The incident occurred on Aug. 27, when faculty, students, and community members rallied at the center of Penn State campus and called on the university administrators to immediately issue a vaccine mandate. Student newspaper Daily Collegian reported that the event attracted counterprotesters who held up signs toward the back of the rally attendees.
A video posted to Twitter by Centre County Report appears to show a male, later identified as 36-year-old Walter Oliver Baker, trying to take a sign by force from one of the counterprotesters before eventually pulling him to the ground.
The counterprotester was later identified as Avi Rachlin, the leader of Penn State Resistance, a student group focusing on opposing mask and vaccine mandates on campus. Rachlin was seen escorted away by campus police with blood on his face, likely as the result of the incident.
The campus police record suggests that Baker was charged with simple assault, a second-degree misdemeanor; disorderly conduct, a third-degree misdemeanor; and harassment, a summary offense under Pennsylvania law. The most serious of those charges is the second-degree misdemeanor, with penalties of up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine upon conviction.
Penn State lists Baker as an assistant professor of English and African American Studies who “specializes in Critical Race Theory.” According to his faculty biography, Baker’s areas of research include “critical ethnic studies, nineteenth-century American literature and culture, critiques of racial capitalism and settler colonialism, and histories of African, Native, Chicanx, and working-class liberation movements.”
A Penn State official confirmed to Daily Collegian that Baker was placed on administrative leave as the investigation proceeds.
Meanwhile, in a previous interview with Daily Collegian, Rachlin said he is not against vaccines as a whole, but rather skeptical about the COVID-19 vaccines, given that they lack long-term data on their safety and efficacy.
“When we take this more locally, the majority of people on this campus are vaccinated,” the junior student told Daily Collegian. “It is a small percentage, but there are thousands of others including myself who have opted not to [get vaccinated] as well.”
Penn State is one of the few remaining Big Ten Conference schools that have yet to put in place any form of COVID-19 vaccine requirement. In an open letter to the campus community, Penn State President Eric Barron made it clear that the public university is not going to jeopardize its funding to issue a vaccine mandate.
“Regulations across the country clearly reflect state-level political realities,” Barron wrote in the Aug. 12 letter. “State funding of our University requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature, meaning that our funding relies on strong bipartisan support.”
Penn State didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.