“Black Lives Matter” post sparks debate, eventually closes “Overheard at Calvin” Facebook page


Screenshot courtesy of Will Van Zoest

This post of a white board in Calvin’s Knollcrest East Apartments sparked a storm of responses resulting in the closing of the Overheard at Calvin Facebook page.

The well-known Facebook group “Overheard at Calvin” is a place where students can post random, usually humorous snippets of conversation they overhear on campus. This summer, however, the page hosted an intense debate surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement following a post from a group member. 

Started in 2008, the page was modeled after similar “overheard” pages from various cities and universities. Posts typically consisted of quotations that sounded humorously strange when taken out of context, and members were instructed to only post quotes from conversations they weren’t taking part in. The page quickly reached tremendous popularity, at one point boasting more members than Calvin’s actual student enrollment, according to a 2012 Chimes article

The debate that took the page by storm this past July started on a physical white board in the Theta-Epsilon lobby of the Knollcrest East apartments. Two group members and Calvin class of 2020 alumni, Laura Harjanto and J. Andrew Gilbert, wrote “Black Lives Matter” on the white board to express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Gilbert and Harjanto returned to the white board a few weeks later and were surprised to find that the word “Black” had been partially erased and replaced by “All”, and several messages now surrounded their initial one on the white board, some defending the Black Lives Matter movement and some in opposition to it. 

“It took me a bit by surprise, I’m not gonna lie…. I think my group of friends at Calvin had me almost believing that most people at Calvin were for Black Lives Matter,” said Gilbert. “I ended posting it on Overheard at Calvin because I knew that it was the quickest way to share with a broader audience, one that wasn’t all just my friends,” they added. 

On July 5, Gilbert posted several photos of the now mostly-full white board on the “Overheard at Calvin” Facebook page, posting in the caption: “Love (or hate?) what anonymity can do…. I think people are trying to argue, but are running out of space.”

“I was trying to live up to what a lot of people were saying, which I still believe, that ‘Silence is violence.’ If I’m not using my place in society to talk against injustice, I’m not being a good citizen. I’m not following God’s word,” said Gilbert. 

The post generated nearly two hundred comments in just over a day, drawing attention from some who oppose the Black Lives Matter movement as well as some who support it. The conversation ranged from debating the principles of Black Lives Matter to discussing whether or not the “Overheard at Calvin” page was an appropriate venue for hosting that conversation. 

Some argued that the discussion was out of place in a page meant for lighthearted humor, while others argued that to silence the discussion is to marginalize the reality that many Calvin students and faculty live with. Calvin’s status as a predominantly white institution with some history of racial controversy was evident, as multiple comments recalled a 2015 incident in which two Calvin students drew a swastika in the snow covering a car parked on campus. Comments appeared to be from a mix of current students and Calvin alumni. 

Eight hours after the initial post was made, a group administrator removed the post, saying in a lengthy separate post, “This is in no way a reflection of overheard’s stance on Black Lives Matter. Rather I felt that in the spirit of community the post was causing more dissent rather than community.” After receiving criticism that the removal of the post silenced the voices of some, the administrator followed up with another lengthy post, reiterating that the “page is not the platform for [the debate of social issues]” and saying “I want to personally apologize to any member who felt that removing the post was dismissive of your thoughts, feelings, or beliefs.”

The “Overheard at Calvin” page that hosted this discussion has since been deleted, along with all of its posts and comments. In a post explaining why the page was deleted, the group administrator wrote that she received death threats for her decision to remove the BLM post.

“Overheard at Calvin” made a return, however, as Harjanto, one of the students that helped initiate the conversation by writing “Black Lives Matter” on the white board, started a new “Overheard at Calvin” page on Aug. 31 based on the same premise as the first. 

While Harjanto understands that reopening the page could attract more debates, she believes that it is a valuable part of the Calvin community, noting, “Overheard as a concept is a really fun community page…There’s really no other page like that.” Should another set of controversial posts arise, she said she would want to “think through what my role would be as someone who controls a lot of information.”

When asked what Calvin students should take away from what happened, Harjanto said, “We need to learn to have conversations. No matter where you stand, having the ability to say, ‘This is what I think, but I might be wrong’ is a good first step to having a conversation like that. This is not new information, but in the Facebook comments is not a good place to have a discussion, but even then, how do you listen on that platform?”