Shutting down a racist party

May 5, 2014

On May 2, students at the University of California (UC) at Davis sat in at the Memorial Union (MU) Coffee House (CoHo) to protest "Cinco de Drinko"--an event planned by Coffee House employees at a local park for the next day, where those who came were encouraged to wear sombreros and ponchos, and other students planned to dress up in Border Patrol uniforms.

The hastily organized demonstration against this racism drew a strong and vocal crowd. As a result of the outcry from the community, the event was cancelled. In a statement, students announced, "We are not in any way or form trying to attack the CoHo or its employees, but rather stand up against the three events associated with the CoHo within just THIS year that are extremely racist and insensitive to many cultures, not to mention many instances that go unheard of or unreported throughout campus."

Duane Wright, an activist and former chair of the graduate employees' union at UC Davis, the campus unit of United Auto Workers Local 2865, talked to Zavi Katzvik about the racist atmosphere on campus that led students to take action.

COULD YOU talk about he background of "Cinco de Drinko?"

WORKERS AT the MU Coffee House, aka "CoHo," were hosting an outdoor party at a park in Davis where the theme was "Cinco de Drinko," and people were encouraged to dress up as stereotypes of Mexicans.

IN ONE of the statements given by the students during the sit-in, they spoke of two other racist events ("Tapatio" and "Holy Land") that were hosted by CoHo in the past year. Could you describe what transpired in these events?

I ONLY know what I heard, but it sounds like very recently these same employees also hosted a party ("Holy Land") where people dressed up as "Jihadists," or racist stereotypical depictions of Muslims as violent terrorists.

CAN YOU describe the turnout at protest for me? What groups showed up in support?

I'D SAY between 100-200 people. I saw folks from MEChA, Davis Democratic Socialists, UAW Local 2865 and Students for Justice in Palestine, but I'm not sure who was there officially as an organization or not.

We gathered at 11:30 a.m. and had a rally outside the CoHo, where the reason why we were there was discussed, as well as what the plan was for when we went inside. Then we headed in at quarter to noon or so, and all gathered around the CoHo and sat down.

UC Davis students mobilize against a racist party planned for their campus
UC Davis students mobilize against a racist party planned for their campus

At noon, we had speakers talk about why these racist theme parties were unacceptable, but that our presence there was more about pushing for institutional change at the university, so as to create a better campus climate. There was a mix of people from different groups. It was really great to see that much solidarity on such short notice.

HOW WOULD you describe the attitudes of the UC Davis administrators to the issue of racist events such as "Cinco de Drinko"?

THE ADMINISTRATORS have tried to position themselves as on the side of the protesters. They act like this is just a few bad apples, which is their way of trying to pit students against each other and whitewash the institution's own racist structures and practices--for example, the attacks over the last two years on AFSCME Local 3299 workers, who are Chicana/o and Latina/o in their vast majority.

During contract negotiations, the administration imposed a contract on them with pay cuts and a two-tier pension system. I didn't see Vice Chancellor Adela de la Torre or Chancellor Linda Katehi sending out messages of solidarity and saying that UC Labor Relations needed cultural sensitivity training.

The administration is really good at trying to keep invisible its own racist practices while acting like it stands with its students. I was really glad to see that the student organizers didn't let administrators co-opt the event--they kept their focus on institutional change, and only student leaders spoke at the rally.

SO WOULD you say that UC Davis has a history of racism?

THE ENTIRE UC system is a white supremacist system. Just look at the low numbers of underrepresented students, the retention rates of different student groups, and the low numbers of faculty of color who are tenured. In my department, for example, we have only two African American faculty.

Furthermore, Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona and head of the Department of Homeland Security, who has made a career off of tearing apart families and communities of color, is now running our school.

CHANCELLOR DE La Torre sent a message to a local Sacramento news station KCRA stating that the "Student Affairs staff will be working directly with the students who organized this event to heighten their cultural sensitivity and understanding of the impact of their actions." Do you think this sort of "sensitivity training" will come to fruition or have any meaningful impact on cultivating a safe, anti-racist atmosphere for UC Davis students?

I THINK that the larger campus climate needs to be addressed, which means first taking on the racist practices of the UC. Otherwise, people will go to a training and then come back to an institution that clearly devalues people of color, as we see in the funding for ethnic graduations and ethnic studies programs; the low numbers of underrepresented students; and that ethnic studies, and women and gender studies and other classes aren¹t required general education classes. Instead, you can take a nutrition class to fulfill that same requirement.

People aren't stupid; they can read between the lines. The university is saying one thing and doing another.

Another great example is the ways in which students of color don't feel comfortable with and have been harassed by UC Davis police. These CoHo employees are just mirroring the racial practices of the institution, and without changing the institution, these types of parties and behaviors will not be discouraged, they will be reinforced.

A good example of this is when colleges and universities take rape prevention seriously. We know that universities can do a lot to foster a different campus climate that will actually help reduce rape and sexual assault, or they can victim-blame and make it just an issue of women taking self-defense classes; campus police can make survivors feel blamed and harassed; etc.

So the campus climate is greatly affected by the practices of the institution. A rape culture can be encouraged or discouraged, and the same goes for racism.

YOU MENTIONED police harassing students on campus. Could you speak a little more to those incidents? Is racial profiling a common thing to expect at UC Davis?

I ONLY know of the recent incident covered in The Aggie about police stopping a Hispanic student and a Muslim student for smoking marijuana, when they had none in their possession. There have been surveys of students conducted, and it was found that students of color on average have more negative interactions with the UC police, and they often feel harassed.

IS THERE anything planned for future anti-racist student actions at UC Davis?

A LIST of demands was read off at the rally, so I'm excited to see what student organizers are going to do if the demands aren't met.

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