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Professor Tobin Shearer talks about life after watchlisting

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Late last year, University of Montana professor Tobin Miller Shearer made a splash with his story about being put on an academic watchlist for his teachings on African American history. In that piece, published in the Dec. 16, 2016, Indy, he challenged members of the conservative group that targeted him to meet with him in person, over beers. We recently followed up with Shearer to find out what happened. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

What happened with the challenge you issued to Turning Point USA?

Tobin Shearer: It was a disappointment. I'd genuinely been looking forward to the possibility of sitting down and having a beer with folks from Turning Point, to just hear their life story and how they came to the point of feeling it was appropriate to put me and others on this watchlist. Turning Point knew of the challenge because people—as in myself—sought them out and made sure their leadership got the link to the article.

The only direct contact I received was from a student who was a member of the Turning Point chapter in Bozeman at the MSU campus. They said to a third party, "Hey, I'd be willing to meet with him." That third party put me in contact with this student. I said, "Great, let's find a time." Then he just shut down. No response, nothing.

Someone did take you up on your challenge, though. How did that come about?

TS: He approached me via Facebook, having read the article, and said, "I'm not with Turning Point but I share a lot of their perspectives. I'll take you up on the offer. Let's have a beer." It was at his courageous initiative that we agreed on common place, common time. ... When we got there and began to talk, I just asked him, "How did you come to believe what you believe?" He told me about his background, told me about his girlfriend, told me about his family, and then he returned the question. I shared some of my background, and that was our point of connection. From there we went on to discuss things like our current president, the state of public affairs, and one of our biggest points of agreement was that he thought a watchlist was a really bad idea. He thought issues of free speech were so important that we should not be curtailing that through the kind of activity taken by Turning Point.

In December, UM professor Tobin Miller Shearer issued a challenge to the conservative group that put him on an academic watchlist. No one from the group would agree to meet with him in person. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • In December, UM professor Tobin Miller Shearer issued a challenge to the conservative group that put him on an academic watchlist. No one from the group would agree to meet with him in person.

You were nervous going into that meeting. How did you get past the feeling of having a target on your back?

TS: Being aware of that, being aware of the state we live in—one in which there are a lot of armed individuals, many of them who have taken very belligerent stances on issues of race—I did not want to go into this conversation from a naive perspective. So what I did was invite some friends to join me in the bar incognito. They would simply be there, wouldn't identify themselves, but if it turned out that the individual I was meeting with was going to physically threaten me, they would be prepared to get me to safety.

You talked about this individual having the courage to reach out to you. Were you surprised at all to see that exhibited by someone on the other side?

TS: Boy, to be absolutely honest, I am embarrassed to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. My experience with those who don't agree with me on key political issues like the ones we've been talking about led me to a place where I was not anticipating the kind of civil discourse we were able to have at that moment.

When you were having this conversation at the bar, were you reminded of any moments in history that you've taught or studied?

TS: If I was channeling anyone then, I would have to say it was a couple by the name of Rosemary and Vincent Harding. They were close associates of Coretta and Martin King in Atlanta. They were there the whole time, as in the case of '62 in Albany, working behind the scenes, building bridges, making connections, opening up space for what would happen next. That's the kind of work I was hoping the kind of conversation I was inviting with the Turning Point people could model.

Having had a few months to digest things, how do you feel now about sharing your story?

TS: I am much more of a public persona than I had been before being put on the watchlist. I was in the TSA line in the Missoula airport, and the TSA agent identified me as the author of this article. That's pretty freaky, when you've got a TSA agent who knows who you are. When I'm walking around town it's happened several times. When I was in Washington, D.C., three weeks ago doing some work for the National Endowment for the Humanities, twice I was stopped by people from Montana who had recognized me from that article. That's a little bit unsettling. I don't know quite what to do with that.

Read the full interview at missoulanews.com. Shearer has also written an essay on his post-watchlist experience at tobinmillershearer.

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