Local college protests sparked by national conversation around race

Students occupy the administrative offices of Occidental College on Monday, November 16, 2015.
Students occupy the administrative offices of Occidental College on Monday, November 16, 2015.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/ KPCC

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Sleeping bags, pillows and pizza boxes were strewn around the basement of the administration building at Occidental College last week, as hundreds of students occupied the building for several days.

They insisted they weren’t leaving until campus officials met a list of 14 demands. Oxy senior Mika Cribbs ticked off a few of these last Monday:

"Increasing faculty and staff of color, more funds designated to marginalized students," Cribbs said. "We don’t have a black studies program, and that is what we are also asking for.”

That, and the resignation of Oxy's president, which they were also demanding.

Last week, the small private university in Eagle Rock became the latest local campus to be rocked by protests, with students demanding a more welcoming climate for students of color.

The wave of recent campus protests began at the University of Missouri. Students there said they were tired of what some described as an anti-black culture on a predominantly white campus. They began rallying in September. 

Two weeks ago, as protests escalated, the university’s president and chancellor resigned. That spark fueled a wave of protests over racial inclusion on campuses around the country, including in Southern California.

The same week the University of Missouri president resigned, students began protesting at Claremont McKenna College. Tension at CMC grew in October when a Latina student wrote a blog post about feeling marginalized on campus. In response, Claremont McKenna's dean of students Mary Spellman wrote her an email, saying she wanted to help students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”

That wording cost Spellman her job – on Nov. 12, she resigned amid protests there.

Local student protesters say they’ve been organizing for some time over racial issues, long before the media attention. They say that even on diverse campuses – like Occidental, which is roughly 40 percent non-white – students of color feel a sense of bias.

Some say they don’t feel welcome at certain parties. Photos of white students in ethnic costumes have popped up in social media. At Claremont, a Halloween photo posted to Facebook showed the junior class president posing with two students dressed in sombreros and mustaches. Amid the online backlash that followed, the junior class president resigned her office. Some of the most hateful exchanges about race and ethnicity are written on the anonymous social app Yik  Yak, which is popular on college campuses.

At the University of Southern California, hundreds of students rallied this month in solidarity with Missouri students, wearing signs that displayed some of what they've read on Yik Yak. Other west coast colleges rallied as well. Much of it has been covered by the professional and student media. Some have published student op-eds about race and inclusivity.

While this student movement has been brewing for a while, a series of sparks in the recent past have set it off, said UC Irvine professor David Meyer, who studies political movements.

“The events in Ferguson, and the Black Lives Matter movement, set the agenda for conversation and activism for people all across the United States," Meyer said, referring to the police shooting last year of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was 18, unarmed, and black.

At Occidental last week, senior Diamond Webb remembered an incident around the time Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

“When I was a sophomore here, students desecrated Trayvon Martin’s memorial, and administration did not have any repercussions for those students," Webb said.

Events like these helped fuel the protests at the University of Missouri, Meyer said. Social media took notice. Toward the end of the Missouri protests, the national media took notice, too.

"The ouster of the president at the University of Missouri was a big boost for student activists," Meyer said. "It gave them a sense of possibility, a sense of confidence…. at the moment, it’s crazy exciting for them, and it feels like they can make a difference.”

Not all students on these campuses are in lockstep though . At Claremont, after the dean resigned, some students wrote letters in her defense. Senior Katharine Eger said she supported the protesters at first, but she's not happy with where it led.

"This legitimate movement was sort of overshadowed by some extreme voices that emerged," Eger said. "Dean Spellman resigning was a knee jerk reaction that in the long term will do a disservice to our community.”  

Older critics of the protesters have wondered if there’s a generational divide – if millennials are just more sensitive to so-called micro-aggressions than their predecessors. Meyer doesn’t think so – he says older generations have been shaking their heads at student protesters since the Baby Boomers were in college.

As for social media, used by students to organize and disseminate information, "it's a means, not a cause," for the protests," Meyer said.

And it’s not just students who want changes on campus.  Some professors have come out in support, at Claremont and at Oxy.

Last week, Occidental political science professor Regina Freer held class outside, near the occupied administration building. She said it made sense because some of her students were protesting - and she wanted to support them. Freer said students are tapping into a sense of otherness that she understands.

“As a black faculty member, much of what they are talking about resonates with me," Freer said. "I’m one of only two black women faculty on campus, and I feel the pressure of that representation pretty acutely.”

Freer says black students often stop by after hours just to talk.

"They are looking for safe spaces," she said. "They are looking for somebody who they can talk to about issues that they presume others are not going to identify with.

One of the Oxy student's demands - hiring a more diverse faculty - has been hard to accomplish, although "we conduct searches on a regular basis," Freer said. The college's faculty is approximately 30 percent non-white, according to campus officials.

Last week, in a campus-wide email, Oxy's board of trustees announced that it supported college president Jonathan Vietch and that he would not be stepping down. Vietch, who spoke with KPCC afterward, defended what he called a commitment to diversity on campus.

“This has been a historical commitment of Occidental’s, and that doesn’t always come easily," Vietch said. "So there are these disputes about how effective we are, and what are the best mechanisms for success.”

The university has been in the process of hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, although students complained the position was under-funded. One of the protesters' demands was an increase in funding.

Later in the week, Vietch announced that campus officials would work to meet that demand and a dozen others.

Occidental students ended their camp-out Friday, but said they aren't ending their protest yet. Student organizers are now calling for a public campus meeting with Vietch on Monday to discuss plans to implement their demands.