Students demand answers from Schlissel, administrators in night of protesting

Wednesday, September 20, 2017 - 9:38pm

Close to 200 University of Michigan students — including members of the Black Student Union and Students4Justice — gathered Wednesday night on the steps of the Michigan Union to protest racially charged incidents on campus in the past week.

University President Mark Schlissel, University Police Chief Robert Neumann and other administrators met the group upstairs in the Rogel Ballroom, where students demanded answers to questions on investigations into racially charged incidents from this week, and in the past year. Schlissel addressed students for 20 minutes before allowing the others to also answer questions.

As President Schlissel left the Union meeting early, protesters began to march after him along South University Avenue. White students stood arm in arm along the intersection of South University Avenue and State Street as allies, forming a path for protesters to walk.

A man stepped out of car and approached the crowd of protesters. He yelled profanities, leading to a physical altercation.

Protesters expressed outrage the arrestee was not escorted away in handcuffs, and many were originally under the impression the man had not been arrested. Diane Brown, Division of Public Safety and Security spokeswoman, confirmed Wednesday evening a 24-year-old man not affiliated with the University had been arrested.

This was the only arrest and incident of the night, Brown said. As of 10:30 p.m., she was unsure whether DPSS had released the man, or who he attacked. Eyewitnesses, however, claimed the man punched multiple students. Black students said he called them “n------” repeatedly.   

The crowd then proceeded down South University Avenue to Schlissel’s home, where protesters began posting signs with Black Lives Matter and #BBUM — the viral hashtag “Being Black at the University of Michigan” students used to voice their experiences being a student of color at the University in 2013.

Students said a critical mass of racially charged incidents pushed them to protest Wednesday. On Sept. 17, three Black student’s name tags were defaced with racial slurs in West Quad Residence Hall. Schlissel sent out a tweet denouncing the incident, but a number of Black students said Schlissel needed to take a more public stand.

The same day, Ann Arbor community members discovered racial slurs on a building on Liberty and State streets reading “Free Dylann Roof” and “I hate n------.” Earlier this year, students discovered anti-Latino and pro-Trump graffiti on the Rock, a University landmark. In February, Engineering students received anti-Black and anti-Semitic emails — later discovered to be spoofed — from a University professor’s account hailing “the return of the KKK” and Nazis. And this month a year ago, racist flyers propagating white supremacist messages claiming proof for “racial differences in intelligence” littered posting walls around campus.

LSA freshman Tyler Washington, one of the protest organizers, said she did not see Schlissel’s tweet until a few days after the incident, and believes an email would have been more appropriate. She went into the meeting expecting action, but restated afterward administrators’ responses remained disappointing, and students would take matters into their own hands.

“I literally said the ideas, and (Schlissel) said, ‘All right, so what else do you want to do?’” she said. ”They literally were not acknowledged. How are we the ones that have to deal with all the racial tension on campus, and then on top of that you want me to do my schoolwork, and get good grades?”

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, attended the protest and sit-in to voice firm opposition to the expressions of hatred and racism at the University and downtown Ann Arbor.

“First of all, as an elected official, it’s important that I understand what the concerns of my constituents are,” Rabhi said. “Second of all, I am appalled by the incidents of racist expression that have happened on campus and I think something needs be done about it.”

In his speech at the Union, Schlissel explained his intention to work together with Black students on prevention and education.

“I’d love to hear your ideas, and what you expect of us,” Schlissel said. “I want to learn what you think the administration should be doing beyond what we’ve already done to help make this a better place for you so that you can get what you want out of Michigan. You all belong here, and I want to make sure you get that message.”

Many, however, decried a lack of updates from police investigations into racist incidents. University NAACP chapter President Isaiah Land, an LSA senior, questioned the lack of resolutions or perpetrators’ identities.

“I had a meeting earlier with Schlissel in the (president’s) house, and he basically told me all of the things that I didn’t want to hear,” Land said. “I asked him how many people have been caught in these investigations when racial incidents pop up, and he told me that there were zero people caught in the last four years. They couldn’t even find the people who were doing this stuff over the internet, and we have a hackathon at the University every year? That’s just ridiculous.”

At the meeting, a student called for the arrest of a student who posted racial slurs on his Snapchat story, citing this as an example of a situation where the identity of could be found, yet to no action from the University. Schlissel chose not to comment on this suggestion.

LSA freshman Madison Peterson called for more than investigations.

“To me, investigation just means it is going to be swept under the rug, and I actually want punishment for these people, because I want to feel safe on campus,” she said. “I don’t want to be targeted in the classroom, outside of the classroom, at social events, I just want to come here and get an education without being targeted for being a Black girl.”

Postdoctoral fellow Austin McCoy, an adviser to Students4Justice and veteran organizer, said students’ claims warranted a response from administrators.   

“They asked (Schlissel), have you ever caught anyone, and (he) said no, and I think just that exchange shows that the students have facts to backup the fact that they don’t feel safe,” McCoy said. “I think that the longer it takes to actually hold someone accountable for doing these acts, the more tension there’s going to be.”

LSA freshman Nick Zazula said, as a white student, racism on campus pertained to him, too.

“I’m an ally, and I think that there is obviously a problem here, and that’s why people are coming together and any kind of systematic issue isn’t just a problem for Black people; it’s a problem for all of us, and I think that’s something we should address together as a student body,” Zazula said.

At Schlissel’s house, organizers told the crowd they must decide whether they want to stay on the lawn of the house or reassemble tomorrow. The majority of the crowd remained on the lawn, but leaders reinforced that health comes first and it was all right if protesters needed to leave to complete homework.

About 50 students remained on the lawn at about 9:30 p.m., prepared to stay there until the next morning. McCoy warned administrators against drawing investigations out.

“The last thing you want is for students to try to take things into their own hands in a way that could be harmful to them,” he said.