Anti-racists turn up the heat at UCSD

March 1, 2010

Chuck Stemke and Tony Perez report on the latest round of angry protest over a series of racist incidents at the University of California San Diego.

A NOOSE hung to intimidate African-American students at the University of California San Diego (UCSD)--the latest in a series of outrageous racist incidents--has spurred new activism ahead of a day of protests, strikes and other actions against budget cuts on March 4.

When the noose was found February 26 in UCSD's Geisel Library, Black students and their allies at UCSD had already been involved in more than a week of demonstrations following a racist "party" held by a fraternity.

In response to the discovery of the noose, students converged on the administration building, and 150 occupied UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox's office as faculty guarded the perimeter. About 500 to 600 students maintained a presence around the office for the duration of the day.

In an electrified mood, students hung protest banners all around and chanted. Sympathetic departments and faculty cancelled classes so students and faculty could participate in the protest.

The students presented a list of demands to the administration, but were disappointed by UCSD officials' response. Students refused to be a part of administration-led "leadership bodies" that administrators proposed as a mechanism to discuss "solutions" to racism on campus.

Students marched and rallied on the UC San Diego campus after walking out of an administration-sponsored teach-in
Students marched and rallied on the UC San Diego campus after walking out of an administration-sponsored teach-in (Thieny Nguyen)

Stating that this "is a tactic to divide student leaders from the student movement," activist students and supportive faculty are demanding mass meetings to put power directly into the hands of the students themselves. Meanwhile, protests were also held on other UC campuses, showing solidarity with the UCSD students, and echoing their demands.

"They handed us over a bullshit-ass document," BSU Vice Chair Fnann Keflezighi said. "Basically, it said everything that we already knew--no concrete things on how they're going to implement anything. They're dumber than we thought they were."

THE STRUGGLE at UCSD took off after the now-infamous off-campus party organized by the PIKE fraternity called the "Compton Cookout" on February 15--a crudely racist mockery of Black History Month.

Anti-racist students responded with protests, but were met by further outrages as the editor of a student "humor" newspaper, The Koala, appeared on student-run Koala TV, supported the racist party and called protesters "ungrateful n---ers," dumb and "ghetto."

The Black Student Union (BSU) responded by declaring UCSD to be in a "state of emergency" and organized a march for February 19, which led to an impromptu meeting with administrators. There, it was learned that in the search for a taped copy of the broadcast at the television station, a piece of cardboard was found with the words "Compton Lynching" written on it.

These events gave urgency to the BSU's demands that the administration take dramatic and meaningful steps to encourage Black and other minority enrollment and to fund programs to support these students on campus. While many demands were quickly agreed to, the administration still claims to have no ability to punish the offending students or implement far-reaching minority recruitment. Affirmative action in state institutions was repealed by the Proposition 209 ballot initiative in 1996.

To try to deflect criticism, the administration decided to host a teach-in on February 24, intended to promote tolerance. Some 2,000 attended, overfilling the main hall and spilling over into other, nearby rooms, where a live video feed could be viewed.

Following some long and mostly irrelevant speeches by administration officials, BSU students Fnann Keflezighi and Jasmine Phillips took the podium to denounce the event, saying "a teach-in is not what is needed right now. Real action is needed." Keflezighi read:

The university and the community will not be restored through a two hour teach-in only to be accessible to a small part of the campus community, but through the administration's implementation of our demands and the recommendations that have been made to Chancellor Fox since 2006 to improve the environment for underrepresented students on this campus...

Teach-ins are strategies for the powerless, not for people in power; the Chancellor has a wide range of powers and more than a few resources to commit to improve the campus climate. A teach-in organized and controlled by the administration reflects the hierarchical approach the university has taken to address the issues of racism and misogyny on campus and their failure to take our experiences, needs and demands seriously...

Racism, class-ism, sexism and homophobia that is our campus climate is a direct reflection of the racism and class-ism the institution continues to practice. The university does not just need healing, it needs the type of institutional transformation that can only come by finally listening to those who it has continuously ignored and silenced...Change is not produced through the bureaucracies of inaction, but through the empowerment of students, because this is whose university? [crowd response: Our university!]

If you truly care about our university, if you want to stand in solidarity, you will join me in walking out of this teach in and joining us in our teach-in!

And with that, most participants got up from their seats and marched out, chanting, "Real pain, real action," "Hey hey, ho ho, racism has got to go," and "We're fired up! Can't take it no more." Next, 1,500 students filled the outdoor Price Center for a student-organized teach-in, which reaffirmed the idea that the institution needs structural change and not weak-kneed appeals for "tolerance."

BUT FOLLOWING this highly successful and inspiring rally, the campus was thrown into shock once again on the morning of February 26 as news spread that the noose had been found.

A female student turned herself in, claiming that she and two others hung the noose as a piece of ironic "performance art." But activist students interpreted the act as a sign that a threat still looms on campus.

Although anti-racists have seized center stage through their actions, the initial reaction of many on- and off-campus commentators was to say that racism at UCSD was being blown out of proportion, and that the organizers of the "Compton Cookout" had the rights of free speech.

The issue here isn't free speech--it's racism. In reality, the fact that people attended this party shows that a portion of the UCSD student body thinks that mocking African Americans is "funny." And the fact that students would defend that racism on Koala TV, make signs about lynching, and hang nooses on campus shows that there is a right-wing element on campus that is not joking around.

Latina student Melanie Leon told the San Diego Union Tribune, "I'm in awe that people can be so hurtful and so vicious. I don't know if that is their idea of a joke or not, but those of us that are being affected by this, we take this very seriously."

The struggle at UCSD has dramatically shifted and deepened the politics of the student movement. Another demonstration is planned for March 1 at the chancellor's office, although it is unclear whether there will be another occupation, since students want to avoid arrests before the March 4 protests.

But it is clear that demands for racial justice must and will rise to the forefront of the student movement as tuition hikes and budget cuts hit low-income, Black, Latino and other oppressed students the hardest. Although the population of San Diego is 6 percent Black, African American students comprise only 1.3 percent of UCSD students.

It's this institutional attack on African Americans that has allowed a climate of racism to develop on campus--and it has to be challenged.

Justin Akers-Chacon and Marcos Perez contributed to this article.

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