Hundreds of students protest over planned debate on merits of Black Lives Matter

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - 10:42pm

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A debate Tuesday night sponsored by The Michigan Political Union came to an abrupt halt after nearly 400 community members and University of Michigan students gathered outside the Michigan League’s Vandenberg Room to call for the inclusion of Black voices.

The debate, which featured members of MPU, was slated to discuss the merits of the Black Lives Matter Movement and whether it was “harmful to racial relations in the United States.”

Social Work student Lawrielle West, one of the protest organizers, called the debate unacceptable because of its patronizing and diminutive focus.

“You cannot trivialize my experience as a Black person by debating it,” she said. “How can you debate my experience? I’m not saying I’m better than you or that only Black lives matter or that my life matters more than yours, but I’m saying that Black lives do matter.”

The protest began at the Diag and marched toward the Michigan League, chanting phrases such as “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace.” As the crowd entered during the start of the debate, several protesters asked the audience of about 50 students, “Do you want to hear what Black people have to say?” One of the protest organizers also led a call-and-response chant, including the statement, “Your life is not up for debate, neither is mine.”

The protest and debate came a day after racially charged posters were found in University buildings and around campus, which the University condemned in a statement Monday afternoon. A separate protest was held Monday night by students in response to the posters, and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts also hosted an event Tuesday night for students to discuss the fliers.

LSA senior Joshua Strup, president of the MPU, said the group made the decision to hold its debate before the racially charged incidents that have occurred at the University and Eastern Michigan University this past week. However, he added that he still supported going forward with it.

“We feel that it’s a disservice to the issue itself to shy away from it because of additional events that it deserves to be recognized, it deserves to be heard, it deserves to be discussed and to not do so would be a dismissive attitude,” he said.

The protest had a mixed impact on the debate, halting parts, but not all of it. For several minutes after the protesters entered the event, debaters continued to speak, while protesters continued chanting. Shortly after the chanting began, a new MPU speaker took the podium and engaged with protesters, asking questions and discussing the issues at hand. Protesters then took to the podium directly, and spoke one by one to a mostly quiet crowd, when a disagreement broke out over whether white people should be speaking at the event. The protesters began leaving the room shortly afterward, chanting as they went, and effectively ending the debate.

Standing outside the event while protesters were inside, University Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said he thought it was positive that protesters and event organizers were engaging each other.

“As often happens on this campus, groups with different points of view find a way to get together,” he said. “The dialogue is really important. Listening as well as talking are important for both sides on this campus.”

Many protesters and audience members, however, said though the two groups had been in the same room, not much open dialogue had occurred.

LSA sophomore Allison Hellman, a MPU member, said she did not feel the protesters respected the decorum of debates, which resulted in four of the intended speakers not having the opportunity to speak.

“I thought the protest was fine,” she said. “I thought the initial coming in and saying their piece was fine. I had an issue with once they had said what they were supposed to, what they were going to say, continuing to impede civil discourse.”

LSA junior Corey Walker, who was an audience member, said after the event that he also did not support the disruptive nature of the protest.

“I am Black, so yeah, I want to make life for myself and my family better,” Walker said. “At the same time, I don’t necessarily think that their tactics are going to get us there simply because when you do things like what they did today, like shut down any type of discussion whatsoever, not being willing to listen, interrupting people, discounting facts, screaming and yelling in people’s faces, using profanity, trying to silence people’s voices, it doesn’t move the ball forward.”

Walker added that he felt the Black Lives Matter movement often follows this format, calling it unproductive to achieve long term goals.

“As demonstrated here today, I don’t think this movement is about bridging gaps or actually finding solutions to problems; I think it’s about people who have a specific agenda screaming and yelling, which is fine,” he said. “But in order to make progress, you have to set specific policy goals in order to think about what you want.”

LSA freshman Na’kia Channey, who spoke at the protest, said she wished more dialogue had occurred between audience members and protesters. Citing the disagreement that broke out over whether white students should have been able to talk during the protest, she said she thought the white students should have been allowed to ask relevant questions about the purpose of the protest and Black Lives Matter as a whole. This, she added, is important for allies to understand the movement.

“I know white people have questions about Black Lives Matter,” she said. “And though they can look stuff on the internet, I think it makes sense that we let them ask questions so we can tell them why they need to support our movement.”

However, she also noted the importance of incorporating Black voices in the conversation.

“I totally agree that Black voices need to be listened to,” she said. “It’s very important that when our narrativism is endured so often that we need people to finally listen to what we say.”

LSA junior Chanice Taylor, secretary of the Michigan chapter of the NAACP, said before the march she believes their actions were important as they attracted attention to racist events affecting the Black community on campus.

“I’m here to show my support and bring awareness that these things do happen on campus,” she said. “Although we are making strides as far as diversity, we still have a long way to go.”

Eastern Michigan University seniors Cina Webster and Kaya Mills also said they joined the protest because they thought the debate signified the need to raise awareness about these issues among the student body.

“Tonight showed that there is a ton of ignorance,” Webster said. “Willful ignorance.”

“This is only the first step,” Mills said. “We have to continue doing things like this, we can’t stop. Because if we stop, then they think ‘Oh they’re satisfied.’ But we’re still dying.”

Daily Staff Reporter Will Feuer and Daily News Editor Jackie Charniga contributed reporting to this article.