Multiple members of the Portland State Student Fee Committee provided statements at an open public forum on Aug. 27 addressing contentious comments made on an Instagram photo.
Committee members Fouad Mohiadeen and Philip Arola have been highly criticized by members of the Portland State community following their reaction to a comment criticizing the lack of diversity in the SFC made on a photo posted by the Associated Students of PSU’s Instagram account. The photo features all seven members of the SFC standing with their arms crossed.
The comment that sparked the argument was posted by user @_eva.gabriela_, “A group of white men are in charge of our student fees? Sure okay why not I see no problem.”
Mohiadeen, as well as other members of the SFC—including the ASPSU official account—responded contentiously, igniting a long argument filled with name-calling and accusations.
The SFC discussed the argument at a previous public forum on Aug. 22, where Mohiadeen was criticized for reacting violently. He refuted all allegations against him and stated he would “refuse to fucking apologize” for comments he made on Instagram.
Philip Arola’s Statements
Shortly after the forum on Aug. 22, a photo of Arola seated at a table with multiple members of the far-right group the Proud Boys and far-right political consultant Roger Stone in March of 2018 began to circulate online.
In the photo, everyone is flashing an “okay” hand gesture, which has become widely considered to be a white nationalist symbol following a 4chan hoax in 2017 that sought to bait “the media and liberals to condemn a common image as white supremacist,” according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League.
Following the hoax, white supremacists began using the symbol as a trolling tactic, ironically giving credence to the symbol’s false meaning as a white supremacist gesture, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
At the open public forum on Aug. 27, Mohiadeen addressed his comments made on both the Instagram post and the previous SFC meeting, and Arola addressed his alleged involvement with the Proud Boys. Many members of the PSU community came to condemn both Mohiadeen and Arola for their actions.
“My brief interest in the Proud Boys was not because of an interest in white nationalism,” Arola said in his statement.
As for the “okay” hand gesture being made in the photo, Arola said: “I hate to resort to cliche, but it was a different time. At that point, not a lot of people, not a lot of extremely bad people—I won’t say their names because they’re people who crave attention—they hadn’t used that sign. They hadn’t appropriated that sign at that point, so I didn’t have the same trepidations that I do today about using that hand gesture.”
“I apologize for my error in judgment, and I apologize for associating with unsavory people, but I do not apologize for my political beliefs, because I am not—nor have I ever been—a white-nationalist,” Arola said.
Fouad Mohiadeen’s Statement
Mohiadeen began his statement by reading a few comments made on the Instagram post that raised concerns about all members of the SFC being cisgender white men. He prefaced by saying his statement reflects his own feelings and opinions and not those of other SFC members.
“I allowed my own feelings of pain and frustration to steer the social media discourse,” he said. “I made responses in anger, and however much that is not an excuse for my actions, I believe it touches on a common thread between both my own comments and the comments I was responding to.”
“How can a group of students be so aware of hurtful stereotypes placed unjustly upon themselves and yet perpetuate these base stereotypes on other students?” He asked. “How can this happen when the very organizations these students belong to tell us that it’s not okay to assume gender, ethnicity, race, et cetera. How can someone be so damn ignorant?”
“You do not get to a la carte racism, and you do not get to a la carte sexism.”
Mohiadeen then went through and apologized to some community members involved in the situation that he felt he had treated unfairly and to condemn others who he thought had treated him unfairly.
He concluded by saying, “To the SFC body as a whole, I apologize to all of you as well for the pain I’ve brought to our meeting last Thursday and having you be put through all this.”
Mohiadeen said that he was caught off guard before giving his statement as he was unaware of Arola’s situation and alleged involvement with the Proud Boys. “I believe this muddied things up in what I was responding to [on Instagram] and not entirely knowing what exactly the commenters were referring to,” he said.
SFC members asked to step down
Nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting called for both Mohiadeen and Arola to either be impeached or to step down.
Grace Hagemann, Equal Rights Advocacy Director for ASPSU, said of Arola’s statement: “We cannot continue to treat, specifically to this SFC, we cannot treat white supremacy, racism, homophobia, as a fork, a difference of opinion; it is not a political view, it is an illness.”
Hagemann said Mohiadeen’s statement was not “an apology by any stretch of the imagination” and that her “demand still stands that Fouad be removed from any position within ASPSU.”
PSU community member Angeline Booth called for ASPSU to impeach both Mohiadeen and Arola, as well as for ASPSU to release a public apology detailing the “emotional, mental and verbal violence that has been committed by ASPSU members.”
ASPSU posted an Instagram story after the incident which was criticized by community members for being inadequate.
“A story was posted to ASPSU’s Instagram that, frankly, did not address almost any of the concerns that were brought to the committee or ASPSU in general,” Booth said in the meeting.
Hester Layne Sonnier, a PSU community member who was involved in the Instagram argument, apologized to Mohiadeen, “When I saw the picture posted for the new Student Fee Committee, I responded in an emotional, but a still ignorant and racist way. I said ‘great, a whole committee of cis white men,’ I said basically something along the lines of this really doesn’t look like the diversity of our school,” Sonnier said.
Sonnier continued that, though their initial response was “problematic,” that doesn’t excuse Mohiadeen’s reactions which, according to Sonnier, involved threats in their direct messages and inflammatory responses.
ASPSU Senator India Wynne called for Arola to be impeached, and said that Mohiadeen needs to be put “in time out” for awhile.
Jose Rojas Fallas, Chair of the SFC, said he cannot remove anyone from the SFC. In order for someone to be impeached, an attention request must be filed with the ASPSU Judicial Board for them to vote on.
According to Fallas, the Judicial Board will not be operational until the fall term, which means no impeachment process can take place until then.
Chair of the ASPSU Judicial Board Alexandra Modjeski said, “The impeachment process begins with an attention request. Anyone can file an attention request. The attention request is filed and the Judicial Board schedules a meeting and allows public statements and comments on their behalf and in opposition.”
Speaking about the comments made on Instagram, Modjeski stated in an email to Vanguard, “As the Chair of the Board, I would like to say that ASPSU does not represent the ideas purported in those statements made by Philip and ‘Mo’ [Mohiadeen]—we understand how inappropriate the situation is, and as we understand it, there is action being taken by Executive Staff, among other compulsory actions in response to the matter.”
ASPSU President Violet Gibson concluded the meeting on Aug. 27 by saying, “That photo and those comments caused a lot of pain to students.”
Speaking to Arola and Mohiadeen, Gibson said, “If you want to stay in ASPSU, you’re going to have to do a lot of work. And that’s something that I’m going to need you to commit to. It’s going to be a hard road, and it’s not going to be easy. But along the way we’re going to have to listen to the students. And students are in a lot of pain.”