After a series of student demonstrations following the handling of racially-charged events at the University of Missouri by school administrators, other universities nationwide began their demonstrations over racial inequality.
Racial tensions at University of Missouri did not come out of the blue. Its proximity to the Michael Brown protests in Ferguson in August 2014 and St. Louis’ notoriously racially-segregated history aided in the tension. In addition, the campus is 77 percent White and only seven percent Black. A
After a series of racially-charged events and complaints by African-American students on social media at the beginning of October, which led to the buildup of racial tensions across campus, the main cause of student demonstrations occurred on Oct. 10, the day of the school’s Homecoming Parade. Student demonstrators, intending to voice their opinions on the issue, followed University President Tim Wolfe’s car, but he ignored their opinions. According to Student Government President Payton Head, Wolfe also “smiled and laughed” during the demonstration.
Following the Parade’s events, the student group Concerned Student 1950 drew up a list of demands for school administrators, including Wolfe’s resignation and the implementation of an ethnic inclusion curriculum partially overseen by underrepresented minorities. Even though Wolfe did not accept these demands, major protests did not start until protesters asked him, “Do you know what systematic oppression is?” His response was, “systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success”, which enraged protesters who felt he was insinuating they brought it upon themselves instead of addressing the racism present on campus.
In response to Wolfe’s response and to his previous actions, Black football players on the football team refused to practice nor play until Wolfe resigned. Football coach Gary Pinkel, in addition to many White players and the athletic department, rallied behind their decision. Beyond the athletic department, students like Jonathan Butler resorted to extreme methods in demanding Wolfe’s resignation. Embarking on a hunger strike on his Facebook page, Butler commented that he chose to do this because students “deserve a leader who is competent enough to perform all levels to the position [his task entails].”
Commenting on the ongoing issues on campus after meeting with Jonathan Butler, college sophomore football player Anthony Sherrils tweeted, “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
As a result, Wolfe, originally defiant to the students’ demands, resigned from his position as University President on Nov. 9. In a speech given after his resignation, Wolfe stated, “This is not — I repeat, not the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation. Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”
Although student life on campus appeared to have returned to normal, threats to Black students on campus still hinder students from returning. Some threats, including the widely shared posts “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every Black person I see” and “Some of you are alright. Don’t go to campus tomorrow”, were posted on the social media app Yik Yak. Even though police arrested three men who had connections with the online threats, many students pushed for university administration and professors to cancel classes.
During a meeting in the Black Culture Center on campus after Wolfe’s resignation, a student named Ida expressed feelings of fear with the audience.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I have class at 9:30 a.m. in the morning. Why am I scared to walk by myself at 9:30 in the morning? I know we’re supposed to be strong. I know we’re supposed to not let them see us sweat. But why am I scared at 9 o’clock in the morning?” (NPR).
Amid the confusion and fear expressed by students, police tried to assure students that the campus was safe.
“Students need to be aware of what is going on, but right now there is no active threat on campus,” said police spokesman Maj. Brian Weimer (CNN).
The incident at the University of Missouri is not an isolated one, however, as their protests have sparked a nationwide outrage and cry for awareness. Inspired by the actions of the University of Missouri football team, many students of color across college campuses nationwide began to demand safe spaces at their own universities.
Although Yale University had its share of protests in October over culturally-insensitive costumes and a “White-girls only” party held by a fraternity on campus, the discussions quickly stemmed into demonstrations about the diversity of the faculty on campus and how it created an “unwelcoming and inhospitable” atmosphere.
During a gathering of protesters on the Yale campus, Tyahra Angus, speaking through a megaphone to a gathering of both minority and White students, said, “Systematic oppression affects us all” (New York Times).
Not far from Yale, students at Ithaca College in upstate New York demonstrated against a series of racially-charged events on campus and the university president’s inadequate response to the issue. Although University President Tom Rochon mentioned that he will hire a diversity officer next year to address the issues of racism and cultural bias, it did not satisfy the student demonstrators. Already, walk-outs were staged and faculty members joined in protests.
“Students have felt that he is incapable of leading the school in a manner that creates the most inclusive and diverse community as possible,” student Vice President of Campus Affairs Yena Seo told CNN affiliate WSTM (CNN).
Supporting Seo’s statement, protest organizers also shared similar opinions.
“With University of Missouri’s president stepping down, we demand Rochon to do the same, as it is vital to fight against both covert and overt racism in all places of education and empowerment,” said protest organizers in a statement (CNN).
With protests at the University of Missouri sparking student protests across the nation, more than 100 institutions coast to coast later that week rallied against ongoing issues such as racism on campus and student debt. Students at colleges like Claremont-McKenna College in Southern California already ousted school officials as a result of these protests, while students at other institutions hope that their protests will yield the same results.
As for the ongoing demonstrations at Yale, Dean Donna Lisker said in an interview, “I don’t think I ever want to fall into a false sense of security that things can’t happen here.”
She also added after the interview that students should continue to be reflective about what they are doing and listening (New York Times).