Nikolai Mather

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Nikolai (he/they) is a junior pursuing majors in Political Science and International Studies and minors in Legal Studies and Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies. He is from Chatham County, North Carolina. He has also contributed to INDY Week and qnotes. When he isn't publishing hot takes, he enjoys reading, practicing the banjo, and managing the office meme board.

Charlotte Strong: Paying tribute to the six victims

On the evening of April 30, six students were shot by a domestic terrorist in the Kennedy Building. We would like to honor the four survivors — Rami Al-Ramadhan, Drew Pescaro, Sean DeHart and Emily Houpt — and the two who lost their lives — Riley Howell and Ellis “Reed” Parlier.

Rami Al-Ramadhan, 20, is an engineering major from Saihat, Saudi Arabia. This was his first semester at UNC Charlotte. According to his Twitter feed, he loves amateur photography, music and reading. Rami was shot twice while trying to leave Kennedy; once in the stomach and once on his arm. While in the hospital, he was visited by Omar Alkhudhr, the cultural affairs representative of the UNC Charlotte Saudi Student Organization. He has since been receiving support from that network and the rest of the University community. His father has also traveled from Saihat to keep Rami company as he heals.

Rami, who has since been released from the hospital, posted a video on Instagram thanking the community for its support. “Thank you. Stay strong, Charlotte.”

Drew Pescaro, 19, is a Massachusetts native who lives in Apex, North Carolina. Drew is a sophomore at UNC Charlotte where he majors in Communication Studies. Middle Creek High, where he formerly played football, has expressed their concern via Twitter: “Hate waking up to news like I did this morning. Please keep former MCHS football player Drew and his family in your prayers, as well as the other victims, and the whole Niner family.”

Drew works for the sports section of the Niner Times where he covers women’s volleyball, men’s football and women’s basketball. He has also served as scholarship chairman for the Lambda Delta chapter of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. Alpha Tau Omega has shown an outpouring of support for Drew, visiting him in the hospital and circulating the hashtag #DrewStrong on Twitter. The Lambda Delta chapter has described him as “funny, friendly and a huge sports fan.” They have also circulated the GoFundMe page created for Drew’s medical expenses, saying, “Any amounts are welcomed for donation as all funds will be going to Drew’s medical expenses in supporting his family. God bless.” You can donate to Drew’s GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/drew-pescaro-family?member=2165544.

Sean DeHart, 20, was born in Shelton, Connecticut and is based in Apex, North Carolina. He graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh in 2017. Jason Curtis, the principal of Cardinal Gibbons High School, issued a statement about Sean. “We’re praying for the entire community,” Curtis said. He and the Cardinal Gibbons community are helping the DeHarts maintain their privacy at this time.

He started attending UNC Charlotte in the fall 2017. Sean enjoys watching baseball and is a fan of the Yankees. After being treated for critical wounds, he was released from the hospital on April 30 and is expected to make a full recovery.

Emily Houpt, 23, is a native of Charlotte, North Carolina who has long been interested in politics and international affairs. She is a senior pursuing a major in Global Studies and minors in Political Science and Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies. Emily has a deep love of traveling abroad. According to her workplace, the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, she has been to Costa Rica, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. Emily is a passionate human rights advocate. Her professors in the Global Studies Department describe her as a smart, motivated student. She has a spring internship with the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on engaging people in hard conversations about important world issues.

Emily transferred to UNC Charlotte in 2016. In her spare time, she likes to study Arabic and read. Emily has been released from the hospital and is expected to make a full recovery. The day after the shooting, Chancellor Philip Dubois announced that Emily would be one of the many graduating seniors receiving a diploma this year. “And we are delighted that she will be able to go across the stage.”

Riley Howell, 21, was a native of Haywood County, North Carolina. He was born into a large family: two sisters, one brother, two sets of grandparents and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins and pets (nine dogs total). Riley grew up in Waynesville, a small mountain town just west of Asheville. It was there that Riley first experienced the wonders of the outdoors. His obituary in the Asheville Citizen-Times describes his love for “kayaking through inlets on the ocean, canoeing down cold mountain rivers, or screaming with excitement as he tried to do a front flip off the rope swing at Fontana Lake.” He loved Star Wars and superheroes, and enjoyed teaching himself new things. He was a diligent, hands-on worker and had a deep love of life.

Riley transferred from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in fall 2018. He was an Environmental Studies major and ROTC cadet who worked in Housing and Residence Life. He has been described as having a big heart and someone who, according to his 14-year-old brother, always put others before himself. This is perhaps best exemplified by his final actions. Riley was giving a group presentation on April 30. When the domestic terrorist burst into Room 236 and began shooting at Riley’s group, he could not hide or run away, so he fought. Riley tackled the terrorist, paying the ultimate price in order to help his classmates escape.

Riley is survived by his family, his girlfriend and his friends. His funeral was on May 5, and he was given full military honors. His family is “overwhelmed” by the love and support from the University community and requests privacy as they grieve for their son. Donations can be made in his name to Southern Highlands Appalachian Conservancy, the Red Cross, March For Our Lives and Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation.

Ellis “Reed” Parlier, 20, was born in Charlotte, North Carolina to Brian and Julia Parlier. From a young age, Reed was deeply interested in technology. In an obituary posted by Gaskin Funeral Services, he is remembered for having “helped family members with technology fixes.” After attending Porter Ridge Elementary and Middle Schools, he graduated from Central Academy of Technology and Arts, a magnet school focused primarily on the arts, medical sciences and engineering. There, he studied in the Information Systems academy and tutored middle school students in computer programming. In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Casey Bigham, a high school friend of Reed’s, described him as “one of the smartest, kindest and most hilarious people I have ever been lucky enough to meet and get to know.”

Reed enrolled at UNC Charlotte in fall 2017, choosing to major in computer science. He was said to have played “the straight man” to his friends’ jokes with an easy, witty sense of humor. He loved to hike and camp. He was an intelligent, independent thinker who, only two years into his college career, was already thinking hard about his future. He dreamed of one day turning his passion for video games into a career as a game developer. His family described him as a “sweet, quiet, loving soul.”

Reed is survived by his parents, his sister, the rest of his family and his friends. The Parliers held a small prayer service on May 1 for Reed with no public visitation. A family spokesperson released a statement saying: “The family is still in shock and grieving over their loss.” In lieu of flowers, his family asks that donations be made to the Ellis “Reed” Parlier Scholarship Fund. Donations can be made at www.crowdfund.uncc.edu/ReedParlier or mailed to the UNC Charlotte Foundation at UNC Charlotte Foundation / Office of University Development / 9201 University City Boulevard / Charlotte, NC 28223 with the memo, “Ellis “Reed” Parlier Scholarship Fund.”

The Niner Times staff expresses its deepest condolences to the families of the deceased and wishes a speedy recovery to all the survivors.

March For Our Lives rally brings students together

On Friday, May 3, the UNC Charlotte chapter of March For Our Lives (MFOL) organized a rally with various students, faculty and elected officials on the events that have rocked our campus. The event took place three days after a shooting on the campus of UNC Charlotte killed two and injured four, and two days after a shooting at the off-campus student apartment complex University Village killed one and injured two.

Students, faculty, staff and other community members congregated under the sweltering afternoon sun, holding signs reading, “Books not bullets” and “This is a school zone not a war zone.”

Organizer Maggie Murphy talks to an attendee. Photo by Nikolai Mather

Cade Lee and Margaret Murphy, the chapter director and outreach director of UNC Charlotte’s chapter, organized the event. Lee said this was the 12th school shooting of 2019 and he wanted to make sure “we realize that, regardless of your political affiliation, that you can come together during a tragedy like this and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.” Murphy concurred, saying “there is a solution, and we need to be pushing for our legislators to find it.”

Rally attendee Liz Jenkins had been supporting the movement from the sidelines and thought it was important to show up for it now. “I’m going to be a teacher,” said Jenkins, “I’ve always had this on my mind, that this [kind of] thing could happen in my classroom in the future.” Her girlfriend Haley Hutchens, a nursing major, agreed. “It kinda scares me that in the future I might have to treat kids who’ve gotten hurt in this way. It’s heartbreaking, and it needs to stop now; it needs to stop with us.”

Two attendees embrace. Photo by Nikolai Mather.

Leaders from every level of government arrived to speak, from City Councilmembers to a member of Congress. Susan Harden is a Mecklenburg County Commissioner as well as a professor and alumnus of UNC Charlotte. Before she took the stage, we spoke to her about her thoughts about moving forward. “We’re profoundly upset,” Harden said, “I’m committed to working at the local level to create as much change as I can to mitigate gun violence.”

The rally began with an impromptu chanting from the crowd; attendees shouted, “No more guns, no more violence” and “Not one more” before the speakers took the stage. Lee honored the victims of the shooting and introduced the speakers. The first, Megan Beach, had been in Kennedy 236 when the shooting occurred. She applauded the community for its compassion, support and strength. “We will become stronger and better than ever before,” she said. “We will not be defined by this.”

Megan Beach speaking. Photo by Nikolai Mather

In order of appearance, the speakers at the rally were: student and survivor Megan Beach; Mecklenburg County Commissioner and UNC Charlotte professor Dr. Susan Harden (D); Charlotte City Council Member-at-Large Dimple Ajmera (D); Charlotte City Council Member-at-Large Braxton Winston (D); North Carolina State Senator for District 40 Joyce Waddell (D); Director of the UNC Charlotte Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies Dr. John Cox; Congresswoman for the 12th District of North Carolina, Representative Alma Adams (D); student and chapter leader Margaret Murphy; and student Kristine Slade.

Several touched on the importance of voting in ending gun violence. Congresswoman Adams stressed how voters influence policy through choosing their policymakers. “If it were not for the citizens who have an opportunity to vote for those of us who serve, we wouldn’t have an opportunity to serve.” Commissioner Harden delivered a similar message. “If every student and if every employee voted, you could hand-pick your elected officials.” Senator Waddell followed up with a message on strength. “You have the strength — you have the power to change things.”

Congresswoman Adams speaks. Photo by Nikolai Mather.

Other speakers discussed the generational divide in the fight against school shootings. “It’s really our fault as older people,” Commissioner Harden stated in an interview. “We’ve created the circumstances, and you really ought to hold us accountable for the world that we’ve created for you.” Though the rally’s attendees were primarily students, many older community members had shown up to support the movement.

Some speakers touched on their own experiences. In his speech, Councilmember Winston discussed the violence he faced as a child in Brooklyn, NY. “I grew up knowing the difference between shots that were just being fired into the air and when people were shooting at each other.” Dr. Cox talked about how when he was involved in the anti-apartheid movement at Appalachian State, he didn’t expect real institutional change. “But those things did happen, and it happened because…people weren’t imprisoned by ideas like ‘what’s possible?’ and ‘what’s not possible?’ and ‘we must be pragmatic’ and so on…They envisioned a better world and they helped to bring it about.”

Attendees at the rally. Photo by Nikolai Mather.

Murphy read a letter from Governor Roy Cooper aloud as he could not make it to the event. Governor Cooper applauded the engagement of the UNC Charlotte community in the wake of such a tragedy and said, “we all must work together to address this crisis, and keep North Carolina safe.” Cooper highlighted his suggested changes to gun legislation and also stressed the need for Medicaid expansion for North Carolinians.

Graduating senior Kristine Slade closed out the rally with a call to action. She asked participants to come to the NAACP Stop the Violence Rally at Romare Bearden Park afterwards. She also touched on the recent shooting scare at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and urged participants to not only fight for the end of gun violence, but remember the victims of the shooting.

“You cannot forget Niner Nation,” she cried. Wiping away sweat and tears, attendees cheered and prepared for the next rally.

Nikolai Mather contributed reporting. 

UNC Charlotte to conduct post-shooting review

Three days after UNC Charlotte’s April 30 shooting, Chancellor Philip Dubois has issued a statement disclosing UNC Charlotte’s plans to review its emergency response.

In a message posted to the Inside UNC Charlotte website, Dubois stated that the University intends for the review to be “independent and external” in order to “look at what went well and to examine and address areas for improvement.” Dubois underscored the University’s commitment to the safety of its community.

Dubois with his wife and student leaders. Photo by Chris Crews.

On April 30, six students were shot in Room 236 of Kennedy. Two of those students, Riley Howell and Ellis “Reed” Parlier, died from the injuries sustained in the shooting. The terrorist responsible was quickly apprehended by law enforcement officials. Dubois praised these first responders in the statement, commending them for “running toward the sound of gunshots and administering first aid to the injured and dying.”

The four other victims — Drew Pescaro, Sean DeHart, Rami Al-Ramadhan, and Emily Houpt — are expected to recover. Houpt and Pescaro remain hospitalized, but the Charlotte Observer reports that Houpt plans to walk at graduation next week. According to WBTV, Alramadhan and DeHart have been released from the hospital.

In his statement, Chancellor Dubois explained why the University chose to refer to what had previously been referred to as “normal operations” as “regular operations” after the shooting. “There is nothing ‘normal’ about any of those experiences.”

He added, “There is also nothing normal about the way our community has responded…we will not emerge unchanged, but we will emerge united and stronger. That will be our new normal.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Rami Al-Ramadhan’s name was incorrectly spelled as Rami Alramadhan. The Niner Times regrets this error. 

One killed, two injured at University Village Apartments

Three people were shot and one man killed on Wednesday, May 1 at the University Village apartment complex, according to CMPD. The suspect or suspects are alleged to still be at large.

One individual who was at the scene was interviewed anonymously by the Niner Times and described the scene. “We had gotten back from the vigil and gone upstairs and I heard two or three bumps. It sounded like somebody dropped something in the floor below me or above me.”

CMPD CSI trailer. Photo by Nikolai Mather.

This allegedly happened at around 7:49 p.m. after the vigil held for the victims of the deadly shooting on the nearby UNC Charlotte campus just one day prior.

The NinerNotice system sent out an email alert at 9:05 p.m. and said that UNC Charlotte is closely monitoring the situation. This apartment complex is near the main campus; however, officials do not believe that there is a threat to the campus itself. CMPD is currently investigating the scene.

UPDATE: Reports from eyewitnesses allege that the shooting happened at the pool. The complex had originally planned a pool party for Reading Day but had canceled it in wake of the April 30 shooting. People showed up at the pool anyways.

Some allege that the shooting resulted from an altercation over a woman. Others allege that no altercation occurred. University Village employees were not yet able to confirm whether the shooter or victims were students, but UNC Charlotte communications indicate that none were affiliated with the University.

Photo by Nikolai Mather.

A CMPD Crime Scene Investigation trailer was seen parked next to the pool. Eyewitnesses report hearing four to five shots at the time of the shooting. One eyewitness, Elliott McKenney, reported that after the shooting, two people asked if they could stay at her apartment for safety. She let them in and called the cops.

“It just didn’t feel real,” said McKenney. “I had just got [sic] back from the candle vigil, so I was still kinda processing that. I hadn’t been on campus for [the shooting on April 30] but it was still sinking in…then that happened.”

Another eyewitness detailed a horrifying scene. “Everybody [was] running from the pool jumping the fence and everything…I leaned over, I saw the dude and he like…there was a lot of blood.”

UPDATE: CMPD has confirmed that the person shot and killed at University Village is not affiliated with UNC Charlotte.

UPDATE: Local reporters have confirmed that the victim of the shooting was 22-year-old Donqwavias Davis, who died at Carolinas Medical Center. Two others were injured. As of this morning, the shooter has not yet been apprehended.

Davis was not affiliated with UNC Charlotte; however, his most recent Tweet referred to the April 30 shooting at UNC Charlotte.

UPDATE: WSOCTV has reported that 20-year-old Javier Concepcion-Perez has been charged with the murder of Donqwavias Davis.

David Clancy, Madison Dobrzenski, and Sam Palian contributed reporting.

Students organize vigil in Halton Arena

To mourn and reflect on the campus shooting on April 30, a number of students have organized to host a vigil at 6:00 p.m. on May 1 in Halton Arena. The vigil is open to students, faculty, staff and allies within the community.

The effort is lead by Kristine Slade and Makala Carrington. A number of student organizations, such as Senior Class Council, Senior Executive Leadership Program and the Student Organization Resource Center (SORC) are involved. Students Alexis Teel and Ashley Johnson are organizing the collection of donations.

Donations are being accepted from businesses and religious organizations throughout the area. Walmart, Sams Club and Target are all involved. Monetary donations cannot be accepted. “However, if people who are able to donate money are wanting to get supplies and just need a student volunteer to come pick it up, that is completely okay.” stated Slade. Possible supplies that can be donated include tissues, water, snacks, candles and water. They can be dropped off at the Popp Martin Student Union Rotunda until 4 p.m. on May 1. Potential donors can reach out to Victoria Bracken at vbracken@uncc.edu.

Alexis Teel stated, “This is what Charlotte does, we are a community. At the end of the day, we go through a lot of things. We’ve been through a lot of things. This is one of the biggest tragedies, and just to see how quickly people are just so willing to support, it just shows our support for all the victims and support for each other as well.”

 

Campus mourns on the morning after shooting

On April 30 at approximately 5:40 p.m., a former UNC Charlotte student opened fire in Room 236 of Kennedy, killing two and wounding four. On the morning of May 1, UNC Charlotte grieves.

At 5:23 a.m., the University lifted the campus lockdown, and law enforcement opened the entrances to campus. But at 10:30 a.m., campus appears to be mostly deserted. Only a few non-law enforcement vehicles roamed campus.

Kennedy remains closed as it is an active crime scene. Three or four law enforcement officials are guarding the entrance. Save for a few media crews, Belk Plaza is also empty.

Law enforcement officers in front of Kennedy. Photo by Nikolai Mather.

One survivor we spoke to yesterday recounted what he saw at the time of the shooting.

Me and my classmate were working on a project outside of Rowe on the side towards Robinson and we saw a guy who was running. His shirt was bloody — I’m assuming he was shot. I’m not sure if it was just like, you know, blood that had splashed on him, but I’m assuming he was shot. He was, like, screaming, you know, telling people to run, that there was a shooter on campus.”

Rami Al-Ramadhan was one of the four students injured in the shooting. Twitter users have been circulating photos purported to be of his bloodied shirt. We have yet to confirm whether the man our eyewitness saw running was Al-Ramadhan. As of Tuesday night, Al-Ramadhan was in critical condition at the Carolinas Medical Center.

Rowe itself looks to be deserted. Final art installations have been left hanging by Rowe.

Art project by Rowe. Photo by Nikolai Mather.

UPDATE: The man spotted running with a bloodied shirt is confirmed to have been Rami Al-Ramadhan.

Correction: The writer originally stated that the art installations had been abandoned outside of Rowe. We have since learned that the art installations were meant to be left hanging. The article has since been corrected. The Niner Times regrets this error.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Rami Al-Ramadhan’s name was incorrectly spelled as Rami Alramadhan. The Niner Times regrets this error. 

SATIRE: A Truce with the Goose

The Opinion Section is an uncomplicated institution. We find facts, we formulate opinions and we present our perspectives in 800 words or less. Sometimes those opinions are controversial, but due to the word limit and time constraints, we hardly ever find ourselves dealing with the most pressing moral quandaries of our time — at least within the covers of the Niner Times.

Until today.

It’s been said that our campus community faces a hostile takeover from a menacing, ubiquitous presence. They’re called geese. We didn’t see a whole lot of them last year, but sometime after the fall semester ended, their numbers began to increase. First, they crept up towards Moore Hall. Then, they moved outside of Cone. Now, the entirety of South Village and most of the western side of campus finds itself under occupation. The geese are, simply put, fucking everywhere.

And they don’t exactly have a reputation for being friendly neighbors. Their hobbies include: blocking pathways, honking ominously, eating garbage and bugs, getting stuck on the roof of Rowe, shitting on approximately everything and squaring up with innocent freshman just trying to get to class. One time I passed a goose on my way back from the library. As I was digging in my jacket pocket for my earbuds, I accidentally knocked out a receipt. The goose snapped it out of the air and swallowed it. Between them, the cops and the religious protestors, it’s hard to find a non-terrifying way to walk home.

Which brings me to this crucial ethical dilemma. For a very long time, I abhorred the geese. Ever since the receipt incident, I’ve come to regard them as yet another system of oppression that puts my body on the line each day. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I still hated them.) I grew so secure in my conviction that months ago, I bullied my section editor Madison into letting me write a satirical article about how we needed to drive the geese away from campus. I planned to review different methods for doing so and make an argument for a permanent solution to what I called “the goose problem.” 

But as I worked through my first draft, I came to recognize a disturbing theme. You see, I’m pursuing a minor in Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies, which deals primarily with how we come to perpetrate genocide. A major component of my education in that field involves learning about how propaganda is used to facilitate genocide. The more I wrote about the geese, the more I recognized classic hallmarks of genocidal propaganda: black and white thinking, stereotyping, master race discourse and so on. It made me question who the real victims were.

Why do the geese hang out by Fretwell? Is it because they like to harass passerby? Is it because they enjoy Belk Plaza’s seemingly endless supply of Bojangles wrappers and caterpillars? Or is it because they have nowhere else to go? Some might suggest they could make a home out of the small pond by the nature trail towards South Village. I pass that pond everyday: it’s small, murky and has a big scary fountain in the middle. The only geese I see by it are two parents and their flock of small yellow goslings. For a notoriously territorial creature, suggesting that this body of water — or any of the small ponds on campus, for that matter — is an adequate living space is akin to suggesting that eight freshmen and an illegal gecko can fit in a single room in Wallis: doable, but cruel. I’ve come to think that maybe the geese occupy busy thoroughfares because they have no other choice.

I’m not saying the geese are angels. I’ve been traumatized by the geese before and I don’t think it’s fair to myself and other victimized students to say that the geese aren’t at fault. What I do think is that the University has unfairly, and perhaps unthinkingly, pitted two resilient, wild forces (students and geese) against one another. Forcing us to exist at close, uncomfortable proximity is a tried-and-true recipe for interspecies tension. History has shown that situations like these can give way to a genocidal impulse, even among normally compassionate individuals.

We have to acknowledge that geese and students have little choice over where they can live on campus; it is up to the administration. And when we do, we are presented with a choice. Do we demand the Chancellor round up all the geese — including those cute babies by the pond — and push them out into urban Charlotte where they will almost certainly perish? Or do we demand the Chancellor make room for us and these delightful denizens of chaos to live in relative peace?

This is still a satirical article. You can laugh and joke about how you feel about the geese to your friends after reading this. But before I close out this column — and another fantastic year with the Niner Times — I encourage all of you to stop and think critically about the politics of space on this campus. Who, or what, is permitted room to exist? Who, or what, is not?

And above all: how do you clean goose shit off of your Birkenstocks?

How free is the free marketplace of ideas?

It happened again. I can’t remember the date or the discussion topic, but I’m sitting in class, listening to someone give a weak defense of a philosophical argument. I raise my hand and give a rebuttal, pointing out the factual inaccuracies and offering a different point of view. But rather than challenging my response, six other guys raise their hands and repeat the exact same point the first colleague made. I roll my eyes, check my watch, and I tune out.

In his thesis On Liberty, John Stuart Mill introduces a concept treasured in Western thought traditions and most of my political science courses: the free marketplace of ideas, or the theory that free debate helps us find the best ideas. Mill argues that we shouldn’t limit speech in any capacity — not only because it harms those holding a minority opinion, but because the most effective method of sorting “good” or “truthful” ideas from “bad” or “false” ideas is by engaging in free, intellectual competition.
Sound familiar? That’s because this is basically the founding principle of college campuses. Universities across America champion “diversity of opinion” and attempt to provide a space where all students can contribute to it. It’s no different at UNC Charlotte. In a statement made to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Vice Chancellor Jesh Humphrey said: “A key component of UNC Charlotte’s institutional mission is to promote a robust, intellectual environment that values social and cultural diversity, free expression, collegiality, integrity and mutual respect.” For all the significance universities (including UNC Charlotte) give free expression, they sure seem to be doing a shoddy job preserving it. In order for the free marketplace of ideas to actually work — for people to successfully prove the best, most truthful points and debunk the worst, most dishonest points — participants need to meet a few pre-existing conditions. Some are pretty obvious: you need to do the readings, you need to have evidence, you can’t use logical fallacies, and so on. But the number one requirement for a productive conversation is freedom: from harassment, from hate speech, and from systematic oppression.

This is where I find myself getting stuck. Let’s return to that classroom. I give a thoughtful, well-reasoned response to my colleague’s initial argument. Six people bulldoze right over it and say the same thing my colleague had said before. I feel shut out of the conversation. So I tune out. I pack up my thoughts and leave the free marketplace of ideas, because clearly nobody in that classroom thinks my points are worth the engagement. Why? I did the readings. I had evidence. I didn’t use logical fallacies. My ideas are clearly worth something. So why am I being forced out?

This is where the free marketplace fails as a concept. There could be any number of reasons for this occurring: they’re experiencing confirmation bias, they all read the same newspaper, or it’s just plain dumb coincidence. But this isn’t the first time it’s happened. It is impossible to count the number of times I’ve been interrupted and ignored while speaking in class. Why is that? My best guess is because even as I engage in a supposedly free discussion, I am not free from oppression.

The people in that room see that I am trans. They see my queerness, and understand that I am not like them. Because I bring my transness to the discussion, they also bring their preconceived notions of transness to the discussion. Those notions aren’t always harmful, but some of them — like the ones saying I’m a confused dyke who doesn’t deserve to be heard — are.

Do you see how we’re at a standstill? On one hand, there’s nothing I can do. People cannot leave their gender (or race, or disability, et cetera) at the door. On the other hand, there’s an expectation that I accommodate this marketplace: that I let people purposefully misgender me, that I let people use slurs in academic settings, that I let people consider the concept that maybe trans people don’t deserve rights or dignity. In other words, they refuse to leave their misconceptions and even hatred at the door.

This is the issue at UNC Charlotte and almost every other university. We champion ideas like the free marketplace of ideas, but we fail to recognize that it’s an impossible endeavor as long as unfree individuals exist. The inevitable result is that oppressed people stop engaging in these discussions. Why should we contribute if people refuse to listen?

I know the cause célèbre for many conservative activists is preserving free expression. I sympathize with their mission, but I don’t think they understand the true concept of free expression. Free speech is not the ability to say whatever you want: it’s the ability to be heard and understood.

So, a request: hear us. When we’re being talked over, uplift our voices. When we’re being subjected to thinly disguised hate speech, defend us from harm. When six Juuling libertarians completely ignore my remarks, give my sorry ass a wink. Let me know that somebody in the marketplace is listening to me.

Honesty is the best policy: how Mark Harris is splitting the Republican Party

With all the racket North Carolina Republicans made about voter fraud these past few years, they sure seem to be dragging their feet over Mark Harris. Last November, the pastor-turned-politician went head to head with Dan McCready for control of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. According to the unofficial tally, Harris managed to win by 905 votes. But on Nov. 27, the North Carolina Board of Elections declined to certify the results, with vice chair Joshua Malcolm citing “unfortunate activities” occurring in the 9th District. Those “unfortunate activities” were later revealed to be allegations of voter fraud. One of Harris’s campaign officials, McCrae Dowless, is under investigation for “harvesting,” or illegally collecting, absentee ballots from voters in Bladen County.

It’s turned into one of North Carolina’s more bizarre political dramas. Harris has claimed innocence and sweated in front of a Christmas tree on Channel 9. He filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit in an attempt to compel the Board of Elections to certify the results. After addressing Mecklenburg County Republicans on Jan. 8, he avoided reporters’ questions by tripping the fire alarm, illegally sneaking out of the building through the fire escape and dashing across four lanes of traffic. When I first moved here, I thought that former commissioner Bill James was about as crazy as it got. (That’s the homophobic guy who said that inner-city Black kids live in a “moral sewer.”) But truthfully, Harris and his dodgy conduct are major contenders for that spot.

Perhaps this behavior indicates how abandoned Harris is feeling in this trying time. There doesn’t seem to be open conflict between him and other North Carolina Republicans, but party leaders have suggested that the 9th District needs another election. When asked in an interview with WBTV if he felt “under attack” from members of the Republican Party, Harris said, “I certainly don’t feel the circling of the wagons around Harris the way I see the Democrats circling the wagons around McCready.”

After the interview, Republicans became more vocally supportive of Harris, recently disputing “the entire legitimacy” of the state’s investigation. Nevertheless, you get the feeling that Harris is not the most valuable player in Republican state politics. Harris has a history of losing. He’s been vying for this office for years. According to NPR, even Pat McCrory thinks Harris has “been through the meat grinder” when it comes to losing close elections. So this already close election has been a complete drain on resources. President Donald Trump himself had to come and stump for Harris twice last Oct., and even that just barely pushed Harris across the finish line. As new allegations of additional, and possibly illegal, campaign activities surface, it’s no wonder Republicans are miffed. “I do get a sense from Republicans that some are sticking by Harris, some are pretty antsy.” NC-based GOP strategist Carter Wrenn said, “Some Republicans think he is damaged goods.” Republicans may ostensibly rally around Harris, but there’s a clear divide between those faithful to him and those royally pissed at him.

Here’s how I see it: those on the left (and likely in the center, too) are going to push for a new election no matter what. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that something went awry last Election Day. I don’t need to convince them. Right now, I’m reaching out to the Republicans and conservatives who hesitate to park their wagon next to Harris. I know y’all might think I’m a biased, leftist, rookie analyst (if you could even call this article “analysis”), to which I say… how dare you label me so accurately.

But you don’t have to be a die-hard conservative or a political veteran to get a grasp on this situation. North Carolina is unique for a lot of reasons: its 50/50 split between Republican and Democrat, its history of creative gerrymandering, that one legislature candidate who said “God is a white supremacist,” etc. One quirk in particular I’d like to point out is a special set of dual talents most North Carolinians have developed. As some of the most educated Southerners, North Carolinians are blessed with the capacity to understand complex politics and the ability to see through bullshit. Whatever the election officials did, whatever Harris is hiding—nobody is letting it go away any time soon. It will catch up with you. We will catch up with you.

This election isn’t about Harris, McCready, or even Dowless. This election is about the Republican Party’s integrity. It used to be that the Republicans could claim the “moral high ground” in politics, but following the 2016 election and the dozens of scandals resulting from it, y’all are clearly at a disadvantage. Even if you don’t consider yourself directly involved. People, young people especially, are learning about all the things Republicans let slide, and all the things you continue to support. Nothing would make them happier than to hasten your downfall, particularly on the local level. Not to bring up Bill James again, but he got thrashed by Susan McDowell on Election Day because he said and permitted crazy things.

My recommendation for political survival? Mark Harris is not the hill to die on. Above everything and everyone else, y’all better hang on to whatever is left of that integrity. With the FBI knocking on Trump’s door, heaven knows you’ll need it.

No free rides: Should Charlotte’s public transit be free?

For the past year or so, my favorite place on the Internet has been a Facebook group called New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. It’s a forum of about 124,000 public transit and urbanism fans who post memes about everything from Amtrak to hostile architecture to Uber. It’s where I discovered a particular nexus of Charlotte-based transportation nerds, who have extremely strong opinions on the state of our local transit system — particularly the LYNX Blue Line, which opened March 2018.

We’ve discussed a lot of the Blue Line’s flaws: its careless disruption of historic neighborhoods, its bumbling security officers who stay armed to the teeth, its lack of integration with other transportation depots (like the airport and the Amtrak station) and so on. But I’ve never heard any criticism for the “honor system” of ticket payment for the light rail. In fact, many of the people I’ve met in this Facebook group like this system because they believe that public transportation should be free.

The reasoning behind this concept is relatively straightforward:  people already pay taxes to create and maintain our systems of public transportation, so why should they pay extra to reap the benefits? Proponents tend to point out that government subsidies already cover 29 to 89 percent of operating costs for light rail and metro systems in the United States. Here in Charlotte, the federal government paid for about 50 percent of the Blue Line and Blue Line extension’s construction, the state government paid 25 percent and the remaining fees were covered by local taxes and other funds. So free-ride advocates ask a valuable question: are fares necessary for a sustainable system?

This query is especially relevant as the threat of climate change looms. Greenhouse gas levels are higher than ever, and one of its major contributors is the sheer number of cars in use. And if that doesn’t scare you, then maybe Charlotte’s traffic will. A study by the transportation analytics company Inrix Inc. estimated that Charlotte commuters spent an average of 24 hours sitting in traffic last year. Some analysts have posited that offering free rides will coax people out of their cars and onto the light rail platforms.

I spoke to Nadia Anderson, an Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and the Director of the City.Building.Lab, about whether doing away with fares would be a good plan for Charlotte. She questioned the effectiveness of a completely free system. “It’s good for people to have a little skin in the game,” she stated. “A lack of fares may cause the system to be taken for granted.” A report from the National Center for Transportation Research showed that fare-free rides tended to attract the “wrong” crowd — namely rowdy teenagers whose trail of vandalism and graffiti required costly repairs and maintenance. In fact, several case studies have shown that making public transportation free doesn’t usually entice people with cars; people who are already using alternative methods, like walking and cycling, tend to take advantage of fare-free systems.

The argument is fascinating, but based on the multitude of case studies and reports, I don’t think that making our public transit free is the best method for increasing ridership. Our city — our whole state, really — is extremely dependent on cars. Doing away with fares will likely not make public transit more popular simply because our current transit system is not robust enough. 

But whether you’re an urbanist meme creator or just a student trying to get around, I think it’s important to keep having these conversations about improving our public transit. There are other ideas that deserve consideration, like reduced fares or employer-sponsored tickets, and if we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint and make our city more integrated, we need to explore these options together. Anderson agrees; she believes it’s time to get out of the car and engage with the Charlotte area. “What you encounter along the way is just as important as your destination. That is what makes for a vibrant city fabric.”

Five ways UNCC can (and should) support trans people

Last week was rough for transgender people. On Oct. 21, the New York Times released a memo from the Trump administration detailing new definitions of sex and gender, which, if implemented, would initiate a massive rollback of federal protections for transgender and nonbinary Americans. This memo was followed by a number of other political attacks on trans rights. On Oct. 24, the Department of Justice told the Supreme Court that it ought to be lawful to discriminate against employees based on gender identity, and according to the Guardian, U.S officials are pushing to remove the word “gender” from United Nations human rights policy, in what they characterize as “vague and politically correct language.”

As a transgender person, I’m frankly horrified by these developments, but I’m not at all surprised. The federal government has always preyed on trans and nonbinary folks and the few political gains we’ve made in the past couple years were contingent upon Obama’s executive appointments. Unfortunately, Donald Trump really can execute these policies. With that being said, there are still plenty of opportunities to combat this egregious assault on trans and nonbinary folks, and we can start right here at home. According to Campus Pride, a nonprofit that scores colleges based on how LGBTQ+ inclusion, UNC Charlotte has only three out of five stars. We could drastically improve that score — and provide vital support for trans people — by making concrete commitments to the following demands:

Hire transgender and nonbinary people. According to a 2015 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, the rate of unemployment for transgender people is 3 times that of the general population. Trans people need jobs. If they’re academics, they need tenure, and trans students need mentors. The few trans faculty and staff I’ve met at UNC Charlotte have provided invaluable guidance to me and other students. They play an important role in a precarious but absolutely necessary support system that helps trans and nonbinary students realize that we can not only survive past our thirties, but become smart, successful individuals. As the old saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Let people list their preferred pronouns, name and gender marker in the University system. The number of hoops trans people have to jump through in order to get called our actual names is ridiculous. Every semester, I have to send out a mass email to my professors telling them my name and my pronouns. Because I’m fairly open about my gender identity, this process is kind of frustrating for me, but for trans people who are not “out,” it can be unsafe. Furthermore, it’s confusing; people don’t understand why my email address gives one name, but my email signature gives another. It would be so much easier if we had the option of adding our preferred names, pronouns and gender markers to the University information systems. Trans people would no longer have to “out” themselves every day, and professors wouldn’t be scratching their heads wondering why the male grad assistant is registered as “Sarah” in Canvas.

Create better housing for trans and nonbinary people. Trans people should not be forced to live with the wrong gender. At best, it’s dehumanizing; at worst, it’s dangerous. I’ve been assigned roommates who asked me invasive questions about my genitals, who asked me to bleach the shower every time I use it, who screamed at me and called me “sinful” all because I’m a trans man. Most of the cisgender people I’ve roomed with are wonderful, but there are still plenty who’d put hand sanitizer in your milk on account of your identity. UNC Charlotte needs to have a comprehensive system that gives better housing options to trans and nonbinary people. Let trans people room with their actual gender or pair them with other trans folks.

Make restrooms more accessible. Do y’all know how much of my life revolves around bathrooms? Most days I have to walk ten minutes just to find a bathroom I can use — time better spent in class. There are far too few all-gender restrooms on campus, and those that do exist are still labeled “family” (even though there are definitely more trans folks on campus than “families”). It’s such a simple fix; all we need to do is get new signs for single-use restrooms. It would make a world of difference for trans and nonbinary people. Besides, everybody benefits from all-gender restrooms. Cisgender women would no longer need to sneak into the men’s toilet when the ladies’ room is occupied. Since both would be gender neutral, we can all just pee free.

Promote inclusive norms and behaviors. This one is for everybody, not just the administration. In addition to advocating for all of these causes, you can support transgender and nonbinary people by making small changes to your daily routine. Introduce yourself using your name and your pronouns. Get some cute pro-trans bumper stickers. Don’t make assumptions about other people’s identities. Call out transphobic behavior — not just with the religious protesters on our campus, but with your friends, your family and your coworkers. Go to inclusivity trainings, and for the love of God, donate. Trans folks, particularly trans people of color and young folks, are extremely vulnerable to homelessness and poverty; they need far more than just a supportive Tweet.

We live in a terrifying political moment, but we cannot let our fear lock us into inaction and indecision. The marginalized members of our community are counting on UNC Charlotte’s leaders to stand up for them when the nation’s leaders won’t. Because if we don’t take action, then who will?

Change the name

If we engraved our buildings with quotes of those they honor instead of their names, what would our campus look like? Popp-Martin Student Union might say, “I stand on the shoulders of giants.” The Cone Center might say “This too shall pass.”

Jerry Richardson Stadium might say, “Show me how you wiggle to get those jeans up.”

Largely regarded as a hometown hero, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson faced public outcry in December 2017 after Sports Illustrated reported that he exhibited “inappropriate workplace comments and conduct.” Four former employees described a workplace culture rife with sexual harassment, where women were propositioned, groped and leered at by Richardson. On “Casual Fridays,” when Panthers employees typically wore jeans to work, Richardson made a habit of walking through the office and making female employees stand so he could “admire their backsides.” He would offer back rubs, foot massages and to personally shave female employees’ legs. Richardson’s conduct, which was described by a former employee as “wackadoo,” created a hostile environment for women.  As one employee put it, “It was a power culture. You did what [Richardson] said, when he said it.”

In addition to these allegations, Richardson was also reported to display racist behavior. In 2016, Richardson “released”—fired—Toronto Argonauts safety Marcus Ball after Ball, a Black man, prayed and pointed a finger to the sky during the national anthem. Richardson is also said to have preferred Black football players not wear dreadlocks, and to have assumed Cam Newton went “crazy” and got tattooed after being drafted. And according to the NFL investigation, Richardson directed a racial slur at a Black scout for the Panthers. Richardson’s racism is especially unsettling in a city touted as a bastion of the New South; despite the Carolina Panthers’ statements on “diversity,” Richardson has evidently neglected these commitments.

This misconduct was enough for Richardson to be fined a record-breaking $2.75 million by the NFL. But apparently, it wasn’t enough for UNC Charlotte. Recently, the Board of Trustees announced their decision to keep Richardson’s name on our stadium. Richardson’s contract with the Athletics Department demands his name be used as an identifier for the stadium “in perpetuity;” supporters often note no morals clause preventing this. Plus, this contract, worth $10 million, helps sustain the University and its athletic program.

However, UNC Charlotte legal policy states that if an individual whose name is honored by UNC Charlotte is convicted of criminal behavior or “engages in conduct that, in the sole discretion of the University, is injurious to the reputation of the University,” the naming contract can be rescinded. Furthermore, any donations already made would be retained by UNC Charlotte. Richardson, whose donations come in annual $1 million increments, has already fulfilled $5 million of his contract with UNC Charlotte.

But the dilemma is not whether UNC Charlotte can change our stadium’s name. It’s whether they should. I want to point out that this kind of issue—the moral quandary of honoring misogynistic, racist or otherwise discriminatory and predatory individuals in our universities—is not at all unique to UNC Charlotte. In 2014, Duke University’s Board of Trustees chose to rechristen a dorm named for a white supremacist after students petitioned for its removal. In 2016, student activists at Harvard scored a decisive victory when Harvard announced that it would retire its usage of the Royall family crest, in part due to its deep ties with slavery. And last month, activists in Chapel Hill finally pulled down Silent Sam, UNC’s most visible monument to the Confederacy. Students everywhere no longer buy the flimsy excuse of “honoring our history,” so long as it means honoring the architects of oppression and violence.

The Board of Trustees watched these events unfold, some firsthand—yet it insisted upon keeping the name. Why would it cling to Richardson? He never went to school here. He was never employed here. And he clearly rejects UNC Charlotte’s values. You could argue that we need the contract’s funds, but what we lose in this transaction is incredibly disheartening. If we are willing to trade the comfort and sense of belonging of women, victims of sexual harassment and people of color for only $5 million, what does that say about our university? Why should marginalized people be burdened with his racist, misogynistic and sexually exploitative reputation?

We cannot claim to champion inclusion, diversity and accountability if we continue to honor Jerry Richardson. Until we remove his name from our stadium and properly address racism, misogyny and sexual harassment on campus, we are just paying lip service to the struggle of oppressed people. If we used quotes instead of names, Jerry Richardson Stadium wouldn’t need to display Richardson’s comments. It could just say “we don’t care about you.”

Photo by Nikolai Mather

The Fight for Inclusion

I was sixteen years old when Blake Brockington died. I remember the feeling in my chest when I heard the news; I remember writing a few lyrics about it after reading the articles; I remember seeing the photos of him in that green “Legalize Trans*” t-shirt. I remember feeling this kinship to him; though I had never known of him up until that day, much of the weight he had to carry was similar to mine. Two trans men growing up in the Carolinas, struggling to make a life out of so much strife.

Blake became this concept in my head. He was someone–or something–for me to fight for. He was woven into the story of my activism: Blake Brockington, homecoming king, organizer, figure in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. Since I’ve moved to Charlotte, I learned that no matter how strong this kinship feels, I will never know Blake the person. My friends have tried to fill in the gaps. He was a music major. He had two cats. His foster mom was named Rachel. He could argue with someone about Frank Ocean day and night. No matter how hard they try, their stories and memories and love cannot replace Blake the person.

Now that I know this, I can’t help but look around and I see my friends through the lens I once had for Blake. Aimee, the figure. Folks would frame her as this sweet person who just wanted to live her life in peace. I’d remember her as the girl who took me sledding on a folding table by Craver Road; who took up space and demanded all that life could give. Asha, the figure. Folks would frame her as this kind person who fought for queer people of color. I’d remember her as this loud, rude Aries who liked Odd Future and Cookout; who always had just the right reaction gif to whatever dumb comment someone made in the group chat. Sometimes I think about me, the figure. How would the living frame me if I had taken Blake’s path? Would I be a fierce advocate with a heart of gold? Or would I be the guy who liked The Room way too much, who never shut up about his mom and played the banjo?  Then I stopped to consider: why am I thinking about my memorial in the first place?

Death is ever-present for queer and transgender people. 41% of transgender folks attempt suicide. Queer youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide as straight youth. You’d be hard-pressed to find a community that hasn’t lost a queer and/or transgender individual due to homicide. Death is present here in Charlotte, where two Black trans women were murdered in 2017, where two trans men committed suicide in 2015. It’s present in the way that Nada carries their keys between their fingers the night after a sexual assault. It’s present in the way that Joe hides pepper spray in his pockets after a man followed him home one night. It’s present in the way that we travel in packs, that we check in with each other every single day, that when one of us is looking down with fists clenched, we ask, “you okay?” even if we barely know them. Death is here, and it’s queer.

It shouldn’t be that way. It is 2018, yet there are still hundreds of folks in Charlotte who show up at school board meetings spewing vitriol about “the homosexuals.” It is 2018, yet folks still find it appropriate to refer to me as “it.” It is 2018, yet my high school pals are still dealing with their principal canceling LGBTQ+ Pride Day because it’d be “too political.” Homophobia was supposed to end with gay marriage being legalized. Transphobia was supposed to end with the repeal of HB2. But they’re both still here.

So people continue to die, and dear friends with hobbies and interests and quirks and flaws are made into these impossibly perfect martyrs. I try to be strong when it happens, but I hate it. I hate wandering through a graveyard full of dead people with dead names. Making these people into figures makes me want to pull my hair out. They were so much more than that. They are so much more than that.

I think that’s what guided me in starting the UNC Charlotte LGBTQ+ Coalition. Blake Brockington was a student here. He could have been anyone: Aimee, Asha, Nada, Joe, me—it can be anyone, and it can happen again. So what can we do to prevent it? What will we do to prevent it?

I asked these questions at the inaugural meeting of the Coalition. Here’s what we came up with:

Shelby Williams thinks a home would help. “I wandered this campus for two semesters with no space to exist without judgement or explanation. It’s been so lonely.” Isolation, even on busy college campuses, is incredibly common for queer and transgender people. We fear that those we meet won’t understand us, or that they might object to our identities. Having a space where we can sit and talk without that constant fear would work wonders for those cut off from the community. Not only that, but having a space where LGBTQ+ people can actually meet one another can help build this community. “I had no friends who were like me until last week,” says Shelby. A center would ensure that no one feels alone.

Gabriel Cartagena agrees. “To combat that isolation, and to allow our queer community to thrive, I think the least the school could do is provide us with our own space.” To some folks, an LGBTQ+ center may be nothing but a room, but to the queer clubs and groups on campus, it’s so much more than that. “There are so many queer organizations on campus that don’t have a regular meeting place.” And for those dozens of groups—whose aim can be anything from giving out scholarships to LGBTQ+ students to hosting weekly game nights—that lack of space leaves them in a very precarious situation. Growth and development almost always hinges on having a good home base, and if your “home base” is a study room you can only reserve for an hour each week, it’s incredibly difficult to take your group to the next level. So many clubs and groups have died out because there isn’t a space for them. A center would ensure that these groups would not only survive, but thrive, and improve the campus climate for LGBTQ+ people.

Aria Jadzia Rose thinks that having cohesive access to resources would help fight homophobia and transphobia. “[With a center], students can recognize themselves and start new projects.” Aria and I helped found a campaign for gender-inclusive restroom signs back in January, and it was incredibly difficult getting things off the ground without funding or support from a university office. An LGBTQ+ center would link the community with resources from all over campus, and ensure that scholarships, grants, and job openings do not go unused or unfilled. It can also provide aid—monetary, strategic, or otherwise—to community members seeking to start new projects and meet community needs. “Just having this center would mean that more opportunities are waiting for our community.”

But the one thing that united our coalition top to bottom was simple: to keep this community alive. We do this work for many people. Some of us knew Blake. Some of us knew Ash. Some of us knew Sherrell, or Derricka, or Leelah, or Matthew. But most of all, we know one another. We do this work because we don’t want to watch our friends get turned into political figures. We do this work because we don’t want to watch our friends die.

Homophobia and transphobia are big problems with deadly consequences. We believe that UNC Charlotte has the power to challenge them. We believe that LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff deserve safety and respect. And we believe that an LGBTQ+ center is a great start to meeting those needs. I will never get the chance to meet Blake Brockington, and tell him how much he means to me. Now is the time to meet the queer and transgender individuals of this university, and show them how much they mean to us.

Pay Her: Stripper’s Rights

There are two phases unique to the college experience: one, accepting party invitations from randos on the only_49ers Snapchat story; two, feeling so frustrated with one’s grades, coursework, and student debt that less conventional career options feel more acceptable. By that I mean: at one point or another, everybody has slammed a book shut, slid down in their chair, and thought: “Screw this, I’m gonna become a stripper.” And who could blame them? Thanks to party boys flexing on Instagram to wild stories of 2 Chainz & Drake dropping $2 million at one Atlanta club, stripping is widely seen as an easy way to make fast cash. We tend to make the assumption that all that cash manages to make it from the dancers’ G-strings to their bank accounts. And that is a dangerous assumption to make, because not only is it untrue, it jeopardizes the safety and livelihood of arguably the most vulnerable class of wage earners: strippers and sex workers. Recently, five strippers filed a lawsuit against Cameo Nightclub for flouting labor rights laws by failing to pay salaries and overtime. The dancers allege that they are treated like employees—the club owner, Damon Woodlums, and “house mom” (identified only as “Sirinity”) determine who gets to dance, when they get to dance, where they get to dance (in VIP or in regular sections), and how they get to dance. Cameo has restrictions on what the dancers can wear and how they’re allowed to do their makeup. Dancers are required to pay a house fee and various, sometimes hefty fines for otherwise insignificant mistakes (such as missing a stage cue). Though the DJs and staff receive their own salaries, strippers are required to pool their money and split the tips with them. There’s nothing wrong with being treated like employees. The problem is that here in North Carolina, strippers are not legally defined as employees. They’re labeled as “independent contractors.” Essentially, independent contractors are self-employed workers. They’re typically hired as outside help for a short period of time, and by and large control their own employment circumstances, including when and how work is completed. It’s an industry norm to label strippers as independent contractors; in fact, because so many dancers enjoy the creative ownership and empowerment the term lends, it is favored. “If given the choice,” says Angelina Spencer, spokeswoman for ACE National and former stripper, “most dancers prefer the independent contractor model.”

But when an industry is forcing its “independent contractors” to obey the rules and do the work of an employee—without the salary of an employee—then something is amiss. There’s a couple of things we can do to fix this. For one, it’s about time we start respecting strippers and other sex workers for selecting and mastering an incredibly difficult line of work. Despite sex work being the oldest profession in history, those who work in that field have been ridiculed, ostracized, and brutalized for centuries. So enough with the dead hooker jokes, and educate yourself on the challenges sex workers face on a day-to-day basis. Cardi B didn’t fight her way out of the Bronx just so you could hate on women stronger and cooler than you. Two: if you’re upset because you think that strippers aren’t “empowered,” then maybe you should try and empower them. I don’t mean “rescue” them from the industry, because believe it or not, most folks choose this line of work, and their choice must be respected. But if you see a lady in seven inch platforms at the next women’s march, maybe pass her the mic. Let sex workers lead the way to their own liberation; support them in whatever way you can. Three: if you’ve read this whole article and are still chortling about the fact that it’s about strippers, this is for you: PAY HER. Next time you and “the boys” roll up to a gentlemen’s club, keep in mind that you’re not only paying the dancer, but also her boss, the bartenders, the DJs, and the house mom backstage. Don’t be that guy with a fifty in his pocket. Who knows, you might meet the next Amber Rose?