Lorgia Garcia Peña Zoom Screencap

Harvard associate professor Lorgia Garcia Peña hosted a guest lecture with three UGA professors that was attacked by a Zoombomber.

UPDATE: President Morehead responded to the disrupted Zoom call on Oct. 28 and sent an email to all Franklin College members. 

"The vitriol spewed forth in last night’s Zoom lecture targeting members of our University community—specifically our Latinx, Black and LGBTQ members—is despicable," Morehead wrote. "I abhor this disgusting behavior and stand with those across campus who were subjected to this outrageous act."

Harvard associate professor Lorgia Garcia Peña’s fears came true on Tuesday night when her guest lecture about violence against women of color was Zoombombed.

Garcia Peña and three organizing professors from the University of Georgia were called racial slurs, had death threats made against their families and repeatedly had their home addresses posted in the Zoom chat. One speaker shouted they were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and a video of a dismembered body was also shown.

The approximately 40-minute lecture by Garcia Peña discussed how the killing of Black Dominican feminists, in an attempt to silence their activism, was countered by the kinship and community networks of the larger Afro-Dominican Diaspora. The event was jointly sponsored by the Institute for Women’s Studies, the Department of Romance Languages and Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Visiting Scholars Program. 

Approximately 50 people attended the event, and the Zoombombing lasted around five minutes.

Garcia Peña, who teaches Latinx studies, disagreed with a suggestion to end the Zoom call after the bombers were removed by a host. She instead asked students in the audience to talk about their feelings in light of what they heard and saw.

“The decision to stay on is two-fold. The first and foremost is to care for the students, we should always think about students first. This is an educational institution,” Garcia Peña said in an interview with The Red & Black. “The second thing is to remind us and them, whoever they are, the terror and fear and violence will never win. We will not let that happen.”

‘This terror has no end’

The lecture was coming to a close when a text-to-speech reader announced UGA assistant professor of Latinx studies Sharina Maillo Pozo’s home address and said “we’re coming for you” with a derogatory word. After a brief moment, another text-to-speech reader made a vague ransom threat for $4,000 in unmarked bills. If they didn’t comply, the voice said their families would be attacked with meat cleavers. It was unclear who the voice was directly addressing.

Two human-sounding voices began making more threats. One voice said it had organizers’ addresses. Another shouted it was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and hated racial and sexual minorities, then proceeded to loudly and repeatedly shout racial slurs. The Zoombombers also posted the organizers’ birthdays, home addresses and other personal information in the Zoom chat dozens of times per minute.

“We tried every way possible to avoid this,” Maillo Pozo said during the lecture. “Oh my God, my address is all over the place.”

After a three-minute interlude where the organizers muted all audience members, turned off the Zoom chat and kicked the Zoombombers out of the meeting, another user briefly shared a video featuring a bloody, dismembered body with a person off-screen holding up what appeared to be the body’s head. Simultaneously, an unknown number of people shouted racial slurs and played loud screeching sounds.

In response, organizers muted the call and began removing audience members who weren’t attending under a UGA email. Rosalie Vendrell, a junior UGA student majoring in English and Spanish who was watching in the audience, was one of the people kicked out of the meeting.

“I definitely do believe that this action and experience was used as a scare tactic to silence the Hispanic community's voice, but I don't believe, like, our voices will be silent,” Vendrell said. “I hope that UGA does everything... in their power to find out who did this and those people are held accountable because it's just unacceptable.”

In an email statement to The Red & Black on Wednesday, UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said the University Police Department, the Equal Opportunity Office and Enterprise Information Technology Services are investigating the incident.

Trevor said the UGAPD checked that the Social Security number posted in the chat belongs to a deceased individual and not any of the organizers.

“While it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of outside disruption of virtual meetings, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate those risks,” Trevor said in the email. “The University will continue its work to strengthen all protocols to help reduce the risk of such intrusions in the future.”

Attempted prevention

On Sept. 3, the Hispanic Student Association was Zoombombed during an online meeting. Students reached out to the Equal Opportunity Office.

"In previous cases, investigators were able to ascertain that the Zoombombers were not associated with UGA but had broken into the meetings from places as far away as London, England and Boston, Massachusetts," Trevor said. 

After hearing of past Zoombombings at UGA and other higher education institutions against people and scholars of color, Garcia Peña and the lecture organizers tried to mitigate the chance of such an attack before the event. 

The organizers didn’t publicize the lecture, lecture organizer and UGA associate professor Kelly Happe said. They kept it off the school’s academic calendar and only advertised through listservs and in person to Romance languages and women’s studies classes. The organizers used Zoom’s waiting room function to let people join the lecture.

UGA Spanish Graduate Teaching Assistant Rachel Denae Harris was in the audience and left in response to the graphic video. Harris, who advertised the lecture to her class along with other teachers, said the experience left her feeling paranoid.

“We’re wondering if one of our students was behind it and tipped off these people and got them involved,” Harris said. “I’m very scared to teach. I have to teach tomorrow and I don’t even know how I’m supposed to face my students tomorrow. I feel like I lost trust in the integrity of my classroom.”

The organizers also tried to host the event as a Zoom webinar, where attendees join in listen-only mode and cannot share video, for an added layer of security. However, their UGA email-linked Zoom accounts didn’t have permission to host an event as a webinar, which is a paid add-on feature.

The university sent out an ArchNews email on Oct. 7 in light of the HSA Zoombombing incident without explicitly mentioning the event. The email advised faculty to not publicly post Zoom meeting IDs, use meeting passwords and limit screen sharing capabilities.

Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Dean Alan Dorsey sent an email out to the college Wednesday afternoon condemning the violent acts of hatred and inviting audience members to reach out to the dean’s office for support.

Aileen Vezeau, Marillo Pozo’s teaching assistant, was in the audience during the attack and hopes the university administration will investigate further than they did with the HSA Zoombombing.

“I would like to see it taken a step further and [have] the [UGA] president as well condemning that behavior as well,” Vezeau said. “To be honest, I think their responses in the past have been inadequate. I really hope UGA learns from that and takes immediate action.”

Happe said UGAPD questioned her about the incident on Wednesday. Garcia Peña said UGAPD nor UGA Administration has reached out to her about the incident, but her local police department in Massachusetts stopped by to check on her.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated UGA's investigation into the HSA Zoombomb. According to Greg Trevor, in previous cases, investigators were able to ascertain that the Zoombombers were not associated with UGA but had broken into the meetings from places as far away as London, England and Boston, Massachusetts. The Red & Black regrets this error, and it has since been fixed.