Fact Check

Protest Gloat

Mizzou hunger striker Jonathan Butler comes from a wealthy family, but that information wasn't a secret.

Published Nov 11, 2015

mizzou hunger strike

[green-label]Claim:[/green-label]  University of Missouri (Mizzou) hunger strike participant Jonathan Butler is secretly wealthy.


[green-label]WHAT'S TRUE:[/green-label] Mizzou hunger strike participant Jonathan Butler comes from a wealthy family.

[red-label]WHAT'S FALSE:[/red-label] Butler lied about his socioeconomic status, and his family's wealth affects his credibility with respect to the nature of his protest.

[green-label]Example:[/green-label] [green-small][Collected via e-mail and Twitter, November 2015][/green-small]

I have recently heard the graduate student Jonathan Butler from Mizzou comes from a family with a net worth of several million dollars. The rumor is that he had ulterior motives to his protest.

[green-label]Origins:[/green-label] On 2 November 2015, University of Missouri (Mizzou) student newspaper The Maneater published an article titled "Graduate Student Jonathan Butler Declares Hunger Strike, Strike Will Continue Until Wolfe Resigns," a piece that appeared in the context of a student and faculty protests over the school's handling of racial tensions on campus, and allegations that university president Tim Wolfe had failed to deal with incidents of racism and homophobia in a timely and effective manner.

The article reported that graduate student Jonathan Butler had announced a hunger strike, which he stated he would engage in until UM System President Tim Wolfe resigned. Butler outlined his grievances in a 2 November 2015 Facebook post:

Butler is holding his strike as a response to the lack of action from Wolfe to several instances of racism and discrimination in the past months. He will end the strike when Wolfe is no longer in office, or when his internal organs fail, he said. But in the letter, Butler stressed that he has nothing against Wolfe personally.

"Let it be known I have no ill will or thoughts of harm toward Mr. Wolfe," Butler wrote. "But I do have an urgency to make the campus I call home a more safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for all identities and backgrounds."

In his letter, Butler prefaced his decision to announce his hunger strike by noting several instances of racism and discrimination on campus. He cited MSA President Payton Head being called a racial slur on campus, the removal of Planned Parenthood services, the #ConcernedStudent1950 protest and the recent instance of a person drawing a swastika with their own feces in a bathroom in Gateway Hall.

Students and athletes engaged in walkouts and protests in support of Butler's strike:

The black members of the school's football team announced that they would not practice nor play until Wolfe was no longer the school's president, and Butler had resumed eating. The team's coach, Gary Pinkel, released a statement saying that his coaching staff and team were united, and would not participate in any football activities until Wolfe resigned or was removed. That was going to include the team's next game against Brigham Young University, which was scheduled to air on an ESPN network.

Wolfe resigned on 9 November 2015, and two days later the blog Louder with Crowder published a post insinuating that Butler had dishonestly concealed his family's economic status (but was "outed" as wealthy by Twitter users):

We're still not sure what exactly happed at Mizzou, but at the center of it seems to be student Jonathan Butler going on hunger strike because ... someone yelled a racial slur at him? Apparently it was traumatic enough he "updated his will and signed a 'do not resuscitate' order."

Here's the rub though. Butler complains about white privilege and how it played a role in his oppression and poop-swastikas? I wish I was this oppressed ... (special thanks to the Tweets of Paul Watson and Jim Hoft for bringing this to our attention):

Johnathan Butler is a member of a prominent Omaha family. The newspaper says Butler's father is Eric L. Butler, executive vice president for sales and marketing for the Union Pacific Railroad. His 2014 compensation was $8.4 million, according to regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

A blog post titled "The Mizzou Hunger Strike Kid Has Been 'Outed' As Being the Child of A Multimillionaire Family" opined:

This one is going viral through the conservative Internet today, people railing on the hunger strike kid Jonathan Butler because he's actually rich and not an impoverished black youth with memes like these:

butler mizzou

Top Right News similarly suggested Butler's wealth was a well-kept secret in an 11 November 2015 post titled "'Oppressed' Hunger Striker at Mizzou Protesting 'White Privilege' Is Fabulously Wealthy":

Butler claimed he was "oppressed" due to "White privilege" and went on a hunger strike ... which the weak liberal administrators caved into by firing their own president and begging forgiveness. So just how "oppressed" is Butler? We just found out.

The rumors misrepresented both Butler's personal reasons for striking and the scope of the controversy at Mizzou. A 9 November 2015 Atlantic article summarized some of the events that led up to Butler's protest:

[A]t issue is the school administration's handling of several racist incidents that occurred this fall. In September, Peyton Head, a senior and the president of Missouri Students Association, said he was called racial slurs as he walked near campus.

That incident was followed by one on October 5 when members of the Legion of Black Collegians were called the N-word while rehearsing for homecoming festivities. Three weeks later, on October 24, a swastika was drawn with human feces at a university residence hall. Besides the faculty who said they would walk out, 32 members of the Missouri Tigers football team said they would go on strike.

The information about Butler's wealthy family that was supposedly ferreted out by dogged gumshoes on Twitter was actually quite plainly reported in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile of Butler:

He is a member of a prominent Omaha family. The newspaper says that Butler's father is Eric L. Butler, executive vice president for sales and marketing for the Union Pacific Railroad. His 2014 compensation was $8.4 million, according to regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Omaha World-Herald concurrently reported that:

A family friend described the family as incredibly humble and low profile.

Butler has said in news reports that his paternal grandfather, an attorney helping the poor in New York City, was a big influence. So were his parents: Eric is a Union Pacific executive and Cynthia is a former educator who runs an advocacy program. They founded Joy of Life Ministries in their basement, and it has grown into a church now based at 56th Street and Sorensen Parkway.

While it's true that Butler's family is wealthy, Butler did not obfuscate that fact by claiming to be "just a poor kid," nor is that information relevant to the grievances that inspired his hunger strike. Butler was one of a number of students involved in an ongoing racial controversy at Mizzou, which involved open hostility towards black students and not complaints over "white privilege." The net worth of Butler or his family was largely irrelevant to the issues of race and racism that sparked protests by Butler and others.


[green-label]Last updated:[/green-label] 11 November 2015

[green-label]Originally published:[/green-label] 11 November 2015

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.

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