This roundtable is apart of our evolving “Movement Inquiry” feature, which opened with an investigation of housing struggles in the US. If you would like to get involved, email us at roundtables AT viewpointmag DOT com.
On February 8, 1968, police opened fire on students at South Carolina State University in the city of Orangeburg, murdering Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton and injuring thirty others. Hammond, Smith, and Middleton were shot in the back, and all officers were acquitted – an echo of the racial order that the students had been protesting. Four years after the Civil Rights Act, public and private institutions continued to refuse service to Black people.
Two months later, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed, setting campuses and, literally, neighborhoods on fire. For Black students, the “Orangeburg Massacre” set the stage. Leaders from sixteen colleges in North Carolina met in Durham, avowing “creative demonstrations.” Greensboro hosted a mock funeral, one of the largest actions in the city’s history. Across the country, students held commemorations and protests.
At the same time that it blew open Black student organizing, Orangeburg receded in public memory. It was lost to MLK and Black Power. It came after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and before the formalization of Black feminist studies. It was a flashpoint for Black student power, the iceberg of what government officials called “campus unrest.” As Martha Biondi writes in The Black Revolution on Campus, “the most prevalent demand in the hundreds of campus protests in 1968-1989 was African American inclusion, not opposition to the Vietnam War. The centrality of race… has been forgotten.”
The recent, high-profile murder of Black people – and the failure to prosecute white vigilantes and police officers – has, similarly, propelled campus activism across the country. Students have rushed to express not only their outrage at the wanton loss of life, but also their collective disillusionment with a system indifferent to the concerns of students of color – from Berkeley High School to the University of Missouri to Yale. In doing so, they have disrupted the flow of American education and contested the meaning of studenthood.
As the contributors’ essays in this series illustrate, these interventions have taken myriad forms – from perennial die-ins and walkouts to a campaign for a Level 1 Trauma Center. Still, what many share is a rejection of the mythos of “Black progress.” What they embrace, in turn, is that the enduring condition of Blacks in the United States is one of struggle, necessitating agitation for the re-imagination of equity in an equally enduring white-supremacist order.
It is with this understanding that Samuel Northup could be born a free man in 1808 and enslaved in 1849, that the Voting Rights Act could pass in 1965 only to be gutted in 2013, and that calls by Black youth for Palestinian solidarity and against U.S. imperialism remain to be acknowledged a generation later.
In this series, it is with a similar understanding that students at the University of Michigan have campaigned over the span of over forty years to increase Black student representation, only to see their numbers drop from 9% in 1996 to 6.8% in 2007 to just under 5% since 2010. Likewise, though the Civil War ended in 1865, students at Middle Tennessee State University must continue fighting to remove monuments to the Confederacy. This understanding frames the opening of the Africa Center at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993 and its closure one generation later. South Carolina State is itself facing financial straits and threatened closure, reflecting the under-resourcing of Historically Black Colleges and Universities nationwide.
The experiences and struggles of the present moment underpin the title of this roundtable, “Black Liberation on Campus, 2015?” This frame posits an active struggle, constantly remaking itself from one national groundswell to the next – and from long-gone, if long-lost, designs. Where do we go from here? While history is quick to cite Huey P. Newton and Stokely Carmichael, the personae and words of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Audre Lorde loom large in these essays and in youth organizing nationwide. What does a Black liberation movement that centers the death and life of women and girls, from Aiyana Stanley Jones to Rekia Boyd to Miriam Carey, look like? What will it take to advance movements free from patriarchy, gender conformity, heterosexism, and ableism? Moreover, many of the struggles in this series began in city streets before radiating across campuses. What is liberation within and beyond the relative privilege of university spaces? How can the struggles of students resonate with the neighborhoods and workplaces of those who’ve never been enrolled? By leveraging studenthood, what can these writers teach us about national and, maybe, transnational struggle?
Viewpoint envisions this roundtable as a beginning, not an end. We welcome your ideas, feedback, critiques, as well as your support in sharing this resource with friends and neighbors, in dormitories and classrooms, at rallies and direct actions. We are eager to work with organizers to collectively create future roundtables on the struggles unfolding today – Black and Brown liberation, climate change, education, feminism, queer power, youth-led migrant struggles, and in transportation, logistics, and the workplaces of retail and service workers, to name just a few. To get involved, please email us at roundtables AT viewpointmag DOT com.
#WALKOUTWEDNESDAY, Berkeley High School
By Kadijah Means
“The turnout for these actions gave my comrades and me something we had not had for months – hope, moving us to organize something bigger. Desperate for a taste of victory, in a war that is seemingly never-ending, Damani McNeil, Lucy Rosenthal, Finn Collom, and I organized a 1,500 person strong walkout, rally, and die-in on Wednesday, December 10, 2014 – #WalkoutWednesday.”
Like many of my peers, I’ve increasingly found myself distressed by reports about the loss of Black lives at the hands of the police. I was further troubled to see that the national attention the anti-police terror movement deserved was only garnered after the loss of young Black life. Sadly, given our nation’s history, it was unsurprising. As a young Black woman, I have come to terms with a painful reality: Racism is not dying any time soon.
Knowing this, I felt motivated to act. As president of my high school’s Amnesty International club and Pharaoh of the Black Student Union, I saw the overlap in these groups’ goals and thought it fitting to merge these organizations in the fight to reaffirm Black humanity. The resulting coalition of about twenty students never had a combined meeting. We worked through email to divide tasks: social media, banners, posters, and meetings with the faculty. I served as a liaison between the groups.
We were strategic in planning each direct act of resistance. We timed rallies, moments of silence, and other movements for maximum attendance. Though Amnesty had previously held an anti-police brutality rally in September of 2014, things really heated up following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. There was outrage across the nation. Inspired by Feminista Jones’ National Moment of Silence and the manner in which our school unites to mourn tragedies, we arranged a weeklong, after-school 4.5-minute moment of silence to reflect on the 4.5 hours Mike Brown’s slain body lay on the ground after he was killed.
The subsequent non-indictment of Eric Garner’s murderer Daniel Pantaleo, while disappointing, was not surprising, and we were forced to arrange another school-wide 4.5-minute moment of silence, followed by chanting “I can’t breathe.” The turnout for these actions gave my comrades and me something we had not had for months, hope, moving us to organize something bigger. Desperate for a taste of victory, in a war that is seemingly never-ending, Damani McNeil, Lucy Rosenthal, Finn Collom, and I organized a 1,500 person strong walkout, rally, and die-in on Wednesday December 10th 2015 – #WalkoutWednesday.
Faculty were instructed not to attend by the Interim Principal, but the Superintendent and former Berkeley High Principal, now Assistant Superintendent, were in attendance. The walkout began on the steps of Berkeley’s city hall. While the program was carefully planned, impromptu speeches by audience members were encouraged.
While there, I gave a speech explaining why as high school students we were obligated to take a stand, especially if we wanted to consider ourselves egalitarian. I detailed the murder of Eric Garner in order to explain that body cameras aren’t the solution. After what felt like a collective deep breath we chanted “Black Lives Matter,” and continued through the speeches.
We marched through Downtown Berkeley to Sproul Hall for a brief stop, and chanted “You’re the ones who showed us how; UC Berkeley join us now!” The march continued to the Campanile, where the final stage of the action, the die-in, took place.
#WalkoutWednesday gained a great deal of attention. Yet, while I’d rather be writing about a successful revolution due to valiant local activism, I am here to report more unnecessary violence against Black people. In August of this year, there were some six police shootings in Oakland. In the month of September alone, there were 2 shootings by Bay Area Rapid Transit police. The militarization of police in this city is disturbing, but unsurprising, considering the police tanks that roam the yet-to-be gentrified streets of deep East Oakland.
When asked why I organize, I must note that there is always room for improvement in a country built on injustice. The United States has an unsettling habit of putting a band-aid over gaping wounds and ignoring them. These wounds go untreated until they get infected, or until an activist douses them in rubbing alcohol – a necessary, though painful exercise.
This exercise also pains the activist. In organizing, what tests my strength the most is the moments directly after an action. The sense of pride you feel when you accomplish something as an organizer – whether it’s “starting the conversation about race” or fundraising – is often followed by the crushing realization that your work may never be complete. Sometimes the realization comes in the form of comments on articles about your action, or people questioning your intelligence after a comment you make on a panel.
My moment of realization came after the walkout, as I was strolling down the street, bullhorn in hand. A homeless white man, who I assume witnessed the walkout, questioned my reasoning for this action, saying something along the lines of “We all bleed red, why are you wasting your time when people are starving.” I almost explained myself to him, but something stopped me. Maybe it was because I was holding back tears. My work may never be done.
It’s this cycle of winning the battle (successful action) and losing the war (anti-Blackness and white supremacy continue to thrive) that takes the greatest emotional toll on me. I feel overwhelmed by the existence of anti-Blackness and at times hopeless in the face of the possibility that, no matter my effort, my descendants will endure some form of this hate.
Kadijah Means was born and raised in Oakland, California. She currently attends UC Santa Cruz, pursuing a degree in both Politics and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES), and was the 2015 recipient of the Next Generation MLK Jr. Leadership award and the Princeton Prize in Race Relations. She was recently interviewed on the podcast This American Life.
THE UNITED COALITION FOR RACIAL JUSTICE AND THE “SPEAK OUT,” University of Michigan
“The goal of the Speak-Out reflected many of the aims of the original Teach In: to raise visibility and educate students regarding these issues, facilitate coalitions across various organizations, and put pressure on the administration. The event was designed as a 12-hour takeover of Shapiro undergraduate library in three parts – Demonstration, Political Education, and Strategy. We hoped to combine the testimonial power of the open-mic “speak out” with the historical resonance of the ‘sit in.’ ”
On October 9, 2013, 150 students, faculty, and staff gathered in silent protest on University of Michigan’s Diag with signs that read: “We Want Diversity” and “I See You.” Garrett Felber spoke with one of the organizers, senior Chloe Brown, and asked her about the so-called “Freeze Out.” Brown outlined the protest’s goals of raising visibility about paltry enrollment and a poor climate for students of color on Michigan’s campus. Soon, Brown and Felber were having conversations with students walking by, many of whom expressed typical sentiments about the “reverse racism” of affirmative action or noted that Michigan was the most diverse place they had ever been.
After the Freeze Out, Austin McCoy and Felber noticed that many students still believed affirmative action existed in campus admissions with regard to race. McCoy and Felber thought that retelling the history of Black protest and affirmative action at UM would contribute to the campus-wide conversation about admissions and to the burgeoning movement for racial justice.
Eliding decades of campus struggle, the administration under then–President Mary Sue Coleman exploited Proposal 2 – the 2006 ballot initiative which banned consideration of race, sex, and religion in university admissions – to defend the precipitous drop in underrepresented minority enrollment. Soon after the protest, we set about drafting an opinion piece in the Michigan Daily which would tie together some of the past activism by the Black Action Movement and the multiracial United Coalition Against Racism from the 1960s to the 1990s with what we saw as the first stirrings of a student movement since we had arrived almost five years earlier as graduate students.
The Op-Ed anticipated what would become the United Coalition for Racial Justice’s model for organizing. “Building a more inclusive campus requires an understanding of past anti-racist student movements,” we wrote. We argued that BAM and UCAR experienced success due to the leadership of students of color in combination with white support and through direct-action protests, explicit demands, and a disruption of campus life: “Only through the combination of strong student protest, education, and an active administration can we begin to realize the aspirations of this legacy of activism.”
A month later, the organizers of the Freeze Out planned a follow-up meeting to talk about next steps. Meanwhile, the Black Student Union’s “Being Black at the University of Michigan,” or #BBUM, went viral that same day. #BBUM’s success infused considerable energy into the follow up meeting. Students predominantly associated with BSU took to Twitter with the hashtag #BBUM, asking a single question: “What is being Black at the University of Michigan?” The campaign responded to the underlying issues which had prompted the Freeze Out as well as Theta Xi fraternity’s plans for a racist “Hood Ratchet” party, which played upon negative stereotypes of Black culture. The #BBUM movement took the struggle beyond the confines of the campus through social media and brought the experiences of Black students at Michigan into national conversation with schools like UCLA and Dartmouth, who were responsible for the viral video, “Black Bruins,” and Dartmouth’s “Freedom Budget.” The Twitter campaign’s national reach put significant pressure on the administration to respond. At the meeting the night that #BBUM went viral, Felber proposed an all-night Teach In on affirmative action, campus climate, and minority enrollment modeled after its historical namesake in 1965 protesting the Vietnam War.
Garrett Felber, Austin McCoy, Tatiana Cruz, and, later, Jennifer Alzate Gonzalez, began to plan the Teach In for the following semester. Realizing that an organizational base was necessary, we decided to form an organization modeled after UCAR. Our group, the United Coalition for Racial Justice, held open meetings with faculty and students from various campus organizations and disciplines to organize what became known as the “Speak Out.” UCRJ was coalitional. We worked with activists from several organizations including BSU, the Hip Hop Congress, and the Graduate Employees’ Organization.
The goal of the Speak Out reflected many of the aims of the original Teach In: to raise visibility and educate students regarding these issues, facilitate coalitions across various organizations, and to put pressure on the administration. The event was designed as a 12-hour takeover of Shapiro undergraduate library in three parts – Demonstration, Political Education, and Strategy. We hoped to combine the testimonial power of the open-mic “speak-out” with the historical resonance of the “sit-in.”
UCRJ mounted a campaign to turn out people for the Speak Out. We spent significant time building relationships with other student organizations and interested faculty and staff. We engaged in political education of the broader student body. We contacted professors teaching courses on issues of race and ethnicity, offering to give a constructed 10-minute mini-session on the history of Black activism on campus. Our opening question – “When was the last time University of Michigan had a Black student enrollment of 10%?” – was a trick question. The answer, of course, was “never.” But, because it was one of the original demands of the Black Action Movement in 1970, it opened a conversation on the long history for inclusion and access on campus.
Confronting UM’s narrative explaining the decline in Black enrollment was UCRJ’s greatest contribution to UM’s racial justice movement. Coleman and the administration often blamed the lack of Black students on the state’s ban on Proposal 2. Yet, we pointed out, although Black enrollment dropped from 7.2% to 4.8% in the four years following the ban, it was at an institutional high of 9% in 1996 when President Lee Bollinger arrived. To proclaim itself as a warrior for affirmative action, as the University had, reflected a myopic view which buried its nearly 20-year apathy about racial diversity. Our argument stuck. #BBUM members reiterated our argument during a CNN broadcast. The Daily published its own editorial, “Pushing Past Prop 2,” excoriating the administration’s use of the ban to explain declining Black enrollment. Soon after, the administration relinquished its own reliance on the ballot proposal, which had bought it nearly a decade of insulation while it “waited” on the Supreme Court.
The Speak Out was held February 18, 2014, and drew over 1,000 people to hear the keynote speeches by former UM president James Duderstadt and founding UCAR member and scholar/activist Barbara Ransby. The irony of the two sharing the keynote address was not lost upon either, as Ransby had once taken part in a 24-hour sit-in of Duderstadt’s office in 1987. It importantly reminded us that even under the neoliberal “Michigan Mandate,” Duderstadt’s presidency oversaw the highest Black enrollment and most aggressive faculty-hiring initiatives in school history – products of fierce student activism and administrative concessions. The second portion of the evening was devoted to education sessions ranging from affirmative action and political organizing to curriculum design and discussions of race and ethnicity requirements. These sessions were led by teams of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in an attempt to foster dialogue across these segments of campus.
After the Speak Out, we sought to construct a racial justice mandate – a series of demands that could put UM on a path towards establishing a racial justice campus after the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Proposal 2. In the process, we encountered a few problems, some the product of success, and others of structure. We could not retain the enthusiasm that drove our Speak Out organizing. Also, we were a coalition – many of our organizers continued their activist work in their respective organizations. UM’s academic calendar also presented a challenge – summer break at UM is four months long. While the long summer supports faculty research, it also sucks the life out of campus social movements.
While low Black enrollment and micro-aggressions remained salient the year after the Speak Out, police killings and the #BlackLivesMatter movement emerged as the central issues on campus. Anti-Black police violence hit home when Ann Arbor police shot and killed 40-year-old Aura Rain Rosser on November 9, 2014. Two weeks later, several UCRJ members joined with student activists from other student organizations and local residents to protest the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown killing. Students from various organizations, including UCRJ, joined with community members to form an anti-police brutality group – Ann Arbor to Ferguson. Since last November, Ann Arbor to Ferguson has sought to hold the city police department responsible for Rosser’s death by engaging in direct action protests.
While UCRJ’s and Ann Arbor to Ferguson’s work for racial justice on and off campus is incomplete, we have contributed to the larger goal that our predecessors struggled for over the last four decades: We want a radically different university from that envisioned by the regents and administration. UM’s administration suffers from a poverty of imagination. Through the late-1980s, the University of Michigan did not acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, despite President Reagan’s making it a national holiday in 1983. When the University first honored the day in 1989, it was called “Diversity Day.” UCAR saw this as a limited victory. “Is this a day when we should celebrate our university’s diversity or applaud our country’s progress in racial matters?” Student organizers answered: “NO.”
The language of racial justice must be adopted by the University as the framework for change. We can no longer accept the slipperiness of “diversity,” which continually emphasizes “academic excellence” over justice. Diversity blandly implies that everyone benefits from learning in an environment with a variety of different viewpoints represented. A university built upon racial justice would ensure an environment where students, faculty, and staff are empowered to make substantive change from the bottom up. Whether it is the historical demand for 10% Black enrollment, an end to micro-aggressions on campus, or greater resources and affordable housing for underrepresented students, the University must redefine its approach to these issues through a racial justice framework, and student activists must continue to be at the forefront.
Austin McCoy is a PhD student at the University of Michigan, a co-founder of the United Coalition of Racial Justice, and a Black Lives Matter activist.
Garrett Felber is a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan. He was Senior Research Advisor at the Malcolm X Project at Columbia University and is co-author of The Portable Malcolm X Reader with Manning Marable.
CHANGE THE NAME OF NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST HALL, Middle Tennessee State University
By André Canty“When Bree Newsome cut the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina state capitol, we all saw ourselves up there. We were tired of waiting – and hearing the ‘heritage’ debate. A simple conversation among friends online led to our most recent campaign. Considerate it ‘Round 3.’ ”
In elementary school in Knox County, Tennessee, in the 1990s, I believed we really were judged based on our character and not our race. N.W.A. told me that police were beating us down and killing us, suggesting a new order to come. Every Black History Month, teachers told me that select men and women shaped society as we know it, ensuring that we wouldn’t suffer the same fate and leaving little to fight for. Apart from Martin Luther King, Jr., I learned of many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement who hailed from Tennessee – James Lawson, Diane Nash, CT Vivian, Avon Rollins, Robert Booker. There was no point in liberation because all was well, right?
Before long, I noticed the continued existence of racist images that I thought were long gone. Through library books and rap, I realized the emptiness of the biographies I knew, made to make these people into mythic figures that could not be relatable. I also moved on to a predominately white school where the Confederate Flag was ubiquitous. The symbol itself represented an army that wanted my ancestors in chains. Still, I felt that I couldn’t do anything about it. At a football game in 2002, we were greeted with the flag as we came out of the “away” side of the stadium to prepare for battle. It was one thing to fly it in cars or to hang it in a house, but, knowing that the opponent had Black players, this was nothing but a taunt. I played that game with a sense of retribution.
In 2003, I attended Middle Tennessee State University. Administrators often boasted about the diversity of the campus in order to encourage accepted students of color to matriculate. By way of decades-long activism, “diversity” on campus was backed with substance – multicultural offices, minority scholarships, and increased representation of people of color in university materials. In this light, when I learned that the Forrest Hall ROTC building I walked past every day was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate General and Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, my world shook. How could a university that has come to pride itself on diversity praise a man who symbolizes the antithesis of diversity?
In 2006, a couple of students got together to form a campaign to bring the name down. We saw how problematic it was for Black students to have to pay thousands in tuition and received a degree from a campus that uplifts a man who fought to keep us in bondage. My best friend and I wrote two letters to the editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines, which kicked off the campaign. We then sent 205 petition signatures to the Student Government Association. In response, “Students for Forrest Hall” formed to keep the name up. What Students for Forrest Hall had that we didn’t was institutionalized support from the muscle of right-wing organizations and media. One of those organizations hired a Black man to dress in Confederate regalia in front of Forrest Hall. Some of Forrest’s best friends, apparently, were Black.
The SGA did agree that the name should go down, and we felt a sense of victory – that is, until SFH produced a petition with double the amount of names as our own, leading the SGA to rescind its decision. Shortly after, someone spray painted “Black Power” on Forrest Hall, misrepresenting our otherwise multiracial group as threat to white people. Through petitions, letters, and town-hall meetings, we tried to get the campus to agree merely to state that we had moved on from Confederate times. However, the President of the school, along with the Student Government Association, decided that there wasn’t enough support, and Forrest’s name remained. There was no national conversation or major organizing in and outside schools over Confederate symbols.
In 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed. After his death and the not guilty verdict of his killer, George Zimmerman, a sleeping giant awoke in the form of young people’s collective discovery of power. From the school-to-prison pipeline to racist pedagogy and campus culture, schools have become a front in the movement for Black lives. Following the horrible killing of nine people in the historically Black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Confederate symbols – like the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest – have become anchors of the movement and, in turn, points of tension for government officials. And, as in the 1960s, it has been pressure from the grassroots that has led to decisions to take Confederate symbols down rather than benevolence from politicians.
When Bree Newsome cut the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina state capitol, we all saw ourselves up there. We were tired of waiting – and hearing the “heritage” debate. A simple conversation among friends online led to our most recent campaign. Considerate it “Round 3.” In 1989, Forrest’s likeness was removed from the University Center, followed by our campaign in 2006.
What we’ve seen in this round, unlike others, is a cross-section of organizations who’ve expressed their thoughts to change the name. Murfreesboro Daily News Journal wanted Forrest’s name down. The Rutherford County Democrats wanted it down. Departments at MTSU like Political Science and International Relations, Philosophy, History, and the Association of Graduate Studies in History have all called for a change. These voices are reiterating what we’ve been saying all along: the Confederacy and its symbols have no place in public buildings if we indeed consider ourselves a “more perfect union.” Indeed, the campaign has been calling intentionally for organizational support, which was absent in 2006. We are using different entry points of engagement – online posts, articles, rallies, petitions, relationship building.
In August, we rallied. Chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “Run Forrest Run” rang throughout the campus, prompting other students to join in. Professors spoke about Forrest’s true history. Now, a committee has been formed to debate the issue and come to a decision in April 2016, which will be nearly ten years since our second campaign.
What is there left to debate? Which side do we need to hear? Prolonging the recommendation of a change should not be an attempt to be fair to both sides. If the campus didn’t keep Forrest’s likeness at the University, then why the ROTC building? Legitimizing the pro-Confederate side legitimizes a legacy of hate that appeared in 1861 and reemerged 100 years later in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Forrest’s reputation comes from leadership of an army whose purpose was to keep my ancestors enslaved. What could possibly be said to make the case for the Confederacy credible?
Young people have always wondered what our role would have been if we had lived in the 1960s. We’ve romanticized the front lines of a battle that could change the course of history. We’ve considered the scenarios and injected our desires into the people we read about in the history books. Now, young people are discovering our power in profoundly new ways. What happened in 2006 was not a loss, but a foundation, a bridge to something bigger.
This moment calls for racist symbols to be taken down from public view – not to erase history, but to illustrate a new perspective, one that is not just tolerant, but respecting of all groups of people, not one of just diversity, but of justice and equity. Though it is for the Tennessee Board of Regents and Historical Commission to make the final decision, the people have spoken already.
André Canty is on the Development and Communications Team at Highlander Research and Education Center.
PRESERVE AN INDEPENDENT AFRICA CENTER, University of Pennsylvania
By Oyinkan Muraina
“When Charity Migwi and I called our classmates together to discuss the fate of the Africa Center the night before, I never imagined we would be protesting less than twenty-four hours later. But this was, and is, the reality of a university in the post-Mike Brown era. The campus that once hosted a “Top One Percent Party” in an ode to the Occupy Movement now accommodated regular protests, with participation not only from Penn students but also from neighboring schools and the Philadelphia community.”
Moments before the protest against the closure of Penn’s Africa Center began, I sat frantically messaging my friend’s mother. She had contacted me in the hopes of planning a surprise birthday dinner in Philadelphia’s Center City for her daughter. That same day, I was due to present my thesis findings on gender-based violence and post-conflict reconciliation in Africa, though neither the presentation nor the thesis were complete. I had not slept in two days and – despite my affinity for Assata Shakur quotes – hardly felt like a revolutionary.
When Charity Migwi and I called our classmates together to discuss the fate of the Africa Center the night before, I never imagined we would be protesting less than twenty-four hours later. But this was, and is, the reality of a university in the post-Mike Brown era. The campus that once hosted a “Top One Percent Party” in an ode to the Occupy Movement now accommodated regular protests, with participation not only from Penn students but also from neighboring schools and the Philadelphia community. Students marched to city hall to avow that #BlackLivesMatter; interrupted a Board of Trustees meeting to vocalize their distaste for Comcast’s attempts to segregate the Internet; staged a sit-in during President Gutmann’s annual holiday party to call Penn to pay PILOTS, or Payments in Lieu of Taxes; and participated in regular “Ferguson Fridays” in which Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation took to Locust Walk to protest the systemic oppression of people of color through provocative visuals.
The death of Mike Brown ignited a latent faith in students’ ability to force change, especially among students of color. And while we did not know how best to force such change, each tragedy laid at our feet like the travails of Job, intensifying rather than corrupting that faith. The destruction of the Black body was palpable and endowed us with a novel sense of urgency.
So, on April 13, I closed my laptop to join approximately forty students protesting the closure of Penn’s Africa Center at the annual “College Palooza,” an event for admitted students to learn about the College of Arts and Sciences’ myriad departments and programs. There, we interrupted the 60-second lecture of Dr. Kallberg, Penn’s Associate Dean for Arts and Letters – and a major player in the decision to close the Center. We then staged a sit-in for approximately one hour. We asked: “Where is the Africa Center table?” and “What is happening to the Africa Center?” We piqued the curiosity of pre-freshman, new to the raucous campus environment before them.
We all expected backlash from the administration. We were, by our own admission, operating on very little information about what was happening. We knew three things: the Africa Center was closing; Penn’s Center for Africana Studies would absorb its activities on July 1; and that this move was prompted by federal budget cuts, which left the Africa Center bereft of its Title VI funding, its primary source of support.
The rest remained opaque. We questioned whether Africana’s mission and vision statements would be changed to reflect its expanding focus, whether African international students would have a physical respite from a campus that seemed ignorant of their existence, whether this would affect African Studies majors, and whether offerings for those interested in Africa could increase under such circumstances. Apart from this, we saw the closure of the Africa Center as a powerful gesture, reflective not only of current “budgetary pitfalls,” but also symbolic of a systemic undervaluing, and therefore underinvestment, in the study of Africa. At its core, we believed this lack of investment to be racist. The conjoining of African and Africana Studies implied to us that Penn believed all Black peoples to be a monolith.
Under no circumstances could Students for the Preservation of the Africa Center, SPAC, conceive of endorsing such a view. And, despite several months of legwork, trying to market the importance of the study of Africa whilst actively pursuing information about the future of the Africa Center, by mid-April there still had been no public acknowledgement of what was to come. Given that most students would be leaving campus as early as the first week of May, we knew we had to force the administration’s hand.
Doing this came at a cost. Some on campus resented our dissociation of Africa and African peoples from Africana Studies, which – at the time – seemed primarily focused on the Diaspora. While we agreed about the importance of this connection, we felt that the question at hand was one of perspective, in which studying the continent from the perspective of the Diaspora constantly placed African history within an external frame of reference.
Others termed our protest “reactive,” unaware of the months of emails, unanswered invitations, PowerPoint presentations, and promotional video that preceded the protest. In fact, this was one of the most proactive campaigns of the year. Further, the “reactive” nature of protests for Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Rekia Boyd did not detract from their poignancy for these same critics. We drew from a legacy of action and reaction.
When in January of 2012 President Gutmann failed once again to appoint a person of color to the position of Dean, a collective of tenured Africana professors came together to write, “Guess who’s (not) coming to dinner,” where they called out President Gutmann for the incongruence between her language surrounding diversity and the makeup of her leadership team. They stated they would boycott an annual dinner with Gutmann until she appointed a person of color to the position of Dean. Within two months, Gutmann did just that.
Similarly, in the mid 90s, when a white columnist for the Daily Pennsylvanian repeatedly published racist op-eds using the n-word, Black students collected 14,000 DPs on campus and threw them away en masse, even going as far as snatching the paper from the hands of tragically inquisitive individuals. To this day, every issue of the DP reads, “one per person.” No marked improvement in the condition of marginalized peoples on Penn’s campus came free. We were always resisting – reacting to, if you will – our oppression.
Finally, we were accused of misunderstanding the issue at hand. Those lodging this particular complaint failed to appreciate the force with which we were dealing. Our collective ignorance was not the product of an unfortunate lapse in communication, nor was it willful on our part. Rather, we were purposely left ignorant at the fault or behest – depending on whom you ask – of the powers that be. Our ignorance, intentional or not, exemplified the failure of the administration to include students in their decision making process. This failure, to the tune of $60,000 per a student, was and is unacceptable.
In fairness, following the protest, the administration acknowledged that the study of Africa had not always been up to par on Penn’s campus. They claimed that this structural adjustment enabled the University to devote more resources to African Studies, via departmental support. The administration further responded that they would appoint “a faculty planning group to establish a School-wide strategy for [Penn’s] research and teaching agenda on Africa.”
I personally remain skeptical of these plans, but hope they bear fruit. While we failed to keep the physical doors of the Africa Center open, SPAC succeeded in making the study of Africa a major school-wide concern. To my knowledge, this has not been the case for a very long time. Further, our protests earned us a seat at the table, charting the future of African Studies at Penn. Current African Studies students recently formed the Penn African Studies Undergraduate Association, PAUSA, an undergraduate advisory board to the Africana Department. Through this new vehicle, students hope to bolster the African Studies major and advising process, while bringing more Africa-focused programming to campus.
One would think this success enough to quiet the seething resentment I nursed during the protest and in the immediate weeks thereafter. However, the fact remained that I had once again given up my time and energy to affirm the value of my history and peoples. I did not get to plan the birthday dinner I really wanted for my friend. I failed to present my thesis findings that day. And while I am well aware that these were choices I made, I also remain painfully aware that my colleagues of European descent had never been, nor will they likely ever be, placed in such a position. The permanence of monuments devoted to the European tradition go unquestioned. How could Penn function without Germanic, Slavic, and Classical Studies departments?
In all of this, I have learned that the business of resistance is messy. Unfortunately, our peace of mind is often inextricably linked to the status quo that oppresses us.
Oyinkan Muraina hails from Macon, Georgia, and is currently serving as a Fulbright Fellow in Ilorin, Nigeria.
#CANYOUHEARUSNOW, Colgate University
By Kristi Carey, Melissa Meléndez, Kori Storther, and Natasha Torres
“Visibility is fatal in a world of popular opinion. As I reflect on the sit-in that my friends and I led almost a year ago, those words are clear in my head. I hear constant echoes of the cries from my peers: “Can you hear us now. Can you hear us now. Can you hear us now.” For 101 hours, we occupied the Colgate admission office and begged for visibility. We demanded to be heard. However, as I look back on those days, I almost wish we never brought ourselves into the light.”
Over the past year, there has been a noticeable rise in student activism on college campuses. For us, the #CanYouHearUsNow movement was invigorated by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but enacted with historical memory of Black power as it existed on Colgate’s campus. In 1969, there was a group called the Association of Black Collegians that committed itself to creating anti-oppressive and inclusive spaces on what was a very exclusionary campus. More than fifty years later, we called upon their strength, solidarity, and strategy with a five-day long sit-in on September 22, 2014, in our university’s admissions office, calling ourselves the Association of Critical Collegians.
In the midst of the sit-in, the historical roots of the University – white, male, straight, able-bodied – became more and more present. We started to ask questions about what “inclusive” learning spaces really mean: What is it, exactly, that we want to be included into? We realized that the culture that existed at Colgate wasn’t something we wanted to be part of, but, rather, something to change at its foundation. We considered anti-oppressive spaces, critical spaces of hope, and spaces of teaching and learning. In the sit-in itself, students, faculty, and staff shared experiences, played music together, loved each other, and helped one another heal – altogether, in the span of 100 hours, manifesting these kinds of spaces.
In this piece, we will talk about the tangible victories that took place after the sit-in – the mandatory trainings, the new hires, the programming entered into Colgate’s curriculum. What’s harder, but more meaningful, is what came next for us – how our hurt and our healing taught us to move forward, both as individuals and as a community.
Visibility is fatal in a world of popular opinion. As I reflect on the sit-in that my friends and I lead almost a year ago, those words are clear in my head. I hear constant echoes of the cries from my peers: “Can you hear us now. Can you hear us now. Can you hear us now.” For 101 hours, we occupied the Colgate Admission office and begged for visibility. We demanded to be heard.
However, as I look back on those days, I almost wish we never brought ourselves into the light. Everyone talks about how “powerful” a movement it was and how “brave” we were to stand up for inclusivity and acceptance of all students at our university. But no one talks about the pain of being visible. No one talks about the stares and the silence that fills rooms as you enter. No one talks about the weight of responsibility to continue to be the beacon of hope that is undoubtedly necessary for the Black and brown bodies on a campus that was never made for us. And don’t get me wrong. I am one of the strongest women you will ever meet. I understand injustice, capitalism, and all the other isms that render some lives – my life – invaluable. It’s the price of being Black, right? Angela Davis is my idol, and if you don’t know now you know Nigga. So yes, I’m down for the cause and the first in line to fight back, to resist. But no one talks about how to refuel the tank of resistance once you have literally put your blood, sweat, and tears into this work. They don’t teach self love, self worth, or collective healing in college. They don’t teach you that visibility is fatal if you don’t love yourself.
I used to get upset as I sifted through movements in the past, each starting off with so much momentum and then slowly drifting into the distance. “Why didn’t people keep going?” I asked myself countless times.
We marched up to the admissions office that day because our lives depended on it. Because we didn’t know how we were going to wake up and go to class the next day. But what we didn’t take into account was the brokenness that this system of white supremacy had instilled in the depths of our being. We were strong in those moments and were able to bring about a lot of change in the process, but when we took off those masks of strength, we were still broken. We were still insecure about our Black and brown bodies, our levels of intelligence, our worthiness on this campus and this world. We still didn’t love ourselves, and that made all the difference. So the question is not, how do we organize? The question is, how do we learn to love ourselves so that the next time we step into the light, we don’t die?
I have this vivid image of my friends, sisters, “vessels” sobbing when the sit-in was over. While our supporters celebrated, we cried. We were in a corner while our professors tried to calm us down, told us to breathe, told us we didn’t fail, we did good, change was going to come, etc.
The question is, why were we crying?
We won, right?
People around the world were supporting us, re-tweeting us, asking questions. Alumni were reaching out, professors were speaking up, the administration agreed to our 21 points. We should’ve been happy, right?
I cried because it was over. At that time, I was a student at Colgate for four years, going on my fifth, and I had never felt more comfortable. People were meeting each other, sharing food, blankets – sharing their souls with their stories. People were listening to each other, teaching each other. People were fighting for one another – fighting for themselves. People were making themselves vulnerable in a way I have never seen in my entire life. It wasn’t perfect and I would hate to romanticize it, but I could’ve stayed in that space forever. I didn’t want to leave. I was so proud of everyone. I had actual fantasies of staying in that space forever – frozen in a time and place where people felt genuinely cared for. Even if you didn’t “agree” with our actions or mission, someone in the room could have engaged with you. We didn’t have to have the same story or struggle to be connected. I cried because this was an ideal place to be. I cried because I knew it was going to end and it would be impossible to recreate.
In the aftermath of the sit-in, there were more Black/brown bodies being murdered in the U.S. without justice. In the aftermath of the sit-in, language like “us” vs. “them” became very prominent on campus. In the aftermath of the sit-in, the people who were heavily involved were demoralized, exhausted, and heart-broken. My life was a shit show after the sit-in, and it forced me to re-evaluate the way I want to live.
What I learned:
- I can’t make people love me.
- I know it’s hard.
Learning how to listen to people
Speaking up against violence.
Recognizing the way you’re complicit in causing people pain.
Giving up privileges.
Checking your friends.
It is hard, I feel you, but being human is always going to be hard.
I can’t spend the rest of my life trying to convince people I matter.
I am not going to kill myself.
- Happiness is resistance and I should try to enjoy it when I feel it (without guilt)
- I have agency. I can make change with the support of the people I have in my corner.
- Loving myself has to be my # 1 priority; not just self-care (eating healthy, exercising, taking long baths etc)
I mean LOVE
I am beautiful
I am smart
I am worthy of life
I am whole
I was lying on my stomach, salt-water-stained face into a pillow, when one of my sisters came up to me. “We celebrate victories,” she said. It was the end of the five day sit-in demonstration that I had helped facilitate – we had finally gotten an acceptable response from Colgate University’s administration. Laid out in a 15-page document, we had in our hands the administration’s commitment to address the 21 actions steps we had presented in the beginning of that week. The initiatives were organized under institutions such as Admissions, Financial Aid, Curriculum and Faculty hiring/retention, and Student Life--the document was accompanied by a website providing live updates and the concrete terms of the University’s progress. Yes, these changes meant something. They made us realize we had a voice in our school, and they gave us some reason to hope. But even then, I needed to be reminded that this was a victory. Looking back, I wish I could have embodied and listened to that message for the rest of term. The countless meetings with the administration, the constant arguing with classmates, peers, friends, the justifications offered to professors as to why all this mattered – none of those seemed like victories worth celebrating to me.
For most of the year following, I felt broken. Despite professors and friends reminding us that “caring for [one]self is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” many of us seemed to forget that as we moved through space in ways broken, uncaring, and almost numb. You can’t throw a bomb on your neighborhood without expecting your house to get hit. You can’t attempt to change the culture at the place you call home without changing the way you operate in that space. Short of these realizations, the changes that were being made didn’t feel like victories at all. They felt procedural, dry, and half-hearted. It was hard for me to see the heart and work that was going into the school, partly because I didn’t believe in its sincerity. Despite the truly amazing space that was created during the sit-in – of sharing, listening, teaching – my expectations of people outside that space remained unhopeful. They obscured the small victories we had achieved.
Then, I remembered when a student in my year came up to me at the end of the sit-in. He talked to us about how he had suffered from severe social anxiety for the past four years. He had come to the sit-in because a friend had asked him to and told us how thankful he was that he did. The sit-in, or the space that the sit-in created, somehow allowed him to work through his anxiety. Never before had he felt so welcomed, so comfortable around over 100 people. This is the moment that I recall when I think of small victories, because it makes me think of how I, myself, felt in the space of the sit-in. We had created something powerful, the kind of critical and pedagogical space that we talk about in educational studies and peace and conflict studies. This is the moment that I think of when I begin to lose faith in the trainings, and the programmings. Because yes, perhaps they will change something. But what will do more is when we start believing in each other – when I start believing in others and, just as importantly, believing in myself. The sit-in changed me. Not because the University changed, but because moving forward, I realized that all along, this movement was about people – it was about changing hearts and minds, moving spirits, and nurturing souls. It was about “each one, teach one,” after all, and that’s what I will think of as we move through this struggle together. And just because we are imperfect, and often vulnerable and mostly afraid, does not change the fact that we are also brave and deserving, worthy and here for a purpose.
Looking back at what has transpired from a removed perspective, what I think about now is the healing. While I will never diminish the environment that was created within those admission building walls – the hugs, smiles, glances, conversations, dance parties, tears, frustration, happiness, understanding – I realize I left as broken as I was when I entered that admissions building. So I then ask myself, why? Why was I breaking down crying after our “21 steps” were approved? Why did I feel insignificant and inadequate when everyone around me was reassuring what we had accomplished was immense? Why did this not feel like it was enough?
As a woman of color, I hadn’t worked through the my internalized inferiority. When you mix that with hypervisibility that our movement created, the floodgates of self-loathing (re)opened. Who was I to do this? How can I be a vessel? Isn’t my perspective limited? What about my positionality? Shouldn’t I know more theory? I should be more versed, no? I remember scrolling through yik-yak intentionally looking at a post that talked about how shitty we were as individuals, how limited our movement was, how we created the feeling of “us vs. them” throughout campus. I just sat there for months like, damn, you are right. We did this. We didn’t represent everyone equally. We failed you. We should’ve done better. I should’ve done better. I internalized everything negative that was expressed, and rejected the positivity, the voices that said what we were doing was valuable. I didn’t think critically about it until a friend of mine told me I had to stop, that my self-destructive addiction to those tapes was going kill me one day.
I remember an email Kori, Kristi, Melissa and I received after the sit-in from a concerned professor/mentor/friend that I only came to understand during my last moments at Colgate. It read, “you have accomplished an incredible amount, but I fear you are in for a great emotional toll, as is always the case when people accomplish great things suddenly. People will expect too much of you, you’ll be behind in your regular work, and you’ll be angry at yourselves because you don’t feel the way you think you should… I hope you will all privilege self-care in the coming days, and that you will practice radical self-acceptance.” Those last four words play back in my head often. I don’t know what that looks like, but I’m fighting like hell to find out.
We talk about liberation as if it’s a product, a formula, something we need to create or figure out – when, really, it’s within, “that untapped source of power” that Audre Lorde talks about. Don’t get me wrong, I am firm believer in challenging systems and individuals (including myself). But, as I move forward I am more interested in how we do that self-work, the excruciating process of “vomiting up all of the filth” that we are taught about ourselves and how central it is to shifting a culture that is loveless. I often think about the people in my life, within this country, and globally doing this work. And I wonder how their hearts and spirits are doing, what they do to decolonize their minds, where they find hope, who’s affirming them, but more importantly, how they practice radical self-acceptance.
Kristi Carey is a first year Master’s student in the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Educational Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies from Colgate University. She is passionate about social justice activism and the many forms it can take, as well as an advocate that self-preservation, as Audre Lorde reminds us, is an act of political warfare. She’s also an avid fan of coffee, hot sauce, and banana smoothies, and enjoys the company of warm dogs and people.
Melissa Meléndez is Puerto Rican from the Bronx. She is addicted to freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and is currently trying to incorporate radical, honest love into everything she does while trying to intentionally make her happiness a priority and as important to her social justice work, family, job, etc.
Kori Storther was born and bred from she-roes. As Michelle Obama once said “I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity.”
Natasha Torres, born and raised in Cleveland, OH, is a proud Latina feminist killjoy interested in social justice, education, first-generation/low income students, and artivism/activism. She’s a firm believer of art as a transformative tool for healing, especially amongst people of color. After graduating Colgate University, she’s dedicated her time to learning how balance her social justice work with her own self-work.
DIE-IN, #SHUTITDOWN, University of Texas
By Tyler English-Beckwith
“Just hours after we lay on the asphalt for Eric Garner, I got word of the murder of Rumain Brisbon in Arizona. As I read the article about yet another unarmed Black person shot down by a cop, a professor approached me to share her thoughts on the protest. She described the Die-In as peaceful and applauded my ‘dignity’ and ‘respect.’ She said that she had heard from a campus police officer that the protest went off without a hitch and that she didn’t expect anything less from UT students. I quickly made an excuse to leave the conversation.”
Writing this on the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder by the state, nearly one month after Sandra Bland died in police custody in my home state, and two days after Christian Taylor’s murder by an officer in training just a few miles from where I grew up, I am unable to write a respectable essay about respectable college protests. The original version of this piece told a story of a well thought out plan that ended in a coming together of communities. That story is not true. In the original version of this essay, I painted myself as a young activist who found clarity. Also not true. This is simply an effort to tell the truth. There is no room for lies in liberation.
Last December, with the help of Jasmine Graham, and Faith Carter, two student activists and incredible Black women, I organized a Die-In on the University of Texas’ campus in response to a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict Eric Garner’s murderer. Just two weeks after receiving the news that Michael Brown’s murderer, Darren Wilson, would also not be indicted, I immediately felt a rush of anger. I was not frustrated, or concerned. I was furious. That night I created a Facebook event titled, “DIE IN #SHUTITDOWN for Eric Garner.” The main goal was to have Black protesters lie in the biggest intersection on campus at a time of high traffic to, effectively, shut it down – mirroring other protests I had seen in the media. Within a few hours, over 600 people had RSVP’d, many more than I expected. Just 15 hours after considering the idea, Black students, professors, and university staff lay on the pavement of 21st Street on a rainy day in Austin. As the bell from the tower rang, non-Black protesters joined in as we stood and chanted, “Black lives matter,” in the center of the campus of a university infamous for bleach bombs targeted at Black and Brown students and a fierce dedication to the remembrance of the Confederacy.
When the protest ended, I hugged my friends, I spoke to a news crew, and then I went back to class. I am not sure who called the news crew, but they were there. When we arrived at the intersection, the campus police had it blocked off. I am not sure who alerted them. There were people with tables advocating for causes I was unfamiliar with. I could say I felt invigorated by the energy of so many people gathered to protest the issue of Black genocide in America. I could say that I felt proud of my fellow Black student body for being so supportive. I could say, perhaps, that I felt the people involved or uninvolved were somehow moved by our actions. All these things may be true, but the truest thing I felt after leaving that protest was lost. I sat in class unable to focus, thinking, “What actually just happened?”
On the night that I created the Facebook event, I received many messages from white “allies.” They questioned, “What should white people do during the protest?” I answered, “De-center yourselves.” They questioned, “I feel uncomfortable being involved in this protest.” I answered, “Don’t come.” They questioned, “Are you sure this is the best way to show support?” I didn’t answer. After the twentieth message from allies more concerned with their own roles in the Die-In than with anything else, I stopped answering. After receiving so many notifications from folks demanding that in the middle of organizing, I immediately address their questions – to the point that my phone rebooted itself – I strongly considered cancelling the protest. With the exception of UT’s Palestine Solidarity Committee, my inbox was crawling with non-Black allies’ suggestions of creating a more respectable protest. How could a protest against Black genocide happen at a university with a Black student population of less than four percent, in the most economically segregated city in the country? Even in the midst of resistance, I found myself bombarded by the overwhelming need to bow to white comfort. I folded and opened a message. A white ally suggested that non-Black protesters stand in a circle of protection around the Black bodies on the ground. I agreed, regrettably.
Just hours after we lay on the asphalt for Eric Garner, I got word of the murder of Rumain Brisbon in Arizona. As I read the article about yet another unarmed Black person shot down by a cop, a professor approached me to share her thoughts on the protest. She described the Die-In as peaceful and applauded my “dignity” and “respect.” She said that she had heard from a campus police officer that the protest went off without a hitch and that she didn’t expect anything less from UT students. I quickly made an excuse to leave the conversation.
The day after the protest, I walked to my final class of the semester. As I entered a room that held one of the four Black studies courses I was taking that term, I heard students sharing their thoughts on the protest. One student said, “I couldn’t make it I had class, it was over quick.” Another shared, “I felt more unified than I ever have on campus.” The last student said, “Are we going to keep patting ourselves on the back for laying down for 15 minutes in the street? Wasn’t no cars coming! We wasn’t really doing anything. Nothing’s changed. I’m still just as scared one of these racist ass students could just walk up to me and shoot me. Why don’t we protest that?” As of June 1, 2015, Texas has “campus carry” written into law, allowing concealed weapons on campus.
In the months since the Die-In, I have not again organized a traditional protest. I have created activist theater, and travelled to Brazil for activist research, but I have not felt compelled to organize in the same way. The original version of this essay ended with a lesson I didn’t actually learn. This version ends with a few truths.
The truth is, I shunned a group of non-Black student activists whose pet project was police brutality – and their attempts to make me their mascot. The truth is, I grew tired of the white gaze. The truth is, it really did feel liberating to stand in a circle facing my peers and hear them say “Black Lives Matter” repeatedly. The truth is, The Autobiography of Assata Shakur has all the tools to lead to liberation. The truth, is there has been no tangible change on campus since the protest. The truth is, I’m not sure if this is helpful, or interesting, or good for the cause, or the right thing to write, but this is the truth.
Tyler is a writer, fighting desperately for her voice.
PRISON DIVEST, City University of New York
“Black lives still matter after the car door slams and after the cell door bolts shut. Black and Brown people are being funneled into prisons where they are not surviving and where they are exploited as slaves, producing for the prison and profit. Right here in New York City, the prison system’s inhumanity is apparent on a daily basis. The case of Bronx Community College student Kalief Browder, who was held at Riker’s Island for three years with no charges, serves as a reminder that the prison system affects CUNY students directly.”
City University of New York Prison Divest began this past spring when we found out, through a public records request, that CUNY was investing almost a quarter of a million dollars into private prison companies and prison contractors. These endowments are funneled into companies such as G4S, Corrections Corporations of America, GEO Group, Inc., and Aramark and are used to fund undergraduate scholarships.
As CUNY Prison Divest, we consider these investments part of the attack on working class and oppressed peoples throughout the US. This attack reflects a two-fold reproduction of the dominant relations of society: ideologically (universities) and repressively (prisons). Though CUNY prides itself on being an accessible university for the people of New York, it is clear that its interests – which are dominated by the Board of Trustees – are the opposite. This is apparent as the underprivileged are locked out of CUNY through tuition hikes, mass incarceration, and cuts to resources such as daycare centers and free printing. Prisons attack us in kind. In 2013, the US represented 4.4% of the world’s population, but housed 22% of the world’s prisoners. The national and racial characteristics of this attack are clear, as Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people, and Hispanic people are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites.
CUNY actively supports this system, which dominates, kidnaps, and disposes of Black and Latino people by the millions – not only with its investments, but also in its collaboration with the NYPD, its gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods, and its overall exclusion of people of color.
CUNY Prison Divest is a campaign to divest from prisons. However, we don’t see divestment as our only – or even our primary – goal. In the end, divestment is minor compared to the larger problem of mass incarceration. To make decisive changes, we have to get at the root of the problem: political power. Begging existing powers, who function through white supremacy to switch sides, like the CUNY administration, is naive and ineffective in dismantling the political power that makes such systematic abuse possible. This is why we use divestment as a tactic in the much larger struggle to build power in our communities and on our campuses to contend with existing powers for control over our own lives. In the streets, at the workplace, in the home, and at our schools, radical changes will not occur without developing the necessary degree of power among the people who would benefit from these changes to be able to enact them.
We envision a struggle for dual power that develops to the point where the students and community, organized under a coalition of campaigns against patriarchy, national oppression, capitalism, and oppression in all its forms, could seize CUNY campuses as bases for further struggle. We see how necessary it is for us not only to be on campuses, but also organizing in our communities that are impacted by mass incarceration. As CUNY Prison Divest, we’re not fighting for cleaner confrontations with police, but for an end to the police invasion of our communities to kidnap and dispose of us. We don’t want softer, “professional,” or more palatable oppression; we want liberation.
Likewise, while there has been significant attention to injustices at the point of contact with police, we tackle these moments but don’t stop there. Black lives still matter after the car door slams and after the cell door bolts shut. Black and Brown people are being funneled into prisons where they are not surviving and where they are exploited as slaves, producing for the prison and profit of large corporations. Right here in New York City, the prison system’s inhumanity is apparent on a daily basis. The case of Bronx Community College student Kalief Browder, who was held at Riker’s Island for three years with no charges, serves as a reminder that the prison system affects CUNY students directly. In June, after having spent two years in solitary confinement, Browder committed suicide.
Over the summer, CUNY Prison Divest dedicated itself to building with grassroots community organizations that are fighting mass incarceration and police brutality. These groups include Resist Rikers, Milk Not Jails, Responsible Endowments Coalition, Students Without Borders, Picture the Homeless, the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee, and NYC Students for Justice in Palestine. Over the summer, we collaborated with Resist Rikers to plan an action to end solitary confinement at Rikers Island. Members of CUNY Prison Divest are also part of different Cop Watch groups, because we see how important it is to provide direct services to people who are heavily surveilled and policed. Now that the fall has come, we look forward to building a bigger base on campus. We have several actions and educational workshops planned for the upcoming semester.
CUNY Prison Divest’s demands include:
- That the Board of Trustees immediately divest from all corporations that profit from mass incarceration and adopt a policy prohibiting investment in any private prison corporations, prison contractors, prison profiteers, and Wall Street firms holding one million or more shares in private prison corporations.
- In order to fully disentangle CUNY from the prison system, all CUNY campuses must demilitarize so that our students can attend class and campus activities without fear of police harassment, violence, and intimidation, and so that students are not funneled into the inhumane and racist prison system. This means no more police on campus, no more law enforcement infiltration of student organizations, and no more police or military recruitment on CUNY campuses.
- In order to invest in our futures, not our captivity, when CUNY divests from prisons, we must restore lost funding for in-prison college education programs through the Prisoner Reentry Institute College Initiative.
Leon Campbell is a student at the City University of New York, where he organizes with Prison Divest.
THE TRAUMA CENTER CAMPAIGN, Chicago
“In moments when the Left is in retreat, there is a tendency among activists to conceptualize politics as a “psychotherapeutic activity.” If an action helps to tap into the rage of the participants, it was powerful, even if it does not advance concrete demands. But there can be a strategic and politically essential role for emotion as well. I have been reflecting on this since the news that a Trauma Center will be opened on the South Side.”
This reflection is coming at an opportune time. We have a victory to share with you all. After years of resistance to activist demands, the University of Chicago finally agreed to put up $40 million to extend emergency medical care on the South Side, and open a Level 1 Trauma Center. This is the goal of this coalition: to create an adult, Level 1 Trauma Center. There are issues with the terms of this victory, but it is a major victory all the same – one that we celebrate.
With that said, there is a certain difficulty in writing about the trauma center campaign from the perspective of campus activism. While the demand for trauma care on the South Side of Chicago has been primarily targeted at the University of Chicago (where we were students), the demand itself did not originate from within the University.
The campaign began when Damian Turner, a teenage leader in Fearless Leading by the Youth, sustained gunfire wounds mere blocks from the University of Chicago hospital. But he was treated at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on the northern end of downtown Chicago, and he died within 90 minutes of arriving there. Other youth at FLY started asking a very simple question: Why couldn’t he be treated at the world-class hospital across the street? Turning that grief to rage, and rage to action, is what began and sustained the movement to this point.
Students were asked to join the campaign a few months after its inception because of the strategic vision: building a large coalition capable of bringing sufficient public pressure on the University to open a Level 1 Trauma Center. After the University’s initial refusal to meet with community leaders, we organized letter-writing campaigns and phonathons. In response to third party research proving the need for a Trauma Center on the South Side, we held town halls with mass attendance. And, as the University continued to deny its responsibility to provide this care – despite massive tax breaks already in place for this specific purpose – we engaged in direction actions, including halting work on a construction site for a $700 million new hospital building.
Our initial role, as Students for Health Equity, was to activate other students. The simplicity of this mandate disguises its practical complexity. Student involvement, while strategically essential, carried the possibilities of displacing the voices of the most affected community members and redirecting the demands to be more palatable to our student base.
We are offering our reflections here because this series is about student activism, and we were student activists. We don’t intend to speak on behalf of the coalition – a line we maneuvered throughout the campaign. We hope our reflections on those experiences can be of aid to other students taking on this work.
Michael: on emotion.
In moments when the Left is in retreat, there is a tendency among activists to conceptualize politics as a “psychotherapeutic activity.” If an action helps to tap into the rage of the participants, it was powerful, even if it does not advance concrete demands. But there can be a strategic and politically essential role for emotion as well. I have been reflecting on this since the news that a Trauma Center will be opened on the South Side; I wasn’t able to verbalize the news over the phone without choking back tears.
The deaths of Damian and countless others have contributed to a deep sense of loss and indignation among trauma center activists about the poor access to trauma care on the South Side. However, the frame of the campaign contradicts the prevailing narrative through which Chicagoans are encouraged to understand and feel about the city’s violence.
While institutions from churches to universities respond with calls to “stop the violence” through moral renewal or behavioral adjustment programs for the poor, the trauma center campaign politicizes the violence. It identifies the causes of crime in poor neighborhoods as the racist policies of city leadership and refusal to provide equitable access to vital resources like health care. It challenges the narrative of the deserving and undeserving and authorizes rage at neglectful, racist institutions like the University of Chicago and city government – and, even the logic of capitalism, as the university mobilized the supposed financial loss it would suffer by treating traumatic injuries of poor, uninsured patients to justify denying care.
Part of how students and FLY operated in coalition was that students working on the campaign adopted the same emotional and political frame to understand our activism and tried to convey that urgency to the campus at large. That is not to say we all had the same emotions, but that, through ongoing efforts to build solidarity, students came to see the appropriate response as anger. There was a time when I had dreams about people I knew dying in drive-by shootings. This emotional work was key to overcoming the ambivalence many of us initially felt at taking direct action against the university where we studied.
In one important action, a group of brave, committed FLY members and student activists shut down a university construction site by chaining themselves to the fence, locking arms, and blocking the supply truck entrance. They were immobilized for hours, and one construction worker attempted to “smoke them out” by backing up a truck into their faces, spewing black pollution, leaving the engine on, and walking away while university police idled by. It wasn’t that this really shocked me (not much could at this point), but I was infuriated by it. When I brought it up later in my role as President of the student body, I was a little stunned when a high level administrator – who I think of as a good person – simply refused to believe that this had happened.
It struck me that her own emotional identification with the institution made her naive to such a casual abuse of power. The campus culture values the performance of “rational argument” and dismisses protests as contradicting the University’s high values of “free and open discourse.” Impeding constructive discourse, though, are the kinds of identifications we adhere to, like nationalism or racism, that separate us from the human and emotional immediacy of other people’s suffering. From there, it is easy to dismiss the equal right of others to safety and health care. It is the insistent manifestation of rage, the continuous shaming of the University, the emotional mobilization, that finally brought a Trauma Center to the South Side.
Gabrielle: on membership, on Blackness.
“In 7th grade our teacher told us, only 1 out of 8 of you will make it. The rest gonna end up in jail or dead.”
– Darius “Das” Lightfoot, community leader with Fearless Leading by the Youth
Das shared these words when we were presenting together at a church in Chicago’s historically Black Bronzeville neighborhood. In that moment, I realized that, as an African-American student at University of Chicago, my Blackness is categorically different than Das’ Blackness.
Das’ teachers told him he was doomed. That’s not what my teachers told me. My Blackness inspired different rhetoric – I was told colleges would pursue me because I was unique, praised in classrooms for my “diverse” perspective, highlighted as the (multiethnic) brand of leadership that would guide America into the future.
This campaign was catalyzed by the death of a friend and leader, Damian Turner. Thus, its roots are intimately personal and emotional. In a campaign as intensely personal as this, what is our entry point as students, as outsiders? In the Saul Alinsky style of organizing in which SHE matured, we asked ourselves: What is our self-interest?
I thought, as a Black member of the student contingent of the campaign, that my self-interest was easily embodied as “racial solidarity.” As we were recruiting more students, I thought that, if we had more Black bodies, it would bring greater authenticity to our investment in the campaign, make us immune from critiques of White Saviorism or ignorance, and enable us to match the intimacy community organizers brought to this effort.
We are both Black, but I cannot pretend to “own” Das’s experience of Blackness. I don’t claim an intimacy with the abandonment he’s experienced, and now, 4,000 miles away as a graduate student at Oxford, the lack of adequate trauma care on the South Side doesn’t directly impact me, even though I’m Black. If racial solidarity is my motivator, then it is not enough to claim membership in this community of Black community activists just because I’m Black; instead, I must redefine self. I must put in the work to become a part of the coalition, a part of the community.
Now, my self-interest comes from personal investment in the individuals we organize alongside. My investment is signified by the warmth I feel when hearing Veronica, a community leader with FLY, is in a loving relationship with her partner; and, in my anger when Tori, a brilliant and brave leader, takes a leave of absence from college because she was denied funds from financial aid. I am invested in their lives, in building their strength, just as I am invested in what this campaign represents.
And so, as I searched for an entry point into a righteously emotional campaign, relationships became my motivation. When considering my self-interest in this campaign for a Trauma Center, I define “self” collectively, based on relationships. By building relationships, I came to understand my role as part of a broader community – the trauma center coalition.
Gabrielle Newell is a native of Washington, DC and a graduate student at the University of Oxford.
Michael McCown joined the trauma center campaign while interning at Southside Together Organizing for Power in the summer of 2011, after his first year at UChicago. He was a co-founder of Students for Health Equity, which became the student wing of the Trauma Center Coalition. He graduated in 2014 and currently organizes for the American Federation of Teachers.