-infamous alleged theft of the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) student organization banner from the Student Center. The CSU Cauldron Newspaper reported on Jan. 25 that Popivker admitted to stealing the SPHR banner on his public Instagram account, a statement that he would almost completely replicate in his Persona Non Grata hearing Feb. 1 of this year.
"I watched him chase these women across the plaza. I saw the fear in their eyes when he would shout terrible things at them.”
Over the summer, I can report that Popivker repeatedly contacted me on social media. His rhetoric, in my opinion, was disrespectful and antagonistic. I repeatedly told him to leave me alone until I decided to block him. I have learned that Popviker did the same thing to many CSU students, especially the women he targeted in-person on our campus. In the fall, prior to President Bloomberg’s Veterans Day event, Popivker and an unknown CSU student used duct tape on the CSU fountain and attempted to label the university as antisemitic. Over winter break there were reports of Popivker continuing to contact students on social media, along with reports of Popivker even appearing at CSU students’ private places of work. This spring, Popivker came to our campus every Wednesday to spread his ideas and argue with students, particularly Muslim women.
It is because of this radical and dangerous rise in activity, paired with other elements including pressure from the CSU Cauldron and six key women on campus that the University took action. I am proud to say that campus is a little bit safer and a lot more welcoming because of the work put in by the “Power Six.” On Feb. 2, the University banned Popivker for the theft of the banner and hoisting a flag on University infrastructure, among other things.
I had the privilege to sit down for a conversation with Student Government Association (SGA) President and SPHR Treasurer Nina Faisal, activist and CSU Cauldron contributor Victoria Fields, SPHR President and CSU Cauldron contributor Haneen Hamideh, SPHR Vice President Fatima Abuabsa, SPHR Secretary Summer Husein and SPHR Media Coordinator and CSU Cauldron contributor Amina Hamdan, to chat with them about their harrowing feats.
“You can’t be ignored forever … so as long as you continue to use your voice and get others to share their experience as well, something has to change.”
Each of the “Power Six” had disrespectful and hateful interactions with Popivker on our campus dating back to three years ago. Through investigation and conversation with CSU Office of Institutional Equity, Popivker would wrongly label CSU students “terrorists” on social media and even dox these students to open them up to more hate from the online community.
*The following questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity*
In our conversation, President Faisal informed The Vindicator of the nature of Popivker’s harassment on campus. Faisal stated: “He began stalking me on social media… [he] reached out to the department where I work and told them that I shouldn’t be involved in SGA because I am Palestinian … one time in particular I left the library and, unprovoked, he called me a terrorist. I had not even said anything to him to provoke that kind of behavior.”
Fields highlighted a difference between free speech and hate speech. She said, “What compelled me to stand up was his targeting of visibly Muslim women. I watched him chase these women across the plaza. I saw the fear in their eyes when he would shout terrible things at them.”
When I asked Faisal why she thinks that the majority of people who worked hard to make campus safer — the “Power Six” — are women, she said: “I feel like in this situation, women are more targeted. Especially Muslim women who wear hijabs or headscarves … The Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights board are all women as well.”
"Safety on campus is something that the school should assure regardless of political or religious views.”
When asked the same question, Fields highlighted that “the men on campus tended to counter-protest against [Popviker] in the moment — the women did as well but tended to bring that energy to the administration to demand change and protection for a safer campus.”
Working through bureaucracy is tough. It is especially tough when you get “the Cleveland State Shuffle,” where one administrator puts you in touch with someone else, who puts you in touch with someone else, and so forth in what feels like a doom loop of “we’re looking into it.” I asked Hamideh about working through a bureaucracy like this and she said, “You can’t be ignored forever … so as long as you continue to use your voice and get others to share their experience as well, something has to change.”
I also had the privilege to talk about wading through bureaucracy with Husein, who stressed that, “If you are standing up for what you believe in and what is right and you feel unsafe in a certain manner … no one is going to shut you down. And if someone tries, open the next door and walk through it.”
"I hope they know and feel more comfortable to use the media and lift other student’s voices in any future instance of harassment.”
“Politics aside, it was about safety,” said Abuabsa. “I want to focus on a well-rounded subject where safety on campus is at the forefront, it’s more important to emphasize … Safety on campus is something that the school should assure regardless of political or religious views.”
With the weather getting nicer and the warmth returning to Northeast Ohio, we will start to see other people come to our campus who might preach hate or target students for their identities or religions. Hamdan gave this advice to the student body. “It is important to have patience, when you interact with people who are visibly angry or upset then you are just adding fuel to the fire. The best thing to do is to just walk away from them because you are taking away their power. The longer you stay around them and the more you interact with them the more likely they are to keep coming back to campus.”
When dealing with bigotry or hatred of any kind, anywhere… do not back down.
But making our campus safer was not a fight restricted to women. Some other notable students that the “Power Six” felt deserved recognition include the editor-in-chief of CSU newspaper The Cauldron, Jaden Stambolia. Through his leadership,The Cauldron put Cleveland State’s administration under pressure to make positive change for our community. He also made the decision to let Cauldron contributors continue to write about the Popivker saga under the alias “CSU Cauldron,” so no individual student can be targeted.
When I reached out to Stambolia he said, “Once I became aware of what Alec Popivker was doing to Palestinian and Muslim students at CSU, I believed it was The Cauldron's duty to make the campus community aware of his actions and to report on the administration’s handling of the situation. Our platform was needed to give a voice to the voiceless. I’m proud of The Cauldron’s coverage because Palestinian rights are human rights. The Cauldron will be a platform to ensure all students feel safe at CSU.”
We are all in this together, and we should all be working together.
The “Power Six” believe that the Muslim Student Association (MSA), SGA, the CSU Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the CSU Office of Institutional Equity all deserve recognition for taking a stand against hate.
Hamideh told me that film and media arts student Illan Cardenas-Silverstein deserved recognition. In my talk with Cardenas-Silverstein, he expressed his concern with Popivker being the dominant Jewish voice on campus. “To the students of CSU, I am sorry he had to come … my family came here fleeing hatred and violence in the 1930s and 40s. They sought refuge here in the same way many Muslims are today. They don’t want to go, but they have to. Judaism, to me, has always been about acceptance and tolerance. I want everyone to know that we are an open, loving and accepting faith that has been at the forefront of civil rights for many, many years.”
The Popivker saga was emotional, complicated and full of drama. More importantly, it helped many students find their voice. The “Power Six” took a stand for what they believed in: a safer campus community. Many students believe that campus is now more welcoming, accepting and safe. Unfortunately, each of the “Power Six” believe that their struggle did not set a precedent on our campus.
Good allyship is not speaking over someone or for them but with them.
They are, however, hopeful that the university learned from this ordeal. Hamideh said, “I hope it set a precedent. I hope that it set a precedent for the students as well. I hope they know and feel more comfortable to use the media and lift other student’s voices in any future instance of harassment.”
It is through my talks with Hamdan, Abuabsa, Fields, Cardenas-Silverstein, Husein, Faisal, Stambolia, and Hamideh that I am now able to draft this letter to the student body. The following letter is a culmination of my own work, paired with the advice and emotions from the brave students who used their voice to make campus safer.
To the CSU Student Body,
When dealing with bigotry or hatred of any kind, anywhere… do not back down. Use your voice and not your fists, stand up and do what is right. If you are hurting from hateful rhetoric on or off campus just know that you are not alone. Your voice may not be the loudest but it becomes harder to ignore when there is a groundswell of people taking a stand. To those students who were afraid to use their voice, we understand and we are here for you. Haneen Hamideh and Amina Hamdan both stressed that there are resources available to each of you both on and off campus for dealing with stress or anxiety. The biggest resource, however, will be your fellow students. We are all in this together, and we should all be working together.
If you were not hurt but you saw the pain in the eyes of those who were… stand up and be an ally. Fields told me that “good allyship is not speaking for others but, rather, amplifying their voices. Good allyship is not speaking over someone or for them but with them.” Stand up, use your voice to uplift everyone. “Lift every voice and sing.”
I am proud of the student body’s resolve and passion for campus safety. Philosopher Karl Popper is accredited with the discovery of the paradox of tolerance, which is the idea that a tolerant community must be intolerant of intolerance. That is exactly what our student body stood for and we were successful. Thank you all.
Our Viking community will never stand with or for hatred. We stand to protect our fellow Vikings with compassion, intellect and pride.
P.S. Throughout the interview and writing process, I came across an account on Instagram with the tag @nina_faisal_fanpage. I took the time to ask Faisal about her seemingly growing fanbase and she informed The Vindicator that once that account reaches 100 followers she will follow it. To whoever runs the Nina Faisal Fanpage, we see you, we hear you, keep up the good work!