building on protests
Black student protests do not come out of nowhere. Students of color do not randomly decide that there are problems and walk out of classes. Protests are a part of a conversation that is ongoing from student to student, students to administration, students to the nation, and students to the world. These protests illustrate for the administration what no longer can be said diplomatically. The job of a protest is to create a potentially embarrassing situation for the university. It is a warning. For example, if the number of Black tenured faculty doesn’t increase at Brown University, then the administration risks a protest outing the university as uncommitted to the ideals of a liberal institution. The hope is that afterwards, the institution will make changes to accommodate the demands. However, for this to happen the institution first needs to be able and willing to hear the voices of students. But what happens when students have been giving similar warnings for 30 plus years?
Before I walked onto Brown’s campus for a student of color pre-orientation program, I already knew a few things about Brown. I knew that you didn’t call the dining hall the Sharpe Refectory but the Ratty; I knew that you weren’t supposed to step on the Pembroke seal; and I also knew that the Class of 2017 had the highest percentage of black matriculation in history. Alumni, administrators, and upperclassmen stressed this to us. Everyone boasted that 12% black matriculation and 45% student of color matriculation meant progress. We were special. Special things were expected from us. Brown was supposed to be the magical utopia of liberalism because of this 12%. And because we were first-years, we believed them. Something special was going to happen now that we had reached this historic marker as black students in the Class of 2017.
Two months after the Third World Transition Program, I found out that the Taubman Center for Public Policy had invited former New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly to speak as a part of the Noah Krieger ’93 Memorial Lecture series. Ray Kelly was speaking under the framework that the NYPD has world-renowned policing policies. Students and community members of Providence did not understand how exemplary policing policies could include racial profiling and stop-and-frisk. A coalition of students of color tried negotiating to have the lecture cancelled, but the administration and faculty were unwilling to acknowledge the harm students felt Ray Kelly’s presence would bring. On October 29, 2013, Brown students and members of the Providence community stood outside and inside of the lecture hall protesting both Ray Kelly’s policies in New York City and the university’s support of these policies by providing him a platform to speak about them. Participants, especially the leaders of the protest, were brought before the disciplinary board afterward. Administrators argued that protesters were obstructing the right to free speech and that a collegiate liberal arts education has to allow for contradicting opinions to exist. Students argued that bringing the head of the NYPD, whose policies are used as a model for other police forces such as the Providence Police Department and to an extent the Brown Department of Public Safety, would adversely affect the lives of Black and Latino students on campus. That day, administrators could see and hear students of color demanding justice, but they did not want to acknowledge what they had to say.
The issue of free speech emerged again a few years later in October 2015. A student wrote two opinion pieces in the Brown Daily Herald entitled “The white privilege of cows” and “Columbian Exchange Day.” The first piece argued that systems of power and oppression, such as racism and imperialism, were products of evolution and chance. They were “natural inequalities.” They could not be dismantled “at whim” because they were a part of the human condition. The second article argued that Brown should not have renamed “Fall Weekend” as “Indigenous People’s Day” because the benefits of the Columbian Exchange warranted celebration of a man who also had caused the genocide of native civilizations. Students were outraged at the campus newspaper for publishing articles that ignored the way imperialism and colonialism destroyed various native cultures. However, students were even more furious at the response from the university. Like the Ray Kelly protest, administrators claimed that freedom of speech and the function of a collegiate liberal arts education allows students to say, write and publish anything that’s under the guise of opinion, no matter the real life harm and violence those words could create for communities of color. Just as this controversy was circulating in campus conversation,, a Department of Public Safety officer tackled a Latinx student from Dartmouth during the Ivy League Latinx Conference. Police claim they were acting in the line of duty, but students of color know that brutality against black and brown bodies is couched in the language of being in the line of duty for officers.
Right now, I am sitting in the library writing this, wondering whether anything has actually changed. Why does it matter that the Class of 2017 has such historic numbers of black students if those students of color are not valued or listened to?
In 1981, the number of black students at Brown reached and surpassed 100 students. This was the first wave of large groups of black students coming to Brown. One hundred does not sound like a lot if one considers that Brown’s undergraduate class typically numbers around 5,000 students. But together, 100 students were a critical mass. There were enough students to fill Kasper Multipurpose Room. It was also enough for the students to have a significant voice in the university. In a phone interview, Melissa Nobles ‘85 said she felt that 100 black students was enough to make their presence felt.
It was about a week or so after orientation weekend in the fall of 1981. Melissa Nobles and her friends were walking home from a party. They were still new to campus and walked in large groups because first years wanted to be friends with everyone. Some of these students were first generation, others came from families with a college education, but all of these students were black. A few weeks earlier, they had finished the Third World Transition Program and were trying to assimilate into Brown’s predominantly and historically white institution. Suddenly, another first-year, a male lacrosse player, approached Melissa and her friends and threw a glass bottle at their feet. Even though the incident was reported and the student faced some consequences, the incident affected the way those black first-years saw the university.
It took time for seemingly small and random incidents to accumulate so that trends became apparent. When Melissa and her classmates were seniors, a white first-year assaulted his black roommate in their dorm room. After the incident was reported to the administration, a hearing was scheduled for in late February or early March of 1985. However, the day before this hearing was supposed to happen, the case against him was dropped. The student faced no disciplinary action. The administration’s lack of response outraged students, particularly, the class of 1985. They saw the connections between the confrontation with Nobles and this situation. This time, something had to change. No longer were they eager first-years learning about Brown. Instead, they were seniors familiar with the ways that universities, especially Brown, tend to sweep issues under the rug when they involve race and difference. The seniors were not confused as to how to handle the situation. Instead, students like Richard Gray ’85, one of the leaders of the 1985 protest, started asking, “What’s going on on campus if there is this dynamic that allows for these kinds of things to happen?”
In 1985, black students at Brown understood their relation to previous protests. There was a seventeen-year difference from ’68 and only a ten-year difference from the Black Student University Hall Takeover in 1975. Something needed to be done to demonstrate clearly to the university the urgency students of color felt about changing Brown for the better. For this reason, 1985 was a key time. April 1985 would be the 10-year anniversary of the 1975 Takeover of University Hall. A coalition of Black, Latino, and Asian American students were going to publicly ask the question: How has Brown changed in 10 years?
First, Black students looked to the Walkout of 1968 and then to the Takeover of University Hall in 1975. The Walkout, as the first major protest, set the pace for future discussion of diversity, representation, and inclusion at Brown. The women of Pembroke College and the men of Brown University demanded first and foremost that the university increase the percentage of black students at Brown from one or two percent to the national percentage of black students: eleven percent. Students felt that for meaningful change to happen to the university, black students needed to be visible. The Takeover of 1975 was a recommitment to this demand of increased black student enrollment. However, additional concerns about minority faculty hirings, financial resources for students of color—including but not limited to financial aid, the Third World Transition Program, and other supportive services for students of color—were added. In the 1985 Takeover of the John Carter Brown Library, students again had to recommit the university to the demands of 1968 and 1975 for increased minority enrollment, increased financial aid support for low income students of color, and support services for students of color (the Third World Center) but increased their focus on minority faculty hirings, curriculas and inclusion of diverse histories and perspectives across disciplines.
Throughout these years, students from ’68 to ’85 understood something similar about their positions as black students in their present moments. Despite having 100 students, black students still felt invisible on campus. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison informed the way they understood being black in a predominately white institution. Harold Jordan ’85, primary drafter of the letter sent to the administration listing their demands, used this novel as an entry point for thinking about responding to the University’s lack of responsiveness to the needs of students. He said, “The purpose of the protest was to show the university that we were sick of being treated as invisible people.”
This past fall semester students of color at Brown University staged not one but five protests in the span of three months demanding the university pay attention to the real-life harm and concerns of students. Black Lives Matter, the BDH controversy, and student uprisings at the University of Missouri and Yale University created a crucial moment upon which students of color at Brown University could capitalize. Black students could magnify their voices and frustrations with the voices of black people at other universities and in other areas of life saying the same thing. Now several groups were saying the same thing: Black undergraduates, graduate students of color, alumni of color, and faculty from Ethnic, American and Africana Studies. Something has to change at Brown immediately or else the last 50 years of protest have done nothing but increase the number of students of color experiencing an unsupportive campus environment. A critical mass in 2015 meant every person of color and every person invested in supporting students and faculty of color speak up and speak loudly. No one could afford to remain silent.
All things happen in a context. For those at Brown in 1985, the national climate of conservatism, deindustrialization, and backlash against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement influenced how students understood their role in making change. Brown, similarly to the nation, was making cuts to the budget that would directly affect students of color. Black students had to push the university to follow through on the promises made in 1968 and 1975. However, for Brown students here in the fall semester, there was a strong sense of disillusionment and annoyance. There was a Black president in office, and more Blacks than before were in the middle class and had access to college education. All of this should mean progress. But then issues like the Prison Industrial Complex, police brutality, and voter ID laws showed my generation that, in fact, what seems like increased visibility and mobility is only an illusion. My peers did not want to hear about the progress that’s been made when reality showed them that Black people are valued just as little in 2015 as in 1985.