Students stand with Mizzou

November 16, 2015

On dozens of campuses, students protested in solidarity with the anti-racist struggle at the University of Missouri. Elizabeth Schulte reports on actions from around the country.

AS NEWS of the anti-racist victory at the University of Missouri (MU, or Mizzou) spread across the country, so too did protest, as Black students turned out to show their solidarity with Mizzou students and make demands for racial justice on their own campuses.

Months of organizing--including a student's hunger strike and the football's team promise not to play until President Tim Wolfe was out of office--against racist incidents on the Columbia, Missouri, campus, and the administration's lack of action ended in the resignation of the president and chancellor and the hiring of the school's first diversity officer.

Most protesters also took up the fight of students at Yale University where an e-mail by a faculty member arguing that banning racist Halloween costumes might impinge on students right to freely express themselves exposed administrators' refusal to acknowledge racism on campus--a condition that has been festering for years on the elite campus.

A student also reported that she was turned away from a Yale fraternity party because she wasn't white.

Students in Columbus occupy the Ohio Union during their protest in solidarity with students organizing at Mizzou
Students in Columbus occupy the Ohio Union during their protest in solidarity with students organizing at Mizzou (Pranav Jani | SW)

Hundreds of students, faculty and administrators took part in protests last week at Yale, with 1,000 taking attending a teach-in on the issues faced by Black students. The week ended with protesters organizing a midnight march to the president's home and presenting a list of demands, including a $2 million budget increase to each of Yale's cultural centers on campus and requiting that Yale undergrads take ethnic studies.

But while hundreds of people responded with acts of solidarity and support, others responded with criticism of the protests, as right-wingers, aided by the mainstream media, whipped up a backlash against protesters, dismissing them for being "too sensitive."

Just how "sensitive" do you have to be want an end to being called the n-word on campus--a regular occurrence at MU--or to be afraid attending a school where a swastika was smeared in feces on a dorm bathroom wall, as it was at Mizzou? This isn't being "too sensitive"; this is called opposing racism.

"I think everyone kind of carries around this sense that like yes, there's racism, but like I'm at Yale. I should be thankful," Yale junior Tobias Holden told the Hartford Courant.

"But if we tolerate these acts of racism or this ignorance that are here on campus when we are supposed to be the leading example for the country, then how can we go try to fix problems outside of Yale?"

The lesson from Mizzou that solidarity is key was repeated by student activists who linked their struggles to the fight against racism on campus.

Students organizing in solidarity with Palestinians and against Israel's apartheid drew connections with their struggle and those of Black students, and the Midwest chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine signing onto a statement in solidarity with Mizzou. And when members of Loyola Black Voices organized Mizzou solidarity actions in Chicago, they included a call for the university to divest from Israel among their demands.

On many campuses, a November 12 day of action planned to protest the high cost of tuition and skyrocketing student debt put the fight against racism on campus front and center. The connection was clear, as the high price of college affects working-class students, many who are Black and Latino.

In some places, like MU, students are showing that protest gets results. After protests at the Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, last week, the dean of students--who told a Latina student in an email that she would work to serve those who "don't fit our CMC mold"--was forced to apologize and resigned. Afterward, the university president announced a package of reforms, including making a course on diversity a requirement.

At many universities, including MU, activists see this as just beginning to address racism and inequality at U.S. universities.

FROM MU in Columbia, Missouri, to Ohio State in Columbus and Columbia University in New York City, students came together to stand up to racism on campus in sit-ins, speak-outs and protests.

"Racism is at Mizzou, it's on our campus too!" rang out, as 1,500 students and community members students at the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison protested on November 12.

Mirroring protests at Mizzou, the march from Bascom Hill on campus to the State Capitol stopped along the way to hear students recount incidents of racism at UW.

In 1988, a fraternity held a mock slave auction where pledges were dressed up in blackface and afro wigs. In 2011, a black, life-sized doll was hung from neck from a campus house in a lynching style.

Students also talked about the legacy of student activism at UW. In 2014, organizers held a die-in after the police murder of Michael Brown.

The event was called by the newly formed Black Liberation Action Coalition, made up of the Multi-cultural Greeks, Black Student Union and the African Student Association with help from the local activist group Young Gifted and Black (YGB).

African Americans make up just 5 percent of Dane County, yet according to the Race to Equity report, they are half of the jail population. Black student make up just 3 percent of campus, so administrators photo-shopped Black people into their brochures to make it look like there are more people of color.

Alix Shabazz of YGB linked this struggle to the murder of Tony Robinson by Madison police:

We see the need to connect the struggles of Black students on campus to the struggle of Black people in the community of Madison.

We want a right to say how the police interact with our communities...We want a right to say how the chancellor of students and the president of the university interacts with our students.

We need power, we need to build power. The students in Missouri understood that. Those students understood that people power is what creates change, so we need to do the same thing here in Madison.

At Ohio State University (OSU) hundreds of student took part in a sit-in on November 13 to demand the administration send a letter in solidarity with Mizzou protesters to administrators there.

The sit-in followed a 500-strong rally organized by several Black student activists, including members of the newly formed OSU Coalition for Black Lives, where Black students spoke out about their experiences with racism on campus.

Protesters chanted "Black students matter!" and "OH-IO, racism has got to go" as they marched off campus, blocked part of High Street, one of the busiest roads in Columbus, and then occupied the Ohio Union.

The occupation began at 5 p.m. and continued for eight hours, with student negotiators conferring with protesters regularly about the language of the letter. A deal was finally reached at 1:30 a.m., with protest organizers and the administrators co-signed a letter of solidarity with students of Mizzou.

CAMPUSES ACROSS the Chicago area erupted in protest in solidarity with Mizzou.

At Loyola University, more than 800 people formed a large circle in the East Quad in a protest called by Loyola Black Voices.

Speakers from a range of student organizations linked ongoing fights on their campus to the rebellion in Columbia. "The administration at Mizzou is on notice! Our administration is on notice, too!" said Lillian Osbourne, president of Loyola's SJP.

She listed wide-ranging grievances, including the university's refusal to acknowledge a resolution the student government passed to divest from companies profiting from Israel's occupation of Palestine and the suspension of a Black student for playing loud music in his own apartment.

Chanting "It's not just Mizzou! It's Loyola, too!" protesters marched to the Academic Affairs Department, which has done little to recruit and support students of color. In a city that is roughly one-third Black, only a few hundred Black undergraduates attend Loyola. "Open the door!" screamed organizers from the lawn.

Back on campus, a small group headed into administrative offices to deliver a set of demands, while hundred of protesters remained outdoors, making as much noise as possible. Student demands include a just employment policy for campus workers who are currently attempting to organize, divestment from Israel, campus police records on the racial and ethnic identity of students it interacts with to be reported on a yearly basis and programs to recruit students of color from Chicago high schools and to retain faculty of color.

At Northwestern University just north of Chicago, 400 students gathered at the NU black student center, before marching to the NU sports pavilion, where a dedication ceremony for a new field house was happening.

"I'm tired of people saying this shouldn't be happening in 2015. This shouldn't have happened in 1963 or any time. We don't live in a post-racial society," said one speaker while standing next to a banner that read "From Palestine to Mizzou, we have nothing to lose but our chains."

At the pavilion, protesters marched in, chanting "From NU to Mizzou, we stand with you!" disrupting the ceremony for 20 minutes.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), some 70 people turned out for a day of action organized by the Black Student Union and the campus SJP to shows support for the anti-racist protests at Mizzou and SJP activists who have faced death threats on campus.

Protesters wrote chalk messages on the concrete, including "UIC 4 MIZZOU" and "An Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.

Chicago area student ended the week of protest with a joint rally downtown, organized by campus and city-wide organizations, including the Black Youth Project 100, the Chicago Student Union, Loyola's Black Voices and SJP, which turned out 150 people.

AT COLUMBIA University in New York City, a coalition of Black student activists from various organizations, including the Black Students Organization, the African Students Association, Students Against Mass Incarceration and the Intercultural Resource Center, organized a demonstration of several hundred students on November 12.

The protest was a chance for Black students to have their voices heard in an institution that all-too-often silences their stories. Student after student stood up and shared stories of the racism they had experienced both directly at the hands of faculty and administrators, as well as indirectly as a product of the climate of racism present on campuses across America.

"We refuse to be quiet," said one speaker. "We refuse to be the silent markers of diversity! We refuse to sit down and take what these institutions are doing to us!"

Connections were made to the struggles going on at universities across South Africa, as well as the struggle for prison abolition here in the U.S. "This is just the beginning," one speaker promised. Plans are being made for future events, including a teach-in in the coming week on the school-to-prison pipeline.

"We challenge other campuses to do the same thing. We challenge other campuses to hold spaces like this. We challenge other campuses to challenge, and if necessary, remove their administration."

Some 200 people--the vast majority of them undergraduate students at SUNY New Paltz--gathered outside the campus' student union building in response to a call by the SUNY New Paltz Black Student Union (BSU) to show solidarity with the students of Mizzou on November 12.

Earlier in the day, 150 students took part in a walkout organized by the New York Students Rising (NYSR) as part of the Million Student March‬, during which students carried a giant, cardboard picket sign featuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo's head and called the governor's office to demand "a freeze in tuition and more state funding for SUNY schools."

Students also spoke to the disproportionate impact of the tuition hikes--which, under state provisions, have been set to go up by $300 annually since 2011--on the ability of students of color to access higher education.

At the second rally, BSU members, students, community members and alumni spoke to the events at the MU, emphasizing that these weren't "isolated incidents" but reflected the experiences of Black students and other students of color across the country.

Speakers noted the fact that only 14 Black men were admitted to the school's Class of 2019, and that of the school's 8,000 students, only 5.4 percent are Black. A student from the BSU listed racist acts at New Paltz, such as in November 2011, when students found the words "Colored Only" written above a campus water fountain and, in October 2013, the statement "Emmett Till deserved to die" written on the whiteboard of a residence hall. Some in the crowd said the student responsible still attends the school.

Others spoke to the power of students coming together and the need to connect different struggles on campus, such as the fight against tuition hikes and a student-faculty initiative to "Ban the Box" in higher education. Several people also testified in support of an effort to save the Black Studies Department, which is currently under threat of being dismantled through budget cuts once two of its current professors retire out, despite the fact that over 30 students are majoring or minoring in Black Studies.

"[The] department is being badly treated," said junior Elijah Byer, a member of the spoken word group Urban Lyrics who performed at the rally, "it is going through retired professors who provided an atmosphere of family with BSU, [the step team] Shades, Urban Lyrics, Fahari [Libertad, a student magazine] that are outlets for creativity, and we fear this is being taken from us."

"I am here because I am proud to be Black, " said junior Hector Caminero. "There are so few of us [Black students] that when we come together, our voices can finally be heard."

The rally ended with everyone joining hands and singing the opening lines to Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."

At Vassar College in upstate New York, 150 people took part in an hour-long sit-in in solidarity with anti-racist protesters. The event was called by groups affiliated with the ALANA center (African American, Latino, Asian, Native American and Arab students).

Students at Binghamton University (BU) in upstate New York held a Day of Solidarity with the University of Missouri anti-racist protests, which included a walkout to protest death threats against Black students at BU.

On-campus Black and Hispanic organizations supported the walk, as did many faculty members, who closed their classes and joined their students at the protest.

"At BU, we've been fighting the same struggle for years," sociology graduate student Toivo Asheeke said. "We understand exactly what the Mizzou students are experiencing. We are feeling the same pain."

Many young students report an atmosphere of fear on campus, because of the racial harassment they are experiencing. Students for Change, which was organized to fight discrimination at the university, have been negotiating with the administration for better protection for minority students and for greater diversity on campus, with little success.

At a protest later in the day, students demonstrated for free tuition, an end to student debt and support for $15 minimum wage as part of the Million Student March. Their signs read, "Education is a human right" and "Give us a living wage."

One student explained, "I am leaving here with a $120,000 debt." And this is at a state university that is supposedly affordable.

Hundreds of students gathered at Stanford University Palo Alto, California. Undergraduate Ry Walker told the crowd: "From #FeesMustFall in South Africa to Concerned Students 1950 at Mizzou to the March of Resilience at Yale University and back to Silicon Shutdown and our own Stanford 68, the international struggle for Black liberation is alive and well on university campuses."

Walker, a third-generation Stanford student, explained that her grandfather was part of the fight in the 1960s to pressure Stanford to admit more students of color--a fight that continues today.

Hundreds of students gathered on Red Square at University of Washington in Seattle. "The UW administration claims to support diversity but these events could have happened here," said one speaker. "The institutions are not protecting Black students. There is a University of Missouri on every campus."

Student marched through campus, held a speak-out and then marched to the nearby business district , blocking several streets along the way. This rally follows several in the previous school year, including a Black Lives Matter demonstration of 1,000 students last February and a demonstration on frat row at the site of racist cat calls.

Students on the UW campus have been building the campaign to "Reclaim the UW," opposing racism and economic inequality, supporting a faculty unionization drive, and building solidarity with janitors.

Rachel Cohen, Catherine Keefe-Harris, Steve Leigh, Scot McCullough, Joan McKiernan, Kevin Moore, Sid Patel, Haley Pessin, Gala Pierce, Kiah Price, Gretchen Sager, Molly Seiden, Coco Smyth, Galo Vasquez, Bennet Wilcox and Eva Woods contributed to this article.

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