A state legislator is incensed over a photograph of Penn State President Eric Barron.
On Wednesday, Barron attended a student protest in the wake of a Missouri grand jury failing to indict a white police officer in the death of a young black man, Michael Brown. It was the same day that a New York grand jury declined to return an indictment in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man subdued by a chokehold.
The incident triggered responses across the country, as black communities protested the troubling issue of police-related deaths. For days, students held die-ins all over campus — at the HUB, at Pattee Library and in front of Barron’s office at Old Main.
For state Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Tamaqua, the problem was not the protest. It was the gesture the president made in response.
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In an impromptu meeting with students afterward, Barron posed for a picture with them, his hands up in the sign that has become the hallmark of the movement.
“As a former member of the law enforcement community, I believe Penn State President Eric Barron’s recent actions at a protest on campus were disrespectful, and as a result, I believe he should either issue a public apology to law enforcement officials, or step down as president of the university,” said Knowles, who called the president’s actions “a slap in the face” to law enforcement of every race.
“Barron was photographed among student protesters in the ‘hands up’ position, and as a former police officer, I know I am not alone in taking offense to such a gesture. I think it is unbelievable that the president of the university would show such disrespect to police officers, including its own campus police,” he said.
Knowles said he spoke with university officials about the issue last week, after which Barron issued a statement.
“I strongly support and highly value law enforcement and our judicial process. At the same time, our nation faces a dilemma. We have a portion of our population who feels more vulnerable by virtue of their appearance,” Barron said in the statement. “Our students faced this dilemma — even when confronted by hate language posted anonymously to social media sites — with a thoughtful and peaceful process that demonstrated their concerns. My sole purpose was to show my support and solidarity for the students involved.”
That was not good enough for Knowles, who said that was less an apology than it was an explanation.
“He just has to say he’s sorry,” Knowles said. “That’s all.”
Knowles, a former Tamaqua mayor and police officer, compared Barron’s position to being the mayor of Penn State, supervising departments including the university police.
“I don’t know what his police chief must think,” he said.
Chief Tyrone Parham could not be reached for comment.
Barron’s actions have drawn a variety of responses from the public, including letters to the editor on both sides and a large following on social media.
The president’s gesture, made on the second day of protests, came after racist responses to the protest were posted on Twitter, Facebook and Yik Yak on the first day.