Race has been one of, if not the defining faultline at the University of Michigan. In the last five years, a slew of fatal police shootings of Black Americans coincided with a spike in anti-Black attacks at the University and in Ann Arbor. Protests engulfed campus following nearly every incident, and students organized movements spanning from #BBUM to Ann Arbor to Ferguson, Mo. to #StopSpencer.
Leading from behind each of these moments has been postdoctoral fellow Austin McCoy. McCoy arrived on campus in 2009 as a History Ph.D. student, and nearly a decade later, has become a hybrid adviser-activist to hundreds of student organizers. After completing a dissertation on the history of progressive organizing, he’s leaving Ann Arbor for Alabama, where he’ll be taking up a new post as a history professor at Auburn University. The Daily sat down with McCoy to reflect on his time on campus, and what’s up next.
TMD: So nine years later, how does it feel to be leaving?
McCoy: It feels weird … Ann Arbor is the second longest place I’ve lived. But it also feels like it’s the right time to go do something different.
TMD: You chose Auburn University, which is definitely warmer! But it’s also in the South, which is a new kind of forum for your work.
McCoy: I had a choice between there and a school in the Northeast and I chose Auburn. Part of it is I really like the department, I like the people, and I thought I would be able to have a big impact on students there — and even in politics possibly within the state. It’s the South. Auburn isn’t going to be like Ann Arbor; it’ll be less liberal and the student body won’t be as wealthy as the student body here. It’ll be as homogenous in terms of racial demographics, but I anticipate the politics might be less progressive.
TMD: Take us through your journey here. Nine years ago, you weren’t as involved when you were beginning your Ph.D., then moving to the front lines with the megaphone in your hand after #BBUM and Aura Rosser, and now you’re more in the classroom, taking an academic or advisory approach. What was that like for you?
McCoy: I was always interested in getting involved, but didn’t know where to go or what to participate in. There was organizing and protests, but I didn’t see as much of it. I remember a professor asking me when I first got here like, “Austin, where are all the protests?” and I didn’t have an answer in my first month in Ann Arbor. I focused more on trying to fulfill our requirements.
In the summer of 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin, I was extremely upset, and it was one of the few times in the last few years I’ve cried. One of those nights where I cried myself to sleep thinking about it. But it also moved me to get involved in issues pertaining to racism.
That fall, a friend of mine named Garrett Felber, who was a Ph.D. student in the Department of American Culture, asked if I wanted to co-write an op-ed for The Daily about affirmative action and the history of Black student protest. He pitched is as relevant given the week before there had been a silent protest on the Diag around a lack of diversity and I said sure. That was October, and a few months later, #BBUM went viral. That was the same night the Black Student Union, We are Michigan and A New Trotter had a mass meeting. That was the first time I’d been in a room where there was an overwhelming majority of Black students. The days and weeks before, Garrett and I had been talking about what we could do as graduate students. So after that meeting, me, him, and a Latina Ph.D. student named Tatiana Cruz, began organizing. We created the United Coalition for Racial Justice, the point of which was to support #BBUM, but we also wanted to do an overnight teach-in. The organizing for the speak-out for racial justice the following year was the first time I had gotten involved on campus.
TMD: You’ve always been someone to invest in students and their organizing, wants and needs, and strategies. Where does that come from for you?
McCoy: Part of this comes from my own undergraduate years at (The Ohio State University at Mansfield), my hometown. The student body there was a lot more conservative, so it was me and a few other people who would do organizing around anti-racist movements and against the Iraq War. It was small things like panels and writing letters to the editors, anything that would raise awareness. We had support from a lot of professors and students, but there were few people around who I felt like I could talk to about organizing.
I believe in understanding when your role can change. I don’t think one person should always be out front, and I believe that if you’re an organizer, part of what you’re doing as an organizer is facilitating. You help connect people, and you support the people who will be on the front lines. It was once the organizing around Aura Rosser began to mature in 2015 — there were other people who were stepping up like Maryam Aziz who were doing a phenomenal job. There were other undergrads who would get involved around that, or student labor, and they began asking me to do teach-ins. People would come asking me to talk about diversity or the history of Black student protests or the history of UCRJ … The more I did that, the more people asked me to do teach-ins, the more undergrads would come to me asking about organizing and balancing life and school. It was a feedback loop. It’s important to be there for students as much as possible. In undergrad, if I saw a professor I liked at an event I organized, it was always energizing and comforting. I’m perfectly content with not being the face of everything.
TMD: The balance of academic, personal, political is hard. I know this has been a difficult year for you in many ways. How do you think you’ve changed?
McCoy: On the one hand, my life changed when I started getting organizing with UCRJ. Up until then, I was always interested, but was also rather content with finishing my Ph.D., graduating and leaving. Even with UCRJ, I thought we’d just do the speak-out and then be done. When we did that and we were successful, we began to get more people asking what we’d do next. There’s a next? And a we? Between UCRJ and Aura Rosser, my life totally changed. I went from being a graduate student interested in organizing to someone with a profile. I would run into people who knew who I was, and I didn’t know who they were. Since then, my life hasn’t been the same.
TMD: Is that hard? To have a profile, the constant demands on your time?
McCoy: The time, that can get difficult. You want to help as many people as possible. You want to do everything, and sometimes you feel like you can do everything. But it gets to the point where you look at your calendar and everything there is speaking, meetings or something else that’s related to politics. There’s less things I have scheduled for finishing my dissertation, or even myself. I had less energy to do dissertation work, let alone a social life.
One funny change is that I just watch more TV because I’m organizing all day. During UCRJ and Ann Arbor to Ferguson I’d be on campus all day and I’d get back home like, I’m going to work. But I’d turn on the TV and just knock out. My mind and my body were telling me that I couldn’t do anything right now.
That was a common theme with a lot of us here. Especially when it came to #BlackLivesMatter and the Aura Rosser killings, police seemed to be killing someone every month, no one got indicted, and there was just a constant cycle of vigils and actions. The violence is literally a matter of life and death, and that can happen to everyone who’s a part of a marginalized group anywhere. Recognizing that reality raised the stakes. And once the stakes were raised that high, I felt like I needed to be at every single protest, protesting every time something happened.
This past year, I knew this was going to be my last year no matter what, so it made more sense to serve in an advisory capacity. You can ask me to come speak and I would do that, but I was forced to juggle other professional obligations—I was away doing interviews every week—but then obviously with my mom passing, you just can’t. Something like that so personal happens that you have no option but to reprioritize. I had to grieve and be there for my family.
TMD: In the beginning of 2016, it was Alton Sterling, then Philando Castile, one after another after another. There were so many vigils, I wondered if it was taking more from us than it was putting back in. How important are the protests?
McCoy: The vigils, the marches, going to City Council to confront political leaders, those things are very important. There were die-ins on the Diag, in the Law School after Baltimore and Sandra Bland. Are we focusing too much on reacting to the various shootings abroad versus Aura Rosser? Overlooking the fact that a 40-year old Black woman was shot right here in Ann Arbor, the mayor hadn’t apologized, the officer was never officially fired, her family had to deal with that trauma? There was a lot to focus on here, and we understood that. One the one hand, we felt compelled to respond to everything because other people here on campus had a desire to respond to Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland and #SayHerName. The night after it was announced Darren Wilson wasn’t going to be charged for the killing of Michael Brown, people wanted to react. After Charleston this summer, many of us felt burnt out. Constantly responding to incidents that weren’t here. We didn’t have enough people to focus on both, because of attrition. It created this tension internally, asking if we were doing too much without focusing enough on Aura.
Listen to the rest of the interview here: