“The silence is deafening”: Black Student Union initiates campus protest

By Erica Quinones, Cecilia Cress, and Olivia Montes
Editor-in-Chief and News Co-Editors

A crowd of students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents gathered in Martha Washington Square at 11 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 6 to support the Washington College Black Student Union and, as a Dec. 5 Instagram post by BSU read, “hold Public Safety accountable.”

Protestors filled the terrace and steps in front of the Casey Academic Center, some demonstrators standing behind the speakers with signs which read “We Will Be Heard,” “Black Student Union sent the email not Student Affairs,” “We Are Not A Threat,” and “We Need A Change.” Protest leaders passed around a megaphone to crowd members and others to lead chants, share experiences, and speak about frustrations regarding racial bias on campus and the College’s response.

The protest was organized by BSU in response to Public Safety’s presence at their Dec. 2 meeting with Mayor of Chestertown David Foster, according to BSU’s Dec. 3 email.

The email says that two PS officers were present to “babysit” their meeting with Foster despite there being no PS presence at a similar meeting held by the Student Government Association on Nov. 16.

According to the email, Dec. 2 was not the first instance of PS officers being present at BSU events this semester or in years past, despite the club having “seen and heard of no similar treatment of any other club or organization on this campus.” Additionally, BSU wrote that their communications regarding displeasure with PS presence were met with “excuse after excuse after invalidation after invalidation.”

In response, the club sent the following terms to Director of Public Safety Pamela Hoffman, Director of Athletics Thaddeus Moore, Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Sarah Feyerherm, and the President’s Office: that BSU be treated “like other clubs and organizations” on campus, and that PS officers will no longer be present at BSU events or meetings without being requested.

BSU asked to meet with College leaders who could “assist in this matter” to figure out ways to hold PS accountable in the future and write a statement which contains the signatures of all meeting attendees and covers what was discussed, action steps, and a clear statement of how to hold PS accountable.

“As the director of Public Safety, I am always concerned when students raise issues like this,” Hoffmann said in a statement to The Elm. “My staff and I have been focusing on building better relationships with students this fall. I want all students to feel they can trust and depend on my officers, and it is disheartening to hear that instead students are feeling targeted or monitored.”

The accompanying protest was scheduled for the day of the meeting. Representatives left the protest at 11:30 a.m. to attend the meeting, leaving juniors Vice President of BSU Mariama Keita and Social Chair of BSU Armani Banks to serve as point person and to lead the protest, respectively.

“If anything goes sideways in this meeting. If they don’t meet our demands, we will bring them back outside and they will have to meet with all of you,” President of BSU junior Jonah Nicholson said.

Throughout the protest, demonstration leaders — including Associate Director of Student Financial Aid and BSU Advisor Erneatka Webster, Nicholson, Keita, Banks, and Secretary of BSU junior Asia Webb — led chants and encouraged speakers to share their experiences with the crowd.

In between chants such as, “Black Lives Matter at WAC” and “Equal Treatment,” protestors passed the megaphone to share demands and disappointments with the College’s response to racial bias, past and present.

Many speakers shared disappointment in the continued need to speak against incidents of racial bias on campus, especially after the 2019-2020 academic year.

“We were here last year, asking for our students to feel safe,” Associate Professor of Spanish and Director of the Black Studies Minor Dr. Elena Deanda-Camacho said. “There was trauma because our students not only felt unsafe within the campus, [but also because] we were unable as an institution to provide that emotional and physical safety…[and] just the action of sending PS members to a group meeting is unacceptable.”

Dr. Deanda-Camacho and others referred to an instance in which a series of bias incidents sparked protests across campus. From October 2019 to March 2020, five racial bias incidents occurred on campus, sparking two demonstrations, a walkout on Dec. 3, 2019, and an occupation of George Washington’s Birthday Convocation on Feb. 21, 2020.

The protests were followed by a letter of grievances and demands from BSU in March 2020, which called for the creation of a central safe space, diversifying courses, adding and improving mandatory diversity trainings, hosting regular town hall meetings, hiring a chief diversity and inclusion officer, establishing security measures across campus, creating a “reliable and appropriate” racial bias incident reporting system, and cultivating “meaningful and substantial” discussions about race.

Paris Mercier ’20, who was president of BSU during the 2019-2020 protests, returned to campus to support the demonstration.

“For me, coming back today was to step back in and hold admin accountable, like ‘I know you recognize me and you know me and you’re going to go in and have the same meeting we had three years ago,’” Mercier said.

Mercier said it is “pathetic” that incoming freshmen and sophomores are facing the same issues as alumni, and that it is difficult to see that Black students are still writing demand lists without substantial progress.

“I cannot express my heartbreak, I’m holding my tears out in another protest for the rights and equality of my fellow peers that will come after us,” Mercier said in her speech. “How many more times are we going to gather here and read emails that say, ‘We hear you, we respect you, we’re sorry’? Sorry is not enough.”

Keita also noted that contemporary student activists are “fighting the same fight that alumni 40 years ago were having,” and the same fight she witnessed her freshman year.

“I do understand that people are trying, but this is the same fight that has gone on long before we ever came here, long before [Mercier] had ever been here…and I am tired of fighting. 2019, we came in, we protested…yet again, the College came and told us that there will be a push for change,” Keita said.

The repeated student experiences were often connected to ongoing structural failings at WC.

Webb said it is “pathetic and sad [that] PS does not have a diversity, equity, and inclusion chair,” because student-led organizations like the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council have such a position.

She also spoke about friends who sent in bias reports only to see no email in response, or teachers who put in CARE reports for students because they felt unsafe on campus due to PS. Webb testified that she is careful of what clothing she wears to avoid profiling, because of stories other students shared about PS officers questioning them for student IDs.

“We’re asking for the bare minimum, and it’s tragic,” Webb said. “We are not here to just be monolithic for you [the College] so you can get your diversity revenue up. We’re here to be students first and advocates second.”

Protestors also spoke on the effects of their continued need to protest.

Webster said that after five years of advising BSU, she is “tired of carrying students on my back by myself, I need support. I need my fellow colleagues to get behind me.”

Nicholson added that he had to miss class to attend the protest, something which a student should not have to do for equal treatment.

Keita said that consistently striving to advocate for on-campus change to ensure equality, equity, and justice for all students of color with little to no support from the College places an immense weight on those who initially came for an education.

“We’re asking for change, we’re not asking for much. We’re asking for the bare minimum. Because right now, it may look like we carry the weight well, but we do not. I stay up and I tend to get two hours of sleep, because I am still working, because I believe that there can be change. I believe it because I have seen it with the small steps. But that is not enough,” Keita said.

At the time of print, the results of BSU’s meeting with College administrators have not been announced.

Student Life editor Emma Russell contributed reporting to this article.

Photos by Kayla Thorington
Featured Photo Caption: Pictured on left, junior and Vice President of Black Student Union Mariama Keita took the megaphone and addressed the crowd. The protesters came out to “hold Public Safety accountable.”

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