“If you see something, say something.”

I would always scoff. It seemed too obvious to even deserve being a phrase: If I were to ever witness a crime, of course I would say something. Who wouldn’t?

But the slogan doesn’t tell you about this: the jolt of fear that shoots up your spine; the sweat accumulating in your foot; or the mental image of that night that sticks with you, well into the future. We’d all like to imagine ourselves as valiantly speaking up, but what do you do when fear compels you to remain silent?

These are the questions and dilemmas that racked my brain last month when I witnessed the Rock being vandalized in the dead of night on Sunday, Jan. 21.

Two vandals, faces covered with ski masks and hoods on, spray-painted over the Rock, which previously featured a Palestinian flag and calls for ceasefire. I remember them laughing and smiling as I walked past them in the middle of the act.

Even though it was late, a handful of others were still walking by the Rock. No one seemed to be reacting. No one seemed outraged or disturbed. Everyone just kept walking.

So I kept walking, too. I made eye contact with the vandals but quickly averted my eyes. I walked with my head down, hoping the vandals didn’t notice or wouldn’t follow me.

But I thought back to the aphorism I had heard all my life. But it was more complicated: What am I supposed to do? Should I approach them? Tell them to stop? What if they say no? Call campus police? Make a report and then what? What am I supposed to do?

The self-doubt hit as I kept walking away. I felt resigned to remain a bystander because I felt there wasn’t much I could do. I stood at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to turn so I could cross the street. Soon enough, I’d be home and could forget all about tonight.

My mother would say that there are moments in this lifetime that serve to define us; moments of irrationality where we are called upon to do something. I thought of her as I crossed the street, stopping abruptly in the middle of the street to turn around and start fast-walking back to the Rock.

I wasn't thinking clearly no matter how hard I tried. What would I say? Stop – Don’t move – Freeze! Would I fight them? I’ve never been in a fight. What if they’re armed? Dangerous? I kept moving forward.

When I arrived back at the Rock, the two vandals were long gone. The Rock was defaced, and I witnessed it.

The Rock, timestamped at 11:56 p.m., a few minutes after it was vandalized by two individuals. Jorge Martinez / North by Northwestern

I checked the nearest trash cans, located outside University Hall, to find two purple spray paint cans thrown away in separate, adjacent trash cans. I placed the two paint cans into my jacket pockets and carried them to my dormitory, where they remain to this day atop my mini fridge as a constant reminder of their vandalism.

I still remember the sound of their voices, their laughter, their smiles. I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Weinberg first-year Natalie Aranda-Rivas was walking with me when we witnessed the vandalism.

“As I walked, I noticed there were two white male individuals near the Rock,” Aranda-Rivas said. “They seemed happy and laughing, they had smiles on their faces as they spray-painted the Rock. It seemed they had no remorse.”

“Am Yisrael Chai” is written in purple spray paint on the Rock’s curb. Photo courtesy of Natalie Aranda-Rivas.

This is my fifth attempt at writing this story and still, the words don’t feel right. So I set off to talk to as many people as I could – witnesses like Natalie, SJP organizers and peers – to find the best way to piece together the details and remain faithful to the story.  

“If you see something, say something.”

This is my way of saying and doing “something.” This is my way of following through on all the life lessons instilled by my mother and others.

Repainting the Rock

Northwestern’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) decided to again set out to guard the Rock for another 24 hours to paint over the vandalism. In collaboration with other student organizations, they hosted an “All Hands for Liberation” event, inviting students to leave handprints on the Rock in the colors of the Palestinian flag. Organizers provided the materials and home-baked cookies for participants.

I showed up at the start of the event and was one of the first to place my hand on the Rock. I can still hear the vandals’ laughter and the hiss of the spray paint in the back of my mind. But as I felt the cold, smooth edges of the Rock, it all quickly disappeared; for the first time in a week, I felt reassured. This time, I dedicated myself to not running away.  

As a journalist, it felt like I was out of place. I kept my distance, trying to remain respectful. I introduced myself as an NBN reporter to the organizers. I had seen the way journalists, especially professional journalists, cover events with impunity and disregard for others – I wanted to commit myself to doing the opposite.

The first thing I noticed at the repainting was the weather. That day, there was a drizzle of rain. It dampened the notepad I was using to take notes, it made the paint wetter and harder to use, and participants had to jump or wade through large puddles and mud collecting by the Rock.

And yet, despite the uncooperative weather, almost 400 students added their handprints in solidarity with Palestinian liberation.

Keya Chaudhuri repainting the Rock at SJP’s “All Hands for Liberation” event. Jorge Martinez / North by Northwestern‌‌

I spoke first with Weinberg second-year and SJP member Malak Saad to learn more.

“The [vandalism] is really disrespectful. The vandals defaced something we worked really hard on,” Saad said.

Amid a polar vortex in early January that brought subzero temperatures, SJP members still guarded the Rock to paint a Palestinian flag and a call for ceasefire – only to discover a week later that others had defaced it with purple spray paint.

And yet here they were, standing tall and united. Even for the “All Hands” event, SJP members guarded the Rock before painting it, honoring the tradition unlike the vandals who had abruptly defaced it.

Following the repainting, students joined hands at a sunset vigil to honor the more than 28,000 Palestinian civilians killed by Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip. It was an incredibly touching and moving event, hand in hand with one another and holding space to reflect and remember.

“[The Rock] was defaced with a blatant message of white supremacy,” one organizer said to the crowd that gathered for the vigil.

On the curb of the Rock, the vandals wrote “Am Yisrael Chai,” a Jewish phrase that translates to “the people of Israel live.” The popular phrase has been used as a rallying cry since the 1960s.

During the vigil, it became clear: this wasn’t an attack on an individual, this was an affront to us all as a community. This was a place of gathering and healing, a place of self-reflection to process emotions.

SJP organizers then read off a list of demands, calling on Northwestern officials to “stop supporting genocide” and sever ties with companies or donors that support the Israeli military. They specifically called out the Crown family, one of the wealthiest families in the United States and a major University donor. Thus, NU is home to the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israeli Studies.

Organizers also demanded financial transparency from the University via the publishing of annual financial reports detailing all University assets, including the assets of third-party investment managers.

It was best put when an organizer said NU must make it a priority to build a “world in which it can exist without investing in death.”

“It's a powerful act of resilience. It shows nothing can stop the movement,” Medill and SESP first-year Keya Chaudhuri said.

Even despite the rain that caused the paint to run down, mixing colors and creating a tear-like pattern, SJP members were “stepping up” to remain resilient.

“The Rock was crying,” said Chaudhuri. In her eyes, this was an act of destruction.

The more time I spent there, the more I noticed that people fixated on the rain. For many, they saw the rain as a symbol of resilience. Despite the subzero temperatures, the vandalism and the inconvenient pools of mud and rain, students still lined up for their turn to place their handprints on the Rock.

In total, I visited the Rock around six times and many more times in passing throughout the morning and afternoon. There were moments when I would simply stand there by the Rock and think back to that night: the image of their spray paint, the smell of the cans in the night air. Despite the solidarity I felt with everyone there, I couldn’t understand how everyone kept showing up. How, in the face of such unfair double standards, could everyone keep standing together with even more resolve than before?

Why did one group of students have to follow the rules of guarding the Rock but others were able to vandalize it in cover of night? Why did two Black students face criminal charges and over-policing when trying to advocate for Palestinian voices? Why do I have to look at the Rock every time now with such dread and unease, resigned to remember that night forever?

It’s only the second quarter of my time at NU and I feel as if I have inherited a deeply divided and unequal NU. The NU of privilege gets away with these types of hate while my NU is always the “other” – always the minority that needs to hold space, do things the right way and never step out of line.

This is much larger than a Rock, a tradition or even freedom of speech or expression.

“We are responsible for making others feel safe,” Communication second-year Jayleen Guzman told me over dinner following the vigil. “Why are we not showing up when we are needed?”

I want to show up. This is how my NU shows up.

Even at this elite institution, a place I saw as granting me freedom to pursue my dreams, I remain limited. My school administration appears to not work for my NU; my school’s rules are over-enforced for my NU; my life, forever, will be confined to my NU.

The Rock was meant to be the sole unifying space on campus capable of bridging the two NUs together. But with each vandalism, the message has been sent loud and clear: never, does it appear, will we be able to cross into your NU.