Public Health student Dana Greene knelt at the block ‘M’ on the Diag for 21 hours.
It was not a cool fall day, either — the sun bore down on University of Michigan students at a peak 91 degrees.
Greene, along with dozens of other students, gathered at the Diag to kneel in protest of racism across the country, mirroring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s own kneel last year that lost him his job. Food, water and drinks were shared, and a tent was later set up.
People of all varying backgrounds unified together, Greene said, in a way that was surreal to him.
For the Michigan vs. Michigan State game Saturday — a rare night game nonetheless — Greene has plans.
In hopes of keeping the spirit of last Monday alive, Greene and his team are calling upon students, faculty and Michigan fans to kneel and sit during national anthem.
A letter written by Greene circulated this week explaining his message.
“I am no longer looking to administration to take a stand against these and the countless other acts of racists and xenophobic actions that have taken place on OUR campus and across the country,” he wrote. “I am turning to you, to students, to staff, to faculty. I ask you, who are we now? … Who are we if we allow our African American, Latinx, Muslim, LGBTQ communities, etc. to feel alone as they solely constantly combat these acts?”
The Michigan Daily sat down with Greene to hear about his experiences kneeling on the Diag, his thoughts on campus climate and his hopes for Saturday’s protest.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The Michigan Daily: What were your thoughts on campus climate before last Monday?
Greene: I thought it was terrible. It just really struck me because I just remember being a freshman here — it wasn’t that long ago. I had some negative experiences but nothing as avert and obvious — blatant racism — like incoming freshmen have to experience. I couldn’t imagine coming back to my dorm room as a freshman like two weeks, three weeks in and see racist slurs across my door.
I am trying to get my feet wet and figure out college life and who my friends are and what to study and, next I know, I am organizing a protest because somebody decided they wanted to call me derogatory racial slurs. And so, I remember thinking, “Well, these things are going to happen. Toughen it up, because that’s what I had to do.” Then I just remember, no — students shouldn’t have to do that. “Oh, I have to deal with students being racist to me or seeing racist flyers on campus or whatever” — no, people should be able to walk around campus in their own skin and be their authentic selves and not have to worry about that. But yet, we do. And that is just unacceptable.
I always hate to bring it back to this event but it is just like a fact — at least for me — that once President Trump came to the scene as not only a candidate, but as president, that’s when things started to change. I am not going to say what we thought no longer exists because we always knew (racism) was there. But it used to be unacceptable to do or say or act on. But now it has become acceptable.
Just a few weeks ago, Latino students who were just excited to be here painted the Rock with their culture and their names and next thing you know, there’s another set of racial slurs attacking Latino students with “Make America Great” attached to it. So essentially doing it in President Donald Trump’s name.
If I am a freshman or an undergraduate student or just anybody in general, how am I supposed to exist in this space, where not only do I feel like my own student body doesn’t support me, but then my country doesn’t support me? The President of United States basically sanctioned this behavior. He put the rubber stamp on this behavior. People can disagree with me on this or not — that’s their right to. But that is my belief.
TMD: What do you think the University — administration, teachers, students — are doing wrong in regards to campus climate and bias incidents?
Greene: For me, there isn’t any one policy or something that isn’t in the books that should be written there that is going to change what students on this campus, faculty, staff, etc., are feeling. For me, it’s bigger than that. It’s, what do we allow to happen? When you see racist flyers on campus, how many people walk past them without ripping them down? Or when you see somebody painted something racist on the Rock, how many people do not paint over? We allow these things to happen and that’s why they continue to come here.
When students organize and protest about some of these injustices, we don’t hear support or, “I am sorry you had to go through that” — and I am not speaking about administration, I am speaking about fellow students — we hear, “Oh, you’re inconveniencing us.” Or, “The way you are going about spreading your message is wrong.” And instead of thinking about why we are taking the actions we are taking, we are hearing about the how and what. And to me, that’s not important. Because if I am feeling so disenfranchised that I can’t live my life to the best of my abilities, that I feel like I have to protest to get my point across to the people who describe that as inconveniencing them, then why do I feel desperate that I have to do that?
Many people back in the ’60s, when Black students at a lunch counter protest their right to sit at the same lunch counter as everyone else, people said that inconvenienced them. … But now I am allowed to eat at the same lunch counters as everybody else and I am allowed to sit wherever I want on the bus; we look back on those figures of history with gratitude and respect. But right now, when we see our fellow students or whoever organizing protests, people say it’s an inconvenience to them.
But you know, take the time to think about what it is like to live in somebody else’s skin. To wake up one day and see the N-word scrawled across your door or to say you should go back across the border or you can’t use the bathroom you want to use. These are the things I want people to think about when I did my protest on Monday. Ask why. When I was kneeling there for the whole time, I wanted you to ask why. Why do we have to do this? Why do I put myself through such excruciating pain just to get a point across?
When people are saying, “Oh, what you are doing is disrespecting the flag, etc. etc.” — if I wanted to disrespect the flag, if I wanted to disrespect the country, I would have climbed up the flagpole and pulled the flag down and went into the center of the Diag and burned the flag. But then instead, I took a knee. And from my own personal experience, the only time I have ever seen someone take a knee is to worship the god of their choice or to wish well-being someone when they are hurt, whether it is on the football field or otherwise. I have never seen the sign of someone taking a knee as disrespectful.
When I was down there on Monday and looking to the flag, one of the things I was thinking in the early stages was, “I know this country means better than this. You symbolize more than what we are showing right now.” So if people think me or anybody else — Colin Kaepernick, who initially started this — taking a knee and looking up to something, and asking this country and yourself to be better is disrespectful then I have to question what you mean by respect. Is respect simply keeping our mouth shut and accepting that we aren’t living up to our values? Or is it saying, no, we are better than this and we deserve better that this?
TMD: What were some of the experiences you had on Monday? What brought you to the Diag?
Greene: The night before, I vented all these frustrations to my girlfriend and a cough woke me up at 5 a.m., and I remember the day before watching all of the attacks on professional athletes and all of these attacks saying, “Oh, how dare they, they have all of the money in the world, they should be thankful.”
And so, when I went to bed that night, I didn’t have plans to do anything, just get up and go to my classes like I have been doing. But when I woke up that night, I just went to the bathroom and I was just like, “This is what I am doing to do today. I am going to go out and I am going to take a knee. I am going to type this letter and I am going to take a knee at the Diag and I am going to stay for as long as I can. And if people want to attack me for doing this, they can do so. That’s their right to do so.”
But I am not doing this because I have all of the money in the world and nothing to lose. I have everything to lose. For all I know, President Schlissel could have called me up and said, “Oh, you’re disrespecting the flag, you’re kicked out of the University.”
But to me, that didn’t matter. To me, what mattered more was doing something for the students on this campus and across this nation, all people, who felt like this country does not care for them and this campus does not care for them. And to really symbolize the pain that people are feeling right now. There is a lot of pain and I don’t think people recognize it.
Protesting, a lot of people go, “What you are protesting is not real, the way you are protesting is wrong.” It’s not, “Why is this person protesting?” It’s amazing to me how there is always right or wrong to do something, but people never look at the why. And that is something I am always going to keep coming back to, is the, “Why do we feel the need to do this?” You can come back and attack me all you want — I can go and block traffic right now and I could inconvenience you for five minutes — but what is making me so desperate that I feel like I have to go out and stand in the street and risk my safety to get my point across?
Think about how many people walked past me when people were going to classes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of students walked past me (in the beginning). I could have been down hurt and very few people came and ask, “Are you okay?” “Is there anything I can do for you?” Nothing like that. Even if I was there to protest, I would prefer if people asked me, “Why are you kneeling here?” We claim to care so much about our neighbors and our people but barely anybody stopped.
But then a crowd started to grow. Which is exactly what I wanted, to care about one another and what other people are going through, and emphasizing with one another. And the crowd did, and I could never thank those people enough. Because they symbolize what is best on this campus, best in this country.
It was all so completely surreal to see so many different people come together for one purpose. The thing I wanted people to understand about my protest is that, I was not kneeling for my reasons but when you came to sit next to me, I was kneeling for your reasons. Whatever you brought with you that I wasn’t aware of, that’s what you were kneeling for. And in solidarity, I was kneeling for that too. I felt their shared pain. A lot of people want to make this what I did individually, but there were students who were there for well over ten hours.
TMD: What is your reaction to the University administration’s response to your demonstration on Monday? Has anyone, on or off campus, reached out to you afterwards?
Greene: The outpour of support was fantastic. My inbox was completely full of nothing but support and love and thankfulness for was what I was doing. I couldn’t appreciate that enough. Just some high school students from Ann Arbor said thank you, which was crazy. I didn’t even know we reached that far.
People I went to high school with reached out to me, (a high school organization) reached out to me. And they really shaped who I am today, so that meant a lot. It was nothing but support and love and I am sure there was negativity there but I didn’t feel it.
I am glad administration came out to kneel with me for however period they could, or stand or sit with me. That was great. And having the opportunity to meet with Schlissel has all been great — I appreciate them taking the time to hear from me. I truly, sincerely think all of administration wants to make things better.
But as I said, there isn’t one policy or action that administration can take that is going to change our campus climate. It has to be us — the students. This can’t be a top-down thing. It’s got to be a bottom-up thing. If we stand next to each other in solidarity and say “this racial animosity is unacceptable,” that’s what is going to bring change, not any administrative policy.
TMD: What are your hopes for Saturday? How did this come together and who are you working with?
Greene: One, to keep the momentum going from last Monday. We have protests on this campus all the time. And almost immediately afterwards — even in my circumstance, someone peed on the Diag — immediately afterwards there is a pushback and an animosity towards the protestors.
And during my protest I felt such unity from all different backgrounds. We thought as a team that it was important we kept it going. And to be quite honest, on a stage such a Saturday, one of the biggest games of the year — the second biggest of the year — we are going to have the biggest stage we possible could have. It was an opportunity to give a statement.
What me and my team (fellow graduate students and friends of Greene) are hoping to do on Saturday is get people to just sit. I am not asking you to sit at every national anthem that comes up from here to Wazzo. Just for this one time. Me and my team are basically putting blind faith into each individual on this campus to do this for us and each other. I can’t make anybody sit — I would never do that.
But I am putting faith for students to show solidarity for those who are facing injustices not just this year but their whole lives — but especially this year. I feel like I wake up — and I have not lived a very long life — but I feel like every day we are going backwards.
I think we have the opportunity to do something. If we can’t speak for the whole country, we can at least speak for campus. And I am not just calling on Michigan, I am calling on Michigan State, I am calling on Eastern. I am calling on whoever can hear me and whoever can hear my voice to kneel or sit in solidarity with us to say “we need to do better than this.” We are better than this, I truly believe that.
I don’t want to bring (football players and the marching band) into this because they have other pressures and things they have to consider when engaging in an act of protest and I want to be respectful of that. What I will say is that when I reach out to other students and staff and faculty, what I am asking is not an easy thing to ask. It’s going to take courage. If it goes off the way we are hoping it goes off, like the whole stadium or student section, we would absolutely and 120 percent receive tremendous backlash for it. And it wouldn’t be a popular choice. It is something that takes courage.
What I am looking for on Saturday is not only Black student and Latino students and Muslim students or gay students to sit in protest — I am looking for all. For everybody. Not in disrespect to the flag or this country or the great people who have served it and died for it, but to say, “No, we aren’t living up to our values. What can we do as a country, as a nation, as a campus to live up to what we should be standing for?”