In September, Harambe-gate at UMass Amherst hit a fever pitch. The “Dicks out for Harambe” meme, which vulgarly paid homage to the gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo, had been growing increasingly popular online and on college campuses across the country.
While many used Harambe tributes to poke well-meaning fun at the performative, almost daily cycles of public outrage and grieving, the meme was also often loaded with racist invective.
And then, UMass-Amherst found itself the butt of the joke: an email from RAs at UMass Amherst’s Sycamore Hall made its way to the internet, stating that the continued use of the meme was a “micro-aggression” against fellow students and that the proliferation of “Dicks out for Harambe” notes could constitute a Title IX violation.
Further heightening tensions: One of UMass’ living communities, focused on African heritage, is similarly named Harambee.
So what sparked the outrage? And did the RA email - and subsequent hasty clarification that the school was not banning Harambe jokes - quell the gorilla sightings? We filed a Massachusetts public records request to find out.
Before the initial warning from the RAs, which appears to have been sent on September 5th, there were two recorded Harambe-related complaints, on September 3rd and 4th.
Campus officers were called, did a sweep and took photographs of the offending messages, and noted that they “concluded that the message was an inappropriate way to show support for the gorilla, Harambe, that got shot at a zoo.”
They also determined that the writing did not appear to be targeted, and it was not noted as a potential Title IX violation.
But the memo appears to have only led to more Harambe memorials: makeshift tributes to the gorilla appeared at least five more times after the memo was sent, and more might have appeared since - documents were only request through mid-September.
The first reappearance of the meme post-memo was actually on an unidentified RA’s white board, and was then followed by what was only described as a “strange phone call (harambe related)”:
More appearances then followed: “Take a shot for harambe he took one of you” appeared on a whiteboard on September 9th, and “Dick’s out for Harambe. f*ck trigger warnings” appeared on a resident’s room on September 11th.
The final Harambe incident included in the documents was also the most elaborate display:
“three windows with images in them in [redacted] on the 2nd and 3rd floor. they shared that one window on the 3rd floor that had “RIP Harambe” written with post its and that there were two windows on the 2nd floor that had images of what looked like monkey, potentially engaging in sex. The Das indicated that they could not tell what the images actually were. RD Jess called REL Michael, who advised her to call UMPD to check in about next steps. RD Jess spoke with dispatch, and Sergeant Green. Sgt Green shared that this could be taken care of within Residence Life and have a conversation. RD Jess called RA [redacted] and asked if they felt comfortable knocking on the doors and having a conversation with the residents. They indicated that they did, and their RD, Kristen, was on rounds with them.”
While no pictures of the depiction are included, it’s later detailed they were stick figures made of tape.
In this case, the RAs intervened directly with the students of one of the rooms and successfully negotiated to have “RIP Harambe” changed to “RIP Gorilla.” While they were not able to enter the rooms of the students who had put together the copulating stick figures, they were voluntarily removed the next morning.
Read all the UMass Amherst Harambe complaints below.