Students dressed in black shouted “unity” over and over as they marched across the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville campus and staged a rally for racial equality and an end to racism.
Students were joined by a number of faculty, staff and administrators at SIUE as they held a walkout, protesting reports of racial attacks on campus since last Tuesday’s presidential election.
According to social media posts, some students in the Evergreen Hall residence hall found racial comments on Post-it notes on their doors on election night, exhorting them to “go back to Africa” or “build the wall.” The posts also alleged that a Muslim student’s hijab was pulled off her head by a passing student, and a Latina student was subjected to racial slurs by students driving by her as she walked to her car.
The protest was not so much about the election itself, but to draw attention to these incidents and call for unity and peace on the campus, organizers said. The protest included black, white, Latino and Asian students, with a diversity of ages, backgrounds and orientations. Faculty members in suits stood beside students as speaker after speaker called for an end to racism.
One student carried a rainbow-colored flag. Another carried a sign that said “Love Trumps Hate.” One carried a “Black Lives Matter” sign.
Some leaders were handing out safety pins, a symbol adopted by some for safety and support of minorities, women and gays. Many had the safety pins attached to their shirts by the end of the rally.
The rally was organized by the student activist group Sankofa, and joined by numerous other organizations such as “SIUE Making Waves — Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance”
“This walkout and rally demonstrates our rejection of the bigotry that has festered on this campus through racism, cis/heterosexism, classism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of violence targeted towards members of our community,” their posts stated.
“Just because we don’t agree on the (presidential election) doesn’t mean that we should be discriminated against ... we should all be treated equally” said student Kayla Daniels. “We come here to learn. This is not about politics; this is life.”
Bria Laktzian said like many other students, she only heard about the protests this morning. “They spoke what was on their minds, and they spoke for everyone, not just African-Americans,” she said. “They spoke for Muslims, whites, gays, bisexual, all of that. It was amazing. They said what needed to be said.”
Some students reported their professors had canceled class to allow them to attend. Jasmine Miller said her professor allowed students to leave class early. “I liked seeing everyone’s different view,” she said. “Everyone needs to know it’s not just a black issue, it’s an everybody issue. We all need to come together.”
Student speakers talked about more than just the hate incidents of the last week, but about a feeling of self-segregation and students failing to connect with each other beyond racial and ethnic boundaries. It is also an opportunity for students, faculty, staff and administration to hold each other accountable for the mission and values of SIUE, they said.
“These are but a few of the ways in which members of our community have been made to feel unsafe and unwelcome,” the statement read. “This walkout and rally will be an opportunity to let them and other students similarly treated know that they are not alone. This walkout and rally will demonstrate our commitment to doing our part to change the climate of our campus.”
SIUE Police Chief Kevin Schmoll said none of the hate incidents have been reported to his department. “We are inquiring to see if these incidents actually happened in the first place,” he said.
But some of the leaders said the students who were subjected to the attacks did not feel safe reporting them to the police, or did not have confidence they would be taken seriously.
Co-organizer Cassidy Oliver said Sankofa leaders felt that a peaceful rally for unity on campus would be a positive way to respond to the hate incidents they were hearing about since the election. “We’ve never seen more need for it,” she said.
Co-organizer Aliyah Redmon agreed. “This campus is in great need of unity right now,” she said. “We as an organization and part of SIUE had to let the student body know that we are here and we are not afraid to come together ... This is what needs to be solved right now. We want everybody to feel a part of it, because they are.”
The signs students carried read “We rise together,” “Stronger together,” “Smarter than you think,” and “This is not a moment, this is the movement,” as well as carrying a rainbow pride flag. There was little direct mention of the election or of either presidential candidate, with a few comments of concern about the future in a Trump administration. The speeches mostly centered on the campus, on racial inequalities and the atmosphere and communication on campus, as well as stopping incidents of hate.
The crowd repeated several times, “This is only the beginning.”
Not all the speakers were minorities; several speakers and a significant number of attendees were white students or staff, with faculty in suits standing beside students of color. “My place as a white person is to listen and educate myself ... Education is one of the best ways to get rid of ignorance,” one speaker said. “White people: we cannot be other people’s voices, but we can help them be heard.”
The speakers reiterated that all students should feel safe to walk across the campus without being subjected to attacks. The walkout was not about the election, they said, as much as it was a rejection of bigotry. “We are sick and tired of being misrepresented, lied to, told to wait,” one speaker said. “Meanwhile, America beats the hell out of us.”
One speaker broke down crying toward the end, telling the students gathered at the circle that she had doubted whether anyone beyond their small group of organizers would care about unity and peace on campus. “I’m sorry I doubted you,” she said.
SIUE police officers escorted the march and maintained watch at the perimeter, but did not stop or interfere with the protest. At one point, a student went up to a security officer and hugged him. Meanwhile, some administrators and staffers were watching and listening from the balcony at Rendleman Hall. Students passing by sometimes stopped to listen or to join in, but no counter protests were apparent.
On Friday, Chancellor Randy Pembrook had sent a message to the university community acknowledging the high level of emotion surrounding the results of the election and said he was “extremely disappointed” to hear stories circulating about verbal displays of intolerance on campus.
“Although I have not received official word related to any such instances, please trust that I will work with our senior leadership team to address any actions that violate campus rules and values,” he said. “We will work to maintain a safe, secure and inclusive campus environment for all students, faculty and staff. This is a time for us to put aside whatever ideological differences there may be and work together to continually improve our community in the days ahead. There will always be differences in political perspectives, social backgrounds and experiences, but as an intellectual community, we choose to cherish and respect those differences at SIUE.”
Pembrook was watching at the edge of the rally, which was staged outside Rendleman Hall, where the administrative offices are located. Pembrook said he was “very impressed” by the students’ passion and willingness to try to create communication channels and denounced any attacks on students.
“There is no place for that here,” Pembrook said. “We want to have a culture of respect where people communicate clearly with each other. The things that I’m hearing ... it creates a sadness for me, because we can do better. We can love each other ... We need to continue to communicate.”
Pembrook said the administration will continue the Black Lives Matter conferences and other diversity outreach efforts, but they need to find more avenues to empower students to talk to each other and with the administration. “There are a lot of different kinds of conversations that need to take place,” he said.
Pembrook also was wearing a safety pin. He said for him, the pin is a symbol of trying to connect people of different perspectives on campus.