Demonstrators protest during convocation after bias incidents

By Abby Wargo, Cassy Sottile, and Erica Quinones

Editor-in-Chief and News Editors

On Friday, Feb. 21, the day of George Washington’s Birthday Convocation, students, faculty, and staff marched from Hodson Hall Commons to Gibson Center for the Arts to demand change in light of the most recent racial bias incident, which occurred the previous night, Thursday, Feb. 20. The incident was the fifth reported since October 2019. 

President of Black Student Union (BSU) senior Jocelyn Elmore said members of BSU started planning the protest last Thursday night following the racial bias incident, which was the second that week. Because no WAC Alert was sent out to warn students of the incident, the responsibility fell on students to tell their peers.

“We have been very cooperative, we have been trying to be patient for changes to come,  but when you are impacted every day and targeted based off the color of your skin, you have to do something that is going to allow other people to feel embarrassment or feel that anger that you are feeling,” Elmore said. 

Before the scheduled demonstration, BSU representatives met with President Kurt Landgraf as well as members of the Board of Visitors and Governors to inform them of the protest. Landgraf said he was “pleased” that the demonstrations took place while the Board was on campus because it helped them to better understand why certain actions needed to be taken. 

Elmore said being able to speak with Board members was “powerful on its own,” but that some members were not empathetic to the situation, which she said was “very disappointing.” 

“If something impacts one student on this campus it should impact all of us, because that one student has just as much of a right to be here as any other, and they should feel comfortable here,” Elmore said.

Demonstrators met in the Goose Nest of Hodson Hall Commons at 3 p.m., where they were briefed on the situation by senior Paris Mercier. 

Mercier laid out the immediate demands of the protest, primarily that Washington College send WAC Alerts after bias incidents are reported, the administration considers its language in emails, which was criticized as re-victimizing students of color, that the administration be accountable for the incidents, and that WC create a safe space on campus to be used in times of crisis.

Mercier was joined by senior Ervens Jean-Pierre, who said part of creating a safe space is allowing students of color to be students. 

After bias incidents, scared students often met in each other’s living spaces, becoming an additional stressor.

The Student Government Association and BSU agreed that until an official safe space is set up, the SGA office will serve as one. 

Ervens also advocated for the administration to foster campus-wide discussions about race after these incidents, saying that they are necessary for healing.

 The protest was organized so that demonstrators would march from Hodson Hall Commons to Gibson Center for the Arts while linking arms and holding fliers printed by Black Student Union.

One poster read “Black Lives Matter At WAC Too” with a fist beneath it, the others were from the “Racism is…” series, which was posted on BSU’s Instagram in December.

Mercier said that once students reached Gibson Center for the Arts, they would enter Decker Theatre and stand still linked in the aisles during convocation. 

Demonstrators who chose to enter the Decker Theatre were encouraged to silently stay for the honorees as a symbol of people of color supporting other people of color.

After the briefing, demonstrators lined up, linked arms, and officially marched. Several people held signs with phrases like “The audacity of the caucasity has reached its maximum capacity” and “Stop the emails we want action.” 

Protestors chanted out “Black lives matter at WAC too” and “Black lives matter” as they marched to Martha Washington Square.

Upon reaching the Square, demonstrators were met by media, community members including Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino and some councilmen, faculty, and staff who cheered when they came down the hill. 

When demonstrators entered the theatre, they filled the walkways, lining against the wall separating the first and second seating levels and down both the right and left aisles which led to the stage. Convocation attendees walked past protestors, shaking their hands.

Inside the theatre, protesters continued chanting “What do we want? Change. When do we want it? Now,” “Whose campus? Our campus,” and “No justice. No Peace,” as the American Sign Language interpreter signed the chants.

There was a moment in which demonstrators began chanting “Say it loud, I am black and I am proud.” When the chant began, many demonstrators trailed off. A student spoke up, encouraging all demonstrators to join the chant, leading to a stronger response when it began again.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Dr. Emerald Stacy, who protested at convocation by sitting in the audience without her academic robes on, said that the scene put her in awe of the students because they did “such a lovely job at guiding allies how to protest with them.”

 As they chanted, Landgraf came onstage to address the protestors. 

“We have done everything you have asked us to do. We have guests here. I am asking you to please, you have made your point. You have made your point all day today. We have honored guests here, we would like to get on with the ceremony,” Landgraf said.

There was a silence before senior Gaviota Del Mar Hernández Quiñones began the chants again.

Del Mar Hernández Quiñones described the silence as “the silence of resistance” afterwards, saying that the situation made her angry and inspired her to chant “Whose campus? Our campus,” as it felt most appropriate at the moment.

After the revigorized chanting, Landgraf addressed the protestors again, again asking them to allow convocation to continue. This time, he addressed Mercier directly for help.

Mercier responded, saying that protesters could stand in silence but they would not leave.

Afterwards, Mercier said that she felt uneasy about the situation. 

She said that if they stood there quietly, the ceremony could have continued and that Landgraf’s comment that the administration had done everything students asked him to do was “offensive.” 

Likewise, being identified by Landgraf as someone to be not just an advocate for herself but “to advocate for the entire movement” put pressure on her as a student. 

“I felt it was very unfair for him to do that to me, as it took responsibility off of him in the spotlight and responsibility to me,” Mercier said. She felt as if she was made to be someone for the audience to get angry about.

After Mercier’s initial response, Sue Caswell, whose husband — Assistant Professor of Business Management and Sam M. Walton Free Enterprise Fellow Lansing Williams — was honored at convocation then stood in the audience and addressed demonstrators, saying that she is with the students in solidarity, that she “sees them and hears them,” but to please allow proceedings to continue so they can honor the guests.

“Your voice will be heard,” Caswell said. “We will continue to listen to your voices from this day forward.”

Freshman Braxton Berry then responded, saying that he stands with those who have suffered with him and that everyone must take a stand to remove the rot.

“It does not matter what you look like — black, white, Asian, green purple… We are all human beings, we all die, and we all bleed red… I see her humanity and she sees mine, and that is all I wanted from this,” Berry said.

Berry and Caswell embraced before he left the theatre with other demonstrators.

“I have always been a person who cares to make sure justice is sought out,” Berry said in the lobby of Gibson Center for the Arts. “Civil disobedience for justice requires civility — civility for me is being kind and compassionate.”

Convocation then began with demonstrators departing throughout, gathering on the steps of Martha Washington Square to continue the protest. Faculty also participated, some of who sat in the balcony of the theatre in protest, others attending in the audience without robes.

Not everyone felt safe to participate in the demonstration. 

“I do know that there were staff members who were receiving awards who did not feel like their jobs were in a protected space to protest. As a faculty member, I did break the rules by protesting and not dressing, but the likelihood of me losing my job over that is low. Where there were staff members who I know wish had done so, but did not feel safe enough to,” Dr. Stacy said.

At the beginning of the ceremony, Landgraf addressed the situation again.

“Let me point something out — what we just experienced is part of the WC way to demonstrate courage,” Landgraf said. “It took moral courage to stand up.”

After the protest, Del Mar Hernández Quiñones said that her “biggest anger is the paternalistic approach [of the administration]. Every time they cheer out loud during the protest or clap back, this is not a festival, this is not a tantrum, this is not a political rally, this is anger and frustration.”

Protesters continued the discussion outside with Elmore thanking everyone for supporting them.

“There have been a lot [of racial bias incidents], and it is just a reflection of what we need to do to change this community and this campus and to become one unit. We are very divided and the hate that we have received because of the color of our skin or the gender we identify needs to end. Us being here today is a step towards progress,” Elmore said. 

“We will continue to make our voice be heard. I will scream until I cannot scream anymore, and if you guys want to scream with me, that would be the best,” Elmore said, followed by applause from the crowd.

Mercier said she appreciated everyone who participated.

“This has been a journey for all of senior year and my entire college career,” she said of the struggles students of color face on campus. “It feels uncomfortable to leave freshmen here. It should not feel uncomfortable to leave people behind in a space that is not for them. As a senior, it is disheartening.” 

Mercier mentioned that all of the bias incidents since October targeted black women, and were perpetrated by outside community members, creating a divide between the College and town communities which caused “a lot of hurt.”

“After today… all I am saying is, they heard us,” Mercier said as the crowd laughed in assent. “I am sick of meetings. I have got a thesis to write, and we cannot be students and advocates because we have to put being an advocate over being a student here, and that is where it has to end.”

“We have the opportunity to instill attitudes of acceptance and tolerance and understand that it is okay if people do not look like you, it is not okay to treat people differently because of that,” Mercier said.

After the speeches, members of the BSU executive board took questions from the crowd. 

Community members asked about ways they can help, one member saying, “we want to help you, so reach out to us and we will do what we can. We are ready to support you. This whole town needs to be a part of this because we all suffer when one suffers.” 

The members responded, saying that they must advocate, show up, do what they can to protect people of color, bridge gaps between communities, and start initiatives.

Mayor Cerino said that the issue would be on the agenda for the next Town Council meeting, being held on March 2 at 7 p.m. Immediately following the Town Hall will be a student meeting at 8 p.m. in Norman James Theatre,  moderated by Christine Wade, professor of political science and international studies, program director of international studies, curator of Louis L. Goldstein ‘35 program in public affairs, and faculty advisor for the peace and conflict studies and Latin American Studies concentrations. 

A local high school student stood up and said that the same students are harassing people at Kent County High School. 

“I need help, nothing is done,” she said. “I do not feel safe at my school just as much as you do not feel safe on your campus.” 

The student continued, saying that just because they are teenagers does not mean they cannot be violent. 

“Why am I a disease? That is all I want to know. It really hurts me, and nothing is being done about it. I need people to come and do something at the high school, because I am tired of this,” she said. 

The protest drew alumni, such as Colleena Calhoun class of 1999, in support of students of color.

“While we went through and did a lot in response to racially motivated offenses when I was a student there back in the late 1990s, we never had such a large assembly met with so much diverse support,” Calhoun said. “It was simultaneously an embarrassing moment for the College that this would even need to take place in 2020, while it was also a proud moment for the WC community for so many to come together to boldly and passionately state that the racist attitudes and biases will not be tolerated on that campus and the surrounding community.”

According to Interim Director of Intercultural Affairs Carese Bates, the protest “showed moral courage, just like our Honor Code states.” 

“It really showed who our allies are, and I hope these are just the first steps to unify this College campus. I want us to be the leaders for other schools, other institutions, that when unfortunate incidents happen, we don’t tolerate any hatred towards each other, we display love,” Bates said.

In response to the protest, a meeting was held on Feb. 24. Landgraf met with Elmore, Mayor Cerino, Director of Public Safety Brandon McFayden, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Dr. Sarah Feyerherm, Associate Professor of Spanish and Director of the Black Studies Program Dr. Deanda-Camacho, and Kent County Sheriff John F. Price IV to discuss campus and community solutions to the racial bias incidents. 

“This is a community problem as much as it is a WC problem,” Dean Feyerherm said. “We needed their help in addressing the concerns that our students talk about.” 

The administration is currently pricing new cameras with higher definition to identify license plates of vehicles coming in and out of campus. 

Discussing future action, Bates said that WC must focus on diversity. 

“You hear that we are having these conversations…but when does the needle move so people of color and marginalized populations of students are a priority,” Bates said. “As much as we talk about safety and budgets, ensuring our students feel welcomed is a priority.”

Sheriff Price offered to have his deputies do more frequent patrols through campus to help students feel more secure, according to Dean Feyerherm. 

The administration is currently looking at possible opt-in solutions for WAC alerts in which students can decide if they wish to receive alerts about bias incidents, in addition to the campus-wide alerts. 

Mercier later said she appreciated everyone who helped organize the event.

‘There is no way one of us could do this on our own. It was an amazing collaboration of students from all over campus who created a space for advocacy, not just for each other but for others outside of our organization,” Mercier said.

“It also speaks to college that we will and we can do it again, and I say that in the most promising way. I want them to know that this is not it, we are grateful that they have made promises but we are also waiting on follow through, and if there is no follow through they can expect us again,” Mercier said. 

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