By Lauren Chanel Allen / @michellehux
The University of Missouri, like many colleges and universities across the nation, has a racist campus climate. I don’t have insider details on the planning of this movement (although I can’t wait to hear about it), but students organized in the most calculated manner of student activism that I’ve seen in a very long time.
I’m not very far removed from undergraduate student activism. I graduated from Boston University in 2012 a few months before moving to Washington, D.C. to start graduate school at Howard University. As a Black student at Boston University, the need for a Black Student Union was abundantly clear as soon as I stepped foot on campus. I served as vice president of our Black Student Union during Trayvon Martin when #BlackLivesMatter as a movement didn’t exist yet. Publicly voicing support for a victim of police brutality, and also anger with the system, wasn’t trendy yet. #OneMillionHoodies was an Instagram hashtag that some people participated in, but in real life on campus, students were asked by their peers why they would wear a hoodie to express support.
There was a deep sense of frustration and isolation for many Black students, particularly at predominantly white institutions, during this initial period of enlightenment about the realities of life in America. Even still, we rallied among ourselves. We protested. We held marches. We had town halls. We went through the avenues they told us were efficient and proper in the pursuit of social justice. And as I’m now three years removed from those efforts, I see current undergraduates going through the same cycle. Such is the Sisyphean state of being a Black student activist. But then here came a much-needed win: Mizzou.
Amid rising racial tensions and escalating micro-aggressions, students at Mizzou fought back. A 25-year-old graduate student, Jonathan Butler, went on a hunger strike, demanding that the then-president of the University of Missouri, Tim Wolfe, either be removed or resign. Up until this point, while the efforts of the students at Mizzou are absolutely commendable and something to be replicated, no new developments had occurred. Wolfe had heard their concerns, yet continued to behave in the same fashion that every other college president had before him — ignoring the racist campus climate or otherwise putting off justice. What separates actions by these students from previous efforts across campuses is that they had leverage. Once the football team’s Black student-athletes announced they would not participate in any football activities until Tim Wolfe resigned, we started to see action.
This interaction between Tim Wolfe and Black students following his inaction regarding racist incidents on campus is very telling.
Spurred on by the hunger strike of a fellow student, the small crowd peppered Wolfe with questions. As the head of their university, did he even know what systematic oppression was?
“I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe said.
“You gonna Google it?” one of the students asked sarcastically.
“I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe repeated. “Systematic oppression is when you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success …”
He didn’t get any further. Stung by the suggestion that racial oppression was more imagined than real, the crowd erupted in anger and disbelief.
“Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe?” a student shouted angrily as Wolfe turned his back and walked away. “Did you just blame Black students?”
The language these young Black college students use in their dialogue with a university president is something to be noted. Here we have young Black kids directly asking the head of an entire system if he’s blaming them for systematic oppression. What a time to be alive. This is the social media activism generation. These are Black millennials showing the world how we do activism. Black Power 2.0 #ConcernedStudent1950 alludes to the very first Black student admitted to Mizzou. The official Twitter bio states its goal is “the liberation of BLACK collegiate students,” not “collegiate students of color” as many Black campus efforts are often forced to be labeled. The Black football players were the first to state they would not be playing. This Black student movement wasn’t going by the usual script student activism uses. These people didn’t try to convert, enlighten or convince white allies to reallocate their power in support of their cause. This was a Black power movement.
When things began to heat up, Mizzou administrators released a statement revealing that they had been planning diversity training and other cultural education to be announced in April 2016. That’s a long time to put off fixing a violent learning and living space, and I’m not sure solutions to fix a racist campus should be revealed like a new library on campus. To summarize (and surely oversimplify) the four-point method of taking back your campus:
1. Have clear demands that target a visible figurehead.
2. Raise awareness: hunger strikes, protests.
3. Have leverage.
3a. Have Black athletes refuse to play (colloquially called "Operation F*ck The Money Up")
3b. Get public support of the coach.
4. Stay Black.
Have clear demands that target a visible figurehead.
The #ConcernedStudent1950 group released one clear set of eight demands:
I. We demand that the University of Missouri System President, Tim Wolfe, writes a handwritten apology to the Concerned Student 1-9-5-0 demonstrators and holds a press conference in the Mizzou Student Center reading the letter. In the letter and at the press conference, Tim Wolfe must acknowledge his white male privilege, recognize that systems of oppression exist, and provide a verbal commitment to fulfilling Concerned Student 1-9-5-0 demands. We want Tim Wolfe to admit to his gross negligence, allowing his driver to his one of the demonstrators, consenting to the physical violence of bystanders, and lastly refusing to intervene when Columbia Police Department used excessive force with demonstrators.
II. We demand the immediate removal of Tim Wolfe as UM system president. After his removal, a new amendment to UM system policies must be established to have all future UM system President and Chancellor positions be selected by a collective of students, staff, and faculty of diverse backgrounds.
III. We demand that the University of Missouri meets the Legion of Black Collegians’ demands that were presented in 1969 for the betterment of the Black community.
IV. We demand that the University of Missouri creates and enforces comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum throughout all campus departments and units, mandatory for all students, faculty, staff, and administration. This curriculum must be vetted, maintained, and overseen by a board comprised of students, staff, and faculty of color.
V. We demand that by the academic year 2017-2018, the University of Missouri increases the percentage of Black faculty and staff campus-wide to 10%.
VI. We demand that the University of Missouri composes a strategic 10-year plan by May 1, 2016 that will increase retention rates for marginalized students, sustain diversity curriculum and training, and promote a more safe and inclusive campus.
VII. We demand that the University of Missouri increases funding and resources for the University of Missouri Counseling Center for the purpose of hiring additional mental health professionals; particularly those of color, boosting mental health outreach and programming across campus, increasing campus-wide awareness and visibility of the counseling center, and reducing lengthy wait times for prospective clients.
VIII. We demand that the University of Missouri increases funding, resources, and personnel for the social justices centers on campus for the purpose of hiring additional professionals, particularly those of color, boosting outreach and programming across campus, and increasing campus-wide awareness and visibility.
Black students uniformly demand that Tim Wolfe publicly apologize to Concerned Student 1950 demonstrators, acknowledge his white male privilege and the existence of systems of oppression, and is removed as the University of Missouri system president. They also demand that prior 1969 demands are met. Students must vet and maintain mandatory racial awareness and inclusion classes for all students, staff and faculty. By the next academic year, there must be an increase of Black faculty and staff to 10 percent. In addition, by the end of this academic year, the University of Missouri must provide students with a plan to increase retention rates of marginalized students and promote a more inclusive campus.
In what is a brilliantly thought-out inclusion, they also demand an increase in funding and resources toward mental health professionals, particularly those of color, and social justice centers on campus.
This is beautiful. A common complaint detractors lob toward social justice movements is the lack of clear goals or demands. That wasn’t going to be a valid complaint here.
From the clear demands to the protests throughout campus to Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, this was an extremely well-organized effort. On Sept. 24, a Racism Lives Here rally took place at Mizzou. About 100 black students marched together while Jonathan Butler recited a chant from Assata Shakur:
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom! It is our duty to win!”
A graduate student speaking at the rally asked how long it took Mizzou’s chancellor to respond to a recent racist incident. It was six days. A second rally was held Oct. 1. A few days later on Oct. 4, a white student used a racial slur at a group of Black students. Oct. 10, students blocked then-president Tim Wolfe’s car during their homecoming parade. Wolfe wouldn’t respond to the students’ concerns. Payton Head, the student body president, posted online that Wolfe laughed in their faces.
Oct. 20, the demands are released; four days later someone draws a swastika in feces on a dorm wall. Almost a week later, Wolfe meets with the students but does not agree to the demands. Nov. 3, Butler’s hunger strike began. Nov. 6, Wolfe blames Black students for systematic oppression. But remember, remember the eighth of November: Black Mizzou football players declare that they won’t participate in any football activities until Wolfe is no longer president. Wolfe resigned the next day.
Look at that timeline. Independent of the years of racist events, students protested for three weeks before Tim Wolfe spoke to them. Jonathan Butler clearly stated that if Wolfe didn’t resign, Butler’s life would be lost due to the hunger strike. Three days later, Wolfe blames Black students for this situation. But when the football team — Black students first, followed by white students and the full public support of the coach — declared that it would not play until the president was removed, the very next day Wolfe was gone. Had Wolfe not been forced to resign, Mizzou likely would have forfeited a million-dollar game. Money talks.
Whether you think Wolfe resigned out of the goodness of his heart and his love for Mizzou or was forced out because the board wasn’t about to let him cost them money, one thing is clear: The Mizzou football team may be just the beginning.
This is one of my favorite parts of this movement. After the release of the demands, the statement by the players and the tweet in support by the coach, they sat back and waited. These students played their hand and forced a response. So, what happens next? All the demands haven’t been met yet.
Tim Wolfe being forced out was only one of their eight demands. Will this revelation that Black athletes wield a massive amount of power spark replication at other schools, other campuses? Will this clear example of alternative means to freedom and change besides voting and the direct political machine influence other forms of activism? How will history tell this story? Better yet, how will we see to it that textbooks reflect this coup of the oppressed? This must be what happens when a pawn reaches the end of the board and becomes a queen. This victory comes with new power. It behooves us to learn how to wield it.
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