Nearly 300 UConn students gathered in the wind and rain Thursday afternoon to show solidarity with movements against racism happening on other campuses across the country.
Standing on UConn’s official seal at the center of Fairfield Way, students demonstrated support for their peers at the University of Missouri and students at other campuses, both locally and nationally, who have been affected by racism.
With approximately 400 RSVPs on the event’s Facebook page prior to its commencement, excitement about the event, as well as the subsequent march at 7 p.m., was palpable.
The description of the event on its Facebook page said that, “We are trying to unite UCONN and provide a safe space for those experiencing intolerance. As many of you know, racism and other forms of hatred has once again become a point of ‘discussion’ and division at our school and schools across the country. Clearly it is still a problem and won’t go away, unless we make a collective statement that we will not tolerate intolerance and bigotry at our campus.”
The two-part event began with the afternoon Speak Out, followed by a “blackout” march later that night, which was connected with similar events throughout the United States.
UConn President Susan Herbst sent an email to the student body in support of the Speak Out and march hours before the event, similar to the Islamophobia protest that took place in Storrs on Monday.
“First, the on-campus events: at 3 p.m. today, students and other members of the community will gather at the UConn Oak Leaf seal on Fairfield Way (near the Babbidge Library) for a ‘Speak Out’ event called ‘UConn Standing With Mizzou,’ which will include personal stories,” the email, in which Herbst encouraged campus community members to come out, read.
When asked why Herbst decided to attend this specific event and not others like it last year, she said prior obligations prevented her from attending.
“I’m always interested in the students, so I don’t know when that protest was or -” at this point, Herbst’s deputy chief of staff Michael Kirk, cut in; “There was one to Gulley Hall, but I think you were on the road that day,” to which Herbst responded: “Yeah, I must have been. I’ve talked about these issues with students a lot, and I’m happy to be here.”
“We put the statement out to get out a big crowd, and underscore its importance to the campus, this and other events today, and I thought we did a good job – mostly the students – of getting the word out on Monday. I’m here to listen, I’m here to hear people’s stories,” Herbst added.
The 3 p.m. Speak Out and 7 p.m. march were organized by Julian Rose, a senior biomedical engineering major, Haddiyyah Ali, a sophomore political science and Africana studies double-major, and Charity Whitehead, a psychology and Africana studies double-major.
“It’s a shame that nationwide we still need to have protests about racism on campus and about feeling like you don’t belong in a space that you pay to be here,” Whitehead said of the event.
Speakers took to the wall outside of the Rowe building across from the library, to address those gathered. The first official speaker of the event was Michael Jefferson, an English major, who offered the first of a series of spoken-word poems.
“We fell for every single treaty, every civil rights act. Still, we’re starving,” Jefferson said.
Brandon Madden, another UConn student, also used poetry to address racism.
“This war, civil to say the least, never finished,” Madden said.
University professors Jeffrey Ogbar and Noel Cazenave also spoke, expressing support for the student movement and offering their viewpoints on historical racism and backlash to activism.
Ogbar, pointing out student protests at UConn that took place decades ago, which demanded more faculty of color and the establishment of cultural centers, said, “I might not even have a job here at UConn if it wasn’t for people like you.”
Cazenave condemned those who are trying to denigrate student movements across the country as “over-indulged,” referencing a recent column written by WNPR columnist Colin McEnroe.
“There a couple of ways that you can know that a movement has power,” Cazenave said. “One way of knowing that a movement has power is by its success. The type of success that we saw at the University of Missouri…another way of knowing that a movement against oppression has power is by noticing the backlash to that movement.”
One student stepped to the platform and recounted a social event at which she was with all white people and one addressed another as “my n—a.”
Dominic Ortiz, a graduate student, meditated on different types of racism, including systems of oppression, murder, and microaggresions.
Eric Carlos Lopez, one of the afternoon’s most emotive speakers, called UConn a “classist, racist and sexist institution.” He said that this year’s honors incoming freshman class have very few students of color, but “they (the administration) keep telling me they want to foster diversity.”
Lopez said that he was not overreacting, rather, he was “reacting adequately” to an ingrained history of oppression. He also took the time to condemn UConn for giving Bill Clinton a human rights award, saying that Clinton engineered the “industrial prison complex.”
“You know in Spanish, the ‘e’ makes the sound of the ‘i’, and the ‘i’ makes the sound of the ‘e’? So when I was trying to pronounce I kept forgetting. And you know…what’s systemic oppression? When they make you cry trying to pronounce ‘e’ and ‘I’…from that moment my accent was erased from my tongue.”
Yamiesha Bell, involved in both national and local anti-racism movements and a resident assistant at UConn asked those gathered to raise their hands if they felt safe. Only a few students, all white males, raised their hand in response. Bell also said she knows how it feels as a woman to be afraid to walk alone at night at UConn.
Herbst and Kirk left the demonstration after almost a half hour.
Brittney Yancy, a graduate student of political science and Africana studies, offered her words on UConn’s handling of issues of racism.
“I’m so sorry that our president left. I was hoping to share some thoughts with her,” Yancy said. “Despite the emails that have been going out, recognize that these are undergraduates that have mobilized this here.
“I am not convinced by the emails, not convinced by the reports, not convinced by 15, 20 minutes standing out here with us. I’m not convinced,” Yancy continued. “It’s inhumane that, still, a year later, after everything that happened last year, and a lot of s— happened last year, wasn’t all out at the (spirit) rock…that we are still dealing with the same issues, and no program is gonna change that. Institutional policy reform will change that.”
Rachel Conboy, the president of UConn’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG), praised the administration for their recent interactions with the topic of diversity and racism.
“I think it’s really great to have administrators out here…so that they can hear what students are saying,” Conboy said. “I know a lot of times students are skeptical about the intentions, the motivations behind being out here, but I think at the end, if you get them out here, it already is a huge step forward.”
Alyssa Hughes, a student, journalist, activist and artist at UConn, said she was skeptical.
“Now, going back to last year, just yesterday marked a year ago since we had the last march where we stood in the cold and President Herbst was not present, even though a friend of mine…had told her about the event,” Hughes said. “Now, she was present. Don’t you think that’s a little suspect?…Let a president resign from another university for you to come and support other students here.”
The well-organized event had a distinct sense of camaraderie, with students gathering closer as numbers dwindled and time wore on. Chants of “They can’t stop the revolution,” “I believe that we will win,” “Power to who? Power to the people!” rang out along Fairfield Way.
“Keep using your voices,” Hughes said.
Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.