On Tuesday night during a weekly club Zoom meeting, Chinese Students’ Association (CSA) members experienced a series of racial attacks by unknown Zoom bombers.  

CSA is one of Cal Poly’s largest cultural clubs, with more than 300 active members. The mission of CSA is to create a home away from home for students with an inclusive club culture. Since Cal Poly has gone virtual, CSA has transitioned its normal weekly meetings to Zoom. 

Zoom bombing refers to an intruder joining a Zoom meeting, causing a disruption among participants. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and California’s stay-at-home order, many Cal Poly classes and clubs have turned to Zoom to host virtual meetings, as opposed to face-to-face interactions. 

The incident

CSA President and statistics sophomore Rocco Costanzo began Tuesday’s Zoom meeting at 7:30 p.m. for board members to join. CSA general meetings formally begin at 8:10 p.m., but at 8 p.m. Costanzo began allowing general members in from the virtual waiting room.  A total of 35 board and general members were present. 

As the meeting began, announcements were made and CSA members began participating in an ice breaker activity. Costanzo was the Zoom meeting’s host, however, he transferred hosting privileges to another board member presenting the activity.  

Since the host was presenting in full screen mode, club members’ virtual icons were minimized.  CSA members also had the Zoom poll feature open on their screens as the ice breaker activity began. 

At 8:10 p.m., the time when CSA meetings formally begin, Costanzo saw a large increase of participants entering the Zoom meeting. Costanzo said he did not recognize any of the participants’ names, as almost 20 Zoom bombers joined.

“All of a sudden, I couldn’t hear anyone from CSA speaking,” Costanzo said. “I just heard screams and a lot of people yelling racist and xenophobic slurs.”

CSA art director and a graphic communications freshman Michelle Zhang said the noise became increasingly louder. 

“At first, I thought, ‘Is someone just playing really loud music and unaware?” Zhang said.  “Then, you could hear words like ‘chinks’ and ‘ching chong,’ that was the loudest I heard.” 

One Zoom bomber gained host status and began sharing their screen with CSA members, drawing swastikas and writing other racial and homophobic slurs. Other Zoom bombers set explicit images as their virtual backgrounds and changed CSA members’ virtual backgrounds too. 

Zhang said the Zoom bombers’ attacks progressed quickly as CSA members watched in horror.

“It all happened so fast, I could see the other members’ faces so confused and so shocked,” Zhang said.  “I remember feeling paralyzed.”

The CSA board member initially sharing his screen for the ice breaker activity tried to mute everyone, however, the unknown Zoom bombers continued to unmute themselves.  

Meanwhile, CSA board members were communicating in an outside group chat to determine the next steps.  At 8:15 p.m. Costanzo regained host status and ended the Zoom meeting. CSA board members created a new Zoom meeting ID and shared the link on CSA’s Facebook page. Later, CSA members regrouped on the new Zoom meeting.

The incident was reported to Cal Poly Police, who are looking into the matter, according to University Spokesperson Matt Lazier. Cal Poly’s information security officer investigated the incident and found nearly 20 uninvited people on the call from around the world.

CSA responds

“Shocked, angry and sad do not even come close to how we feel,” the CSA board said in a statement posed on social media. “We are sorry to our general members who had to endure these hateful words, especially when we are living in an era where xenophobia is still rampant in our society. We stand with our fellow students of color, and know that we are here to support you. This is the time for us as a community to unite. We will get through this together.” 

While threats against Asian-Americans have become rampant in the wake of COVID-19, Costanzo said he did not expect CSA members to experience racism firsthand.

“We were surprised that people took time out of their day to spam a Zoom call with racial insults,” Costanzo said. “It felt very violating and intrusive.”

CSA member and an industrial engineering senior Christian De Los Santos said he was devastated by the Zoom bombers’ racial slurs. 

“There is a paradox of going to some place like CSA, where you always feel safe and included,” De Los Santos said. “Stuff like this happens in the real world, we never thought that this would happen in our own club event, it was devastating.” 

Zhang said she has never previously been a target of racism and is shaken up by the incident.

“This is something that I never thought would happen to me,” Zhang said. 

CSA videographer and a graphic communication freshman Kristy Leung said she was disappointed, but not surprised by the racial slurs.  

“I have heard these slurs my entire life,” Leung said. “I felt disappointed in the lack of sensitivity and respect.”

Leung said racism against Chinese-Americans during the coronavirus pandemic has infiltrated her life. Following Tuesday night’s incident, Leung refreshed her Twitter feed to an insensitive Tweet. This Tweet, written by a white person, said that Chinese-Americans were angry at how China was handling the virus.

“It made me appalled that someone was trying to speak on behalf of a community that they are not a part of,” Leung said.

Chinese Students’ Association members at Thanksgiving banquet. Audrey Hoang | Courtesy
Chinese Students’ Association members at Thanksgiving banquet. Audrey Hoang | Courtesy

This incident of racism became much more personal to Leung following Tuesday’s Zoom bombing.  

“At the time, I was pissed,” Leung said. “Now, I’ve accepted it. These things happen all the time to people of color.” 

De Los Santos said the Zoom bombers’ racial attacks impacted him as a person of color. Although De Los Santos is not Chinese, CSA has become a home for him at Cal Poly.

“I am a person of color, I am Hispanic, this club took me in and accepted me,” De Los Santos said. “It has been a home for me over my five years at Cal Poly.”

De Los Santos said this incident has reminded CSA members of April 2018 when Lambda Chi member Kyler Watkins wore blackface.

“To see how far we’ve come from so many incidents, like blackface, and then for something like this to happen. It’s so frustrating to see that we still face a lot of these problems of discrimination and racism,” De Los Santos said. 

Although CSA has filled out incident report forms, all of the Zoom bombers have yet to be identified. De Los Santos said he believes the attack was specifically targeted to Chinese Students’ Association members.  

“Whoever these people were knew we were having a meeting and that we are a Chinese club,” De Los Santos said. “They came into our club with a plan: to spread hatred.”  

i know i’ve posted a couple times about this but here’s the full rant bc i felt like i needed to say this. here’s to love and empathy <3 happy asian pacific american heritage month! be proud of ur culture and identity 🙂 (tw racism, xenophobia, homophobia) pic.twitter.com/u7OaXZ1YW7

— elaine (@elaaiine) May 14, 2020

In a statement, Cal Poly said officials were appalled to learn of the invasion of our CSA club’s virtual meeting and the offensive language and imagery used.

“Racism is anathema to Cal Poly and its values, and we stand with our students and denounce all hateful language and action aimed at any member of our campus community,” Lazier wrote.

The university has reached out to this club to offer support, according to Lazier.

The threat of “Zoom bombing”

The link to CSA’s Tuesday Zoom meeting was posted on social media. While Costanzo initially let club members into the meeting through a virtual waiting room, this feature closed once the meeting officially began.

Costanzo said he recently learned of Zoom bombing, but this threat was not a personal concern.  

“I never thought it would happen to me personally,” Costanzo said. “People really need to take control of their privacy when the have these personal calls and meetings.”

Zhang said the board members apologized to general members following the Zoom bombing and promised to take greater security measures moving forward. 

Leung said the appropriate response to this incident is not blaming CSA students for lacking security measures on the Zoom call. Instead, Leung said the focus should be on the perpetrators of racism. 

“I honestly think that push for security on Zoom calls is important and preventing it on our side is important, but there needs to be a greater emphasis on the people who did this,” Leung said.

Meanwhile, Chinese Students’ Association members are in communication with other cultural clubs to spread awareness of this new threat.  Since Cal Poly has gone virtual, Zoom has become the main channel of face to face communication for students.  

“A lot of people have faced this discrimination, maybe not specifically having a Zoom meeting vandalized, but people have had racist words thrown at them,” De Los Santos said.

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