War on campus: Mizzou’s fight against racism

6 Mins read

For the past two months, the University of Missouri – or Mizzou, as it is affectionately known – has been gripped by a fierce struggle against discrimination.

As a result of a number of racist incidents occurring at the institution throughout 2015, students, campaigners, athletes and staff members have all come together in solidarity to protest against what they see as a history of complacency from an administration that, in their eyes, has failed to protect the rights and wishes of the students.

What started as a small but passionate protest against racism quickly became an all-out war, resulting in the resignation of two high-ranking officials and a promise from the university to change.

But what was the catalyst for this wide-reaching movement and, in the wake of the decision of the president and chancellor to step down, what does the future hold for a university that has been torn apart in less than two months?

How it all began

At the start of September, Payton Head, the President of the Missouri Students Association, was berated by “guys riding on the back of a pickup truck” who “continuously screamed” racial slurs at him as he walked through campus at night.

It was not the first time he had been on the receiving end of abuse while at Mizzou, he promptly penned an impassioned and heartfelt Facebook post that quickly caught the attention of the wider community.

Just three weeks after the incident involving Head, a member of the Legion of Black Collegians (LBC) was racially abused by a male who appeared to be “both a student and inebriated” while the organisation rehearsed for the university’s homecoming event.

Events took an more sinister turn when a swastika made from human faeces was smeared onto the bathroom wall of one of the university’s halls of residence.

Spurred on by Head’s impassioned plea to “fight for social change at Mizzou”, students and anti-racism campaigners quickly began to protest against what they saw as a constant failure by the university’s highest-ranking officials to improve diversity on campus.

Students took to the streets in large numbers and as the protests gained traction, increasingly frustrated campaigners went directly to the university administration to voice their concern.

This led to further anger among the students, who felt as if their worries weren’t being taken seriously.

In one incident, during the homecoming event (for which LBC had been rehearsing), a group of protesters confronted university president Tim Wolfe in his car, but he refused to address them and quickly drove off.

As a result, the protests intensified: Wolfe became the focus of the protesters’ anger and as each day passed an increasing number of students, teachers, staff members, and even sportsmen and women directed their anger at the under-pressure president.

Frustration and concern flowed throughout the ranks and manifested itself in a variety of different ways, each of which had one goal in mind: to get rid of Wolfe.

Hunger strike

A graduate student named Jonathan Butler raised the stakes on November 2, when he declared that he was going on a hunger strike.

He announced in a letter to the university’s Board of Curators: “I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.”

Butler’s actions were directly related to a group of students calling themselves Concerned Student 1950 (whose name comes from the year in which black students were first admitted to Mizzou), an organisation set up before the start of the current academic year.

With each day that passed, Concerned Student 1950 was at the forefront of the action. From sit-ins and marches to boycotts and online petitions, the group began carefully and meticulously organising concerted action as they increased the pressure being exerted on Wolfe.

As Butler’s hunger strike went on, a number of students began to join him in solidarity, and as the days passed tents began to pop up across the university’s campus.

Members of Concerned Student 1950 began to set up camp around Butler, and towards the end of the week it started to resemble a small, tent city, with places for protesters to sleep surrounded by gazebos, food storage containers, and large heat lamps for warmth during the cold autumn nights.

Enter the Tigers

Six days into Butler’s hunger strike and with intense pain starting to ravage his body, the campaign was joined by another group who hammered what would prove to be the final nail in Wolfe’s coffin with devastating effect.

On November 7th, a group of black players for the university’s American football team, the Tigers, joined the movement by refusing to play or train until Wolfe resigned.

They were swiftly followed by the rest of their teammates, including the coaches, who stood in solidarity with Concerned Student 1950 and announced that they too were demanding the removal of the president.

The Tigers’ decision to join in with the protest raised it to new heights, resulting in so much pressure being forced on the university administration that cracks began to appear.

Sit-ins, protests, and financial boycotts were slowly hurting Mizzou, but the addition of the sports team brought a whole new meaning to the movement against Wolfe.

American football has always played an important role on university campuses across the country, acting as both a sizeable revenue stream for the individual institutions and a marketplace for National Football League teams who scan colleges looking for the next big stars.

This is particularly true at Mizzou; according to the Kansas City Star, last year saw the university’s athletic department bring in $83 million in revenue, the vast majority of which was a result of ticket sales and sponsorship deals received by the Tigers.

Exit Wolfe and Loftin

With a student starving himself to death and the entire football team now against him, Wolfe was left with no choice but to resign.

“I am resigning as president of the University of Missouri system today,” he said at a news conference on November 9.

“I have thought and prayed about this decision. It’s the right thing to do. The frustration and anger that I see is clear, it’s real, and I don’t doubt it for a second.”

During his statement given at the news conference, Wolfe admitted that the university’s response to students’ concerns had been underwhelming and had been a contributing factor to the anger and hurt felt among the protesters.

“It is my belief that we stopped listening to each other,” he said. “We didn’t respond or react, and we forced individuals like Jonathan Butler to take unusual actions, and immediate steps, to affect change.

“I take full responsibility for this frustration, and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred.

“I ask everybody [to] use my resignation to heal and start talking again to make the changes necessary. Let’s focus on changing what we can today, and in the future.”

Just hours after Wolfe announced his resignation, R Bowen Loftin, the university chancellor, also said that he would be making way as a result of the protests.

What now?

In the aftermath of the resignations of Mizzou’s two highest-ranking officials, joy swept through the ranks of the protesters camped outside.

Campaigners danced and applauded as they celebrated a momentous achievement for their cause, before Butler, visibly weak and emotional after going a week without any food, spoke in front of a crowd of activists and journalists.

“Please stop focusing on the fact of the Mizzou hunger strike itself,” he said. “Look at why did we have to get here in the first place, and why we had to fight the way that we did.

“It should not have taken this much. It is disgusting and vile that we find ourselves in the place that we do.”

The feeling of positivity emanating around Mizzou would not last long, as just one day later an anonymous message appeared on Yik Yak, the social media app, claiming: “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.”

Meanwhile, Reggie Noble, a local resident, penned a Facebook post explaining how he had seen “white students at Mizzou, riding around in pick-up trucks terrorising black people” and “white students standing in circles chanting ‘white power’” whilst “black students are evacuating a campus”.

The police promptly arrested a 19-year-old white male on suspicious of positing the message on Yik Yak, but there continues to be a feeling of nervousness and uncertainty around the campus.

Concerned Student 1950 have vowed to keep fighting as they aim to make Mizzou a safer and more inclusive institution, but, going on the events of the past two months and the problems that continue to threaten the university, the fight against discrimination could be a long way from over.

Featured image by Terry Robinson via Flickr CC.

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