It was 6 p.m. Friday when the Association of African American Students (AAAS) began its virtual cookout over Zoom.
Executive board member and USC student Grace Badaki had just finished her homework before hopping on the video chat to join her peers in a longstanding safe space. Almost an hour into the call, this safe space fell victim to a "Zoombombing."
“You're listening to the music and all of the sudden you hear someone say the N-word, and I was like, ‘Okay, was that somebody, like, a person,’ because we were all muted. Everybody in the group chat, when we came in, we were saying, ‘Make sure to mute yourself so it doesn’t overlap with the music playing,’” the third-year marketing and public relations student said.
As more people joined, Badaki said she couldn’t even hear the music anymore.
“At first it was like, just one voice, and then all the sudden it was just constant noise and you couldn’t even hear the music anymore," Badaki said. "It was just pictures, then, it was videos, it was messages in the chat, and a mass of noise, all the sudden. It went from, like, one person speaking to like twenty voices on top of each other yelling.”
USCPD is currently conducting a criminal investigation into the Zoombombing, a term referring to uninvited people joining Zoom calls to say racial slurs and portray offensive imagery.
Zoom has agreed to work with the university to investigate, including with USC's IT department to digitally track down the perpetrators, but no information has been provided, as Zoom is currently handling multiple Zoombombing incidents.
USC's Equal Opportunity Office and Office of Diversity and Inclusion are also working with USCPD.
Aidan Baker, a second-year marketing student, said normally the event is a "safe space" where people can hang out and eat food.
“It’s a really good place for ... black students on campus to come together, spend time with one another. For freshmen, it's a good chance for them to start to meet other students and develop some friends groups and meet some people and really just kind of find your place,” Baker said.
Joseph Boyd, a third-year dance education student, serves on the executive board of AAAS and is president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. He was present during the meeting, and he said as someone who helped organize it, having to witness the incident was “disheartening and discouraging.”
“We’re living in a time where everyone is so disconnected, and this was AAAS’s effort to connect the black community here at the University of South Carolina, and for us to have to connect on Zoom, or on any virtual platform … I think it proves why we should make more efforts to create a community for people like us here at UofSC,” Boyd said.
While Baker is not a member of AAAS, he has many friends in it and often attends the organization's events. He was also at the virtual cookout when the call was invaded.
“At first, we didn’t know what to think. We were just kind of in shock. It didn’t feel real," Baker said. "When such a safe space like that was invaded and just completely ran through the way it was, it was just kind of disheartening. There's obviously feelings of anger and frustration, and it kind of shifts towards sadness and fear. But it's — I’ve felt every emotion on the spectrum."
“We have enabled meeting passwords and virtual waiting rooms by default for our Free Basic and Single Pro users. For all users, we have made the Zoom Meeting ID less visible to help prevent unintended sharing, and we have added a new Security icon to the Zoom meeting controls for all hosts to help them quickly access in-meeting security features, including the ability to remove participants and lock meetings, among other actions," a Zoom spokesperson said in an email statement.
Following the incident, university President Bob Caslen denounced the Zoombombing on Twitter, calling it “unacceptable & disgusting.” Student Government also tweeted a written statement signed by all four executive members denouncing the act, writing “[d]iversity is what makes our community rich in history, context, and love.”
Boyd said he received "a lot of support from peers" and faculty but was initially skeptical of how the university would handle the event.
“I have been a little hesitant, or a little, just, worried about how this school was going to handle the situation," Boyd said. "From what I’ve heard, and what I understand of the steps that are being taken to somewhat correct this incident, it’s just been very encouraging because I just feel very supported, and I feel like our community is now being heard, and it just proves why we need to push acceptance and diversity on this campus.”
Baker said he is grateful for these acts of support from the Gamecock community.
“I just want to reinforce how grateful I am — I know a lot of my friends are — for the way the university has stepped up and tried to support us," Baker said. "To see the Gamecock community rally around us is really encouraging, and I hope that current students, incoming students and everyone in between just sees how strong of a community that we really have here at Carolina."
USCPD and USC's IT Department were contacted via email regarding progress of the tracking and identifying of the perpetrators of the Zoombombing but were unable to comment.
Christine Bartruff and Rita Naidu contributed to the reporting of this article.