On Thursday, November 12, students gathered in Parrish Hall to demonstrate in solidarity with the University of Missouri. Student activists at the university, often referred to as Mizzou, called for nationwide campus demonstrations to confront systemic racism in higher education after their own protests gained national attention. In total, more than 45 colleges organized demonstrations that day.
The first demonstration, at 11:00a.m., was silent: students dressed in black and lined up on both sides of the building’s central hallway, arms linked. Black students wore duct tape over their mouths. The second demonstration, at 12:30p.m., had a slightly different tone. Standing between the two rows of silent students, organizers read a timeline of recent events at Mizzou, and spoke about how the problems faced by students of color at Mizzou are not unlike problems faced at Swarthmore.
At both demonstrations, the line of students, faculty and staff stretched from the back doors of Parrish to the front steps. Several administrators, including Registrar Martin Warner, Dean of Students Liz Braun, and President Valerie Smith attended. The reactions of the students who passed through Parrish varied. Some continued their conversations, while others took fliers, threw a thumbs-up, or joined the line. At the afternoon demonstration, one white student took a flier and crumpled it as he walked past those assembled.
Demonstrations at Mizzou grew out of student frustration with their administration’s responses to serious racial issues on campus. These issues included long-term, systemic problems like low black graduation rates (only 55% of black students graduate from Mizzou, as opposed to 71% of white students) and low black enrollment overall, and more recent incidents. Swastikas had been found on walls in residence halls at the college; one had been drawn with feces. Student body leaders were called the n-word on campus, and an inebriated man yelled racial slurs at Members of the Legion of Black Collegians who were rehearsing for a play.
Mizzou student activist group Concerned Student 1950 (named for the year black students were accepted to the school) released a list of demands in October, which ranged from an apology and official resignation from Mizzou President Tim Wolfe to increased numbers of black faculty and students to more mental health resources for students of color. On November 2, graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike that he said would end in his death or Wolfe’s resignation. On November 7, a group of black Mizzou football players announced they would not play or practice until Wolfe resigned, and coaches and fellow players soon issued statements of support. On November 9, Wolfe announced his resignation.
Controversy surrounded the protests at Mizzou, as both students and national commentators argued that the movement infringed on free speech for the sake of activism. Tim Tai, a student at Mizzou, caught national attention when he received a freelance assignment from ESPN to photograph the protests. When Tai approached the protesters, he was blocked from taking photographs. When Tai tried to defend his right to be at the protests by citing the first amendment, other students warned him that he was outnumbered, and he was forced to leave.
Yale was recently caught in similar controversy. Protests there first began when, in response to an email urging students to exercise “thoughtfulness and sensitivity” when choosing their Halloween costumes, a faculty member sent an email defending students’ choice to experiment with costumes that are deemed by some to be tasteless and offensive. The message was met with anger from some students, who campaigned to have the professor and her husband removed from their residential positions on campus. In the context of recent debates over what some call the “coddling” or “infantilizing” of American students, the events at Yale and Mizzou were cited by many as another example censorship exercised in the name of safety or equality.
Organized by SASS Vice President Taylor Clark ‘16, former SASS Co-President Al Brooks ‘16, Former SASS Outreach Coordinator Louis Laine ‘16, and current SASS Co-Presidents A’Dorian Murray-Thomas ‘16 and Tyrone Clay ‘17, Swarthmore’s demonstration took shape late Wednesday night. Describing the process as “pretty organic,” Clark said that she and other BCC leaders first started talking on social media about what they wanted to do in response to events at Mizzou. Their priority, Clark said, was to serve the black students in their community, so discussions were planned where those students could come together and reflect.
Brooks, who wore a Mizzou sweatshirt at Thursday’s demonstration, explained that this is the “first natural response” to events that affect black students: “we discuss how we’re doing, how we’re feeling, and how we can heal and keep it all together as we continue having to meet the high standards of Swat life.” But the second response, he said, is a desire to take steps to ensure black students don’t have to go through this again. After reading student activists Mizzou had issued a specific call to action, the group stayed up until 2a.m. deciding how they would respond, planning what would become Thursday’s campus-wide demonstration.
“We didn’t just want it to be ours,” Clark said. Brooks said that one of the primary aims of the demonstration “was to display the discomfort black students feel at [primarily white institutions] like Yale and Mizzou when you have to live in spaces that are controlled by white people.” The duct tape covering black students’ mouths, he explained, was meant to “display the silencing of black voices on campuses like these.”
In a conversation following the demonstration, Julius Miller ‘19 said that “it’s nice seeing my fellow students, not just black students, but white students and hispanic students […] supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.” Miller contrasted his experience on campus with experiences from his hometown, saying “back where I’m from, […] if something like this happened, […] most of the administrators and staff, they wouldn’t want to participate.” Another student, Hanan Ahmed ‘19, added that at a university attended by a friend, nobody was “doing anything about it, no one was even talking about it.”
Keyanna Ortiz-Cedeno ‘19 echoed Miller and Ahmed’s statements, saying that in her hometown of South Texas, “people there don’t acknowledge that these things happen.” For her, the most powerful moment of the day occurred when she was “at the end of the line, and […] Valerie Smith came up next to [her] and linked arms.” Given the criticism of other college presidents for a lack sufficient support on issues regarding race, Ortiz-Cedeno called Smith’s participation “the highlight of the event.”
In addition to Thursday’s demonstration, SASS leadership organized a discussion on Friday afternoon so that students could reflect on both the protest and broader racial issues on campus. Some students also attended protests in Philadelphia, shutting down traffic and marching in University City.
While the demonstration at Swarthmore was organized in response to Mizzou, many of the conversations during and following the protest were about Swarthmore itself. Swarthmore, said Brooks, is similar to schools like Mizzou and Yale in a number of ways, particularly in that it is a predominantly white institution, has a history of black student activism, and “longstanding and persisting racial problems.”
Brooks and other SASS leaders referenced both recent and historical problems at Swarthmore. Many of the demands made during the 1969 black liberation movement, Brooks and Clark pointed out, have still not been met. And Swarthmore has had its own share of racially-charged incidents in recent years: the Intercultural Center was urinated on multiple times in 2013, a rock in the Crum Woods was spraypainted with the n-word shortly before orientation week this year, and black students have reported being harassed with slurs and other hostile behavior in the Ville.
“We are extremely fortunate to be here, [but] Swat is no exception to these issues,” said Brooks. “As much as Swarthmore can seem like a utopia away from prejudice and discrimination, we still have a long road ahead of us before we can pretend to be in a post-racist ‘bubble.” Clark echoed this sentiment, saying “we’re a bubble, but we’re still touched by reality. So we really need to look in the mirror, and ask what we are going to do as a community and as a campus and as a culture.”
In addition to reflecting on hostility faced by black students on colleges campuses, said Brooks, SASS has discussed increasing representation of black and low-income students on campus, establishing a department (rather than just a program) for Black Studies, and implementing diversity trainings for the student body. Clark said that SASS is in the process of planning more meetings, both SASS and schoolwide, to discuss what students want to see from the administration. “We’re gonna be planning some demand meetings, some allyship meetings [to talk about] what we want to see from our Swarthmore administration,” she said.
Featured image courtesy of Louis Lainé ’16