Hundreds of students gathered at the Black House at noon on Friday, standing in solidarity with black students at the University of Missouri and other universities across the nation where students are protesting and demonstrating against systemic and institutional racism on their campuses, as well as ineffective responses from administrators. Approximately 150 to 200 students attended NU's solidarity event.
At the gathering, black students spoke about their experiences at Northwestern, voicing the pain they feel from national headlines and events, such as those that transpired at Mizzou and Ferguson – and the apathy that often follows from university administrators and fellow students.
“We are human. We have blood in our veins, we have emotions. We have sorrow, dammit,” said one of the student speakers. “Do you know what if feels like to not be afforded the sorrow that you carry? The anger that you carry?”
Student speakers asked other students of color and allies who were standing in solidarity with them to be allies in classrooms, sorority houses and fraternities, and even on social media where the voices of black students and students of color are belittled. They spoke about their discomfort in places of learning, their exhaustion at defending the fact that black lives matter and their tiredness at the argument that the United States is a post-racial society.
“We are in a new Civil Rights Movement, and we will not stop. So don’t stop talking about this. Sandra Bland matters. Every single kid who’s dead, who doesn’t get a chance to go to college, doesn’t get a chance to be here – they matter,” said another speaker.
The students began marching from the Black House toward Tech with chants of “From NU to Mizzou, we care about you.” The gathering stopped in front of Tech to draw attention to the fact that black and Latino students are underrepresented in STEM fields.
Charles Kellom, the director of Multicultural Student Affairs at Northwestern, spoke briefly to the crowd.
“Our institution, not just Northwestern but in our entire society, is dripping with [systemic racism],” he said. Kellom urged students to remember their own mental health, referencing a student speaker's earlier comments about celebrating black joy. “Part of racism is not wanting to take care of yourselves," he added. "It’s getting exhausted. Being afraid. Express your anger and your joy, your love for yourself, for one another, for people of color, for LGBTQIA folks, disabled folks, all of us facing oppression in society.”
The demonstrators then left Tech and made their way to the Henry Crown Sports Pavillion, where President Morton Schapiro was to speak at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new lakefront athletics complex. Gym-goers and staff watched as the massive crowd marched through SPAC, stopping in front of the baskbetball courts, which were blocked off by thick gray curtains for the ceremony.
As the voice of a speaker from the ceremony permeated the hallway, students started yelling and stomping their feet. Students started listing demands, and with a cry of, “We got the permission to be here when we paid tuition,” the demonstrators pushed through the curtains and flooded into the event space, chanting and making their way past the dessert tables and rows of chairs towards the front stage.
“I bet in this room, it’s easy to forget that black lives matter,” one of the rally speakers said to the alumni and donors gathered to celebrate the multi-million dollar ground breaking, in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Look at us. We are not letting you forget it.”
“It’s time for President Schapiro to listen to us. Our voices have been silent for too long. We’re tired of your crappy 2 a.m. emails,” said another speaker, in reference to an email Schapiro sent out late last night regarding events in Missouri and other campuses across the country.
The students then addressed their concerns to Schapiro and the University’s administration.
“We do not apologize for disrupting you here," they began, before once more presenting a list of their demands:
- “We demand that the Black House should be the focus of expanded efforts to improve the black student experience, including the creation of a resource center and a technology hub tailored to black students, and not be used for more university office space.”
- “We demand a U.S.-centric diversity requirement for all majors so that no student leaves this campus ignorant of the institutional racism that pervades these walls, making it extremely hard for black students to breathe.”
- “We demand that the university implements a Native Indigenous Studies Department immediately. Immediately. Especially since this university was built on grounds that weren’t ours.”
- “We demand that the university implements an Asian American Studies major.”
- “We demand that the university publicly acknowledges tragedies in the black community that impact black students on this campus.”
- “We demand that the university acknowledges and actively helps students in response to unfair treatment of minorities in the STEM and theater programs.”
- “We demand that the university increase the black student population to 10 percent by the year 2016.”
- “We demand that the university fund a building for CIC because that building will not be the Black House. That building will not be our Black House.”
- “We demand that you rename every single university building that is named after a racist white person.”
- “We demand that the university allocate specific resources for the purposes of hiring faculty and staff of color.”
- “From NU to Mizzou, we stand with you.”
Afterwards, protesters filed out of SPAC, followed by the event’s security, chanting, “You can’t stop the revolution.”
After the students had left, President Schapiro took the stage to address the audience of alumni and donors. Most remained seated and quiet throughout the demonstration, but one audience member shouted, "Leave!"
Schapiro said he was proud of the protesters’ efforts and organizational ability to confront the gathering. “Even if you really didn’t think this was the appropriate time, I hope you share that respect and pride,” he told the audience. After a few brief remarks, Schapiro quickly steered the program back to its original course.
But the protest was far from over. Students gathered outside of SPAC for a healing and prayer circle.
“I want everyone here to acknowledge that this is history,” one student said. “It’s history repeated, but it’s history.”
After the prayer circle, the students circled and discussed whether to attend a dialogue moderated by Jabbar Bennett, associate provost for Diversity and Inclusion, and Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president of Student Affairs. The consensus seemed to be that the dialogue likely wouldn’t lead to much progress – but then they realized that Telles-Irvin stood only a few feet away.
Telles-Irvin was invited to the middle of the circle to speak with the protesters. Communication junior Syedah Cabell started off the discussion, saying, “We, as students of colors, as black students, don’t feel like you hear us.”
Cabell also addressed the issue of the Black House, reiterating that students do not want the university to use the building for its office space. Another student brought up the fact that community spaces had also been taken away for minority students in Tech, adding that the office for the National Society of Black Engineers was moved to what she called “a closet.”
“This is a rare moment for us and I’m at a loss for words right now. I’ve been wanting to tell you so many things since I first started getting your emails and not seeing you at events,” Cabell told Telles-Irvin.
Telles-Irvin promised to work with students and listen to their concerns. “I want to come up with solutions together,” she told the crowd. “I would love to figure out a productive, constructive of getting together. I have no problem with what you are asking for,” she said. “As a Hispanic woman, I get what you’re saying.”
Some students seemed skeptical.
"All of this is well and good," one said, "but if we have a conversation and feel like we’re not heard, if we have a conversation and it stays conversation and not policy, you’re going to know."
To see more posts from today's action, follow #FromNU2Mizzou on social media.