This story has been updated with a statement from E. Royster Harper, President Schlissel and tweets from Central Student Government.
Responding to recent racist events on campus and a national controversy brewing around NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem, Rackham student Dana Greene kneeled at the block ‘M’ in the Diag starting at 7 a.m. Monday morning. As of 9 p.m. on Monday afternoon, Greene remained on the Diag, with plans to complete a full 24-hours of kneeling.
“I’ve been on this campus for five years, I did my undergraduate here and each year the campus climate has gotten worse and worse,” Greene said. “The recent election, the man who holds the highest office the land, the president of the United States (Donald Trump), has made this issue even worse.”
Close to 100 students, faculty and staff knelt with Greene throughout the day, with many more standing around the block ‘M’ on the Diag in solidarity. By the afternoon, protesters had two tents pitched above their heads and dozens of cartons of water bottles at their feet.
University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel wrote in a statement that though he is off-campus on University business, he supports Greene’s protest and will meet with him “as soon as he is back on campus.” Schlissel and Greene spoke by phone early in the afternoon.
“I share with many the belief that our nation does not always live up to its highest ideals, including the equal rights we hold dear,” Schlissel wrote. “To me, the American Flag represents many things, including those very rights. I support (Greene’s) right to engage in peaceful protest.”
Greene continued, adding Trump’s policies and responses have made it harder to be a Black person in the United States.
“He’s made it harder for people who look like me and don’t look like me to walk this campus, to feel comfortable in our own skin and I’m here to tell him, and our own campus president that what we are dealing with is not OK,” Greene said. “It’s not right. If I have to sit here until my knees bleed, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
In a letter addressed to Schlissel that circulated around the Diag, Greene traced his experiences with racism in his five years on campus.
“I have crossed the fountain in Ingalls Mall as an incoming freshman and as a graduate,” he wrote. “I have watched as anti-Muslim, anti-Black, anti-Latinx, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has raced across our campus and across our country…I am no longer numb but instead I will use this moment in time to make a statement.”
E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, said she was proud of the students who were protesting that morning.
“I think that (I am proud of), not only the student who chose to take a knee, but also all the students — how they feel about equality in our country and also at our University. I am just glad to be here to be in support and make sure everything goes well. I couldn’t be more pleased, actually,” she said.
Last year, Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was the first professional athlete to take a knee during the national anthem to draw attention to anti-Black racism and police brutality in the United States. Trump blasted Kaepernick in a speech this weekend, telling owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”
“What Colin Kaepernick did last year, taking a knee, wasn’t to disrespect the troops. In fact, I think I’m honoring the troops right now because they gave me the right to do this. My father served in the military, and … this isn’t disrespecting the flag, this is honoring it,” Greene said. “If Black people can get killed in this country and not get any justice for their lives, for their murder, then that’s disrespecting the flag.”
Following the white nationalist groups protesting the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, in Charlottesville, Va., President Trump blamed “all sides” for the violence that occurred, which received a great deal of backlash.
“If the president of the United States can equate peaceful protesters with KKK members and the alt-right, that is disrespecting the flag,” Greene explained. “This is not disrespecting the flag, and I’m doing this for every student on this campus that has ever felt like they didn’t belong here, any person in this country who felt like they didn’t belong here.”
In the morning, Greene said he was surprised Schlissel could not come to the Diag. Throughout the afternoon, administrators including E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life; Provost Martin Philbert; Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones; and Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers stood at the edge of the Diag.
“I’ve been out here since 7 o’clock, it’s damn near 90 degrees out here, the president of the campus ain’t even showed up. So how much is my life worth?” Greene said. “He can come out here, but that’s not going to send me home. That’s a start.”
Many ordered rounds of pizza to the protestors, and Counseling and Pyschological Services distributed yoga mats to those kneeling.
Central Student Government President Anushka Sarkar, LSA senior, tweeted solidarity with students protesting.
LSA sophomore Jamaal Stewart joined other students to kneel at the Diag.
“I’ve known Dana for just one day, but we’re all here together in solidarity for everything that’s going on in general in the country, and now on campus,” he said. “We’re all standing together because we need to be respected. There’s too much injustice on campus as well as in America. I have class at like 5 (p.m.), but I don’t even know if I’m going to go. I might just stay out here.”
LSA junior Samaria Landers said she came because she was concerned with campus climate.
“We don’t feel safe in class, we don’t feel safe in the dorms, we don’t feel safe in our apartments. We’re being targeted as a racial group,” she said. “(Greene) said his goals were to bring awareness to all minorities on campus, and it is really unified over there, really diverse, and I think he’s really highlighting that. I just want it to be an open, comfortable space where we can all learn. We’re supposed to be here to learn and we have to go to class and worry about racism. If people have to be punished for what they’ve done, then that’s what I want.”
Maya Goldman contributed to the reporting of this article.