This afternoon, Mlive published “3 EMU students who protested racist graffiti face disciplinary action.” That’s actually a pithy summary of the whole situation, especially if you’re left asking “why would EMU punish students protesting racist graffiti?”
Read on, but here’s the short version: this is about the dumbest thing I’ve seen an EMU President (James Smith) and an EMU administration do since John Fallon et al tried to cover-up/hush-up the investigation of Laura Dickinson’s murder in 2006. I’m not suggesting this is as bad— not getting the word out to the university community about a murder is obviously lots worse, and Fallon and EMU paid a heavy price for all that. But I am saying this is in the same league of stupid and about as tone-deaf. “Let’s kick out of school some African American students for protesting against racist graffiti after hours in the student center, because hey, rules are rules.” WTF?!?
So, more: back on Halloween, there was once again a racist graffiti incident on campus (the earlier incident was back in September, which I blogged about here). This one was more spray paint on the side of a building saying “Leave N-word” (where obviously they didn’t write n-word). Once again, I think our students– particularly the African American students– responded appropriately with protests and flyers and the like, and it sort of seemed like the new President Smith had learned something from the previous incident. Instead of having the VP for communications send out a message to the university “on behalf of” Smith and instead of not really saying or doing anything about the incident until a crowd of student protestors were literally standing on his lawn at the president’s house, Smith sent an email (or it was sent on his behalf– but it still seemed to come from him) to the university community. He expressed anger and sadness, he promised to keep us “apprised of our efforts in investigating these hateful incidents and in working with campus leaders regarding their concerns and conducting further campus discussions on these matters. There will be a forum this week. Details about date, time, location, and format will be determined and shared after meeting with our Black student leaders.” So far, so good.
The next day on November 1, students had what was described in this article as a peaceful protest that ended up as a sit-in in the Student Center. But apparently, the Student Center closes at 1 am, and about 40 students refused to leave until about 6 am on November 2– again, as a protest. EMU’s Department of Public Safety told folks to leave and (I guess) recorded video of the students staying in the Student Center. To quote from the article about the sit-in:
EMU Spokesman Geoff Larcom said while the university supports the students’ right to protest, those who were in the student center after 1 a.m. are subject to the conditions of the student code.
“There is a possibility of students being dealt with under the code because the building was closed at 1 a.m., and at that point, you’re trespassing,” Larcom said. “With that said, the university is very concerned by these incidents (of vandalism) and shares the students’ strong concerns and we are actively investigating these criminal acts.”
But it’s kind of hard to support students’ concerns and simultaneously threaten them with the student code for expressing those concerns, isn’t it? Anyway, in the same article, EMU senior Chey Wright was quoted:
“What we want first is for EMU to be accountable for what happens on campus,” she said. “This has happened multiple times, including inside Hoyt Hall, and it just keeps happening. We want people to know that we’re not leaving.
“They’re writing ‘Leave N*****s’ and we’re not leaving,” she added. “We are going to feel just as safe as the rest of you on this campus. We’re going to demand it, because our money is just as good as yours here.”
So now, four of the students taking part of this sit-in are “facing one-year suspensions for their involvement” in this protest. And just as a reminder: this was a peaceful protest in the student center where nothing was damaged and where students hung out and did their homework. That’s it.
Larcom repeats that EMU “encourages students to exercise their rights” in response to personally hateful and threatening graffiti– but hey, you broke the rules by hanging around a glorified food court/conference center with the janitors and whoever else all night, so response to racism be damned, we might have to kick you out for a year because rules are rules.
Here’s a long quote that I think sums up my take on this pretty accurately:
Some faculty members and other students are demanding the university drop their cases against the students. Judy Kullberg, a political science professor and president of the faculty senate, is involved with a group of professors that met with students over the weekend.
She called the university’s decision to punish the protestors “wrongheaded.”
“Yes, technically they violated some aspect of the student code of conduct, but the circumstances are extraordinary, so we are absolutely baffled by the administration’s response,” she said. “There’s (graffiti) telling black students to leave. Then, similarly, administrators are going to the student center during the sit in and threatening to expel students. There’s something really wrong with how they’re handling the situation.”
EMU president James Smith hasn’t personally responded to faculty’s emails to him regarding the issue, Kullberg said, but faculty have received “boilerplate” responses about the need to apply the student of conduct evenly and fairly.
“The student code of conduct is not being applied evenly and fairly,” Kullberg said. “It’s very clear that just three students are being targeted out of dozens, if not hundreds, who were in the student center after 1 a.m.
“Those three are students who are leaders, they are being targeted specifically, and that’s shocking. I feel disappointed in the administration.”
Faculty have also published an open letter to university administration, and a petition urging EMU to drop its cases against the protestors has around 1,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
Taylor Amari Little, an EMU freshman who took part in the protests, said the university has been “hypocritical” in its handling of the situation.
“What bothers me the most is that the administration and the president are claiming in the press’s articles that they support students’ right to protest peacefully, and that’s what we’ve been dong every time,” she said. “However, this time, they are threatening to expel us and press criminal charges.”
A) What Judy said here, and B) that Taylor Little is a pretty smart freshman.
Look, I can appreciate the “rules are rules” thing. I have a little bit of Bobby Brady as hall monitor in me too. But sometimes, there are good reasons to not “press charges” or to not elect to enforce the rules. If you want to give these students a “stern warning” or whatever, fine; but President Smith et al, you want to expel a group of African-American students who were conducting a peaceful sit-in as a response to a bit of “Leave N-word” graffiti? Really. Really?
This isn’t exactly giving me a lot of confidence in the new EMU president, that’s for sure. Though it does make me proud of our students for sticking to their principles and for protesting in a way that is obviously getting the administration’s attention.