Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Listen to your students

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 - 1:38pm

On Friday, Feb. 10, I saw a beautiful performance by the Budapest Festival Orchestra at Hill Auditorium. Before the show began, as I looked around at the sea of gray, elderly audience members surrounding me, I saw Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, sitting in the level below me.

On the previous night, I had attended a sit-in protest at the Michigan Union, organized by Students4Justice. As part of the protest, S4J wrote up a list of demands that it wants the administration to meet. The first demand reads as follows: “Acknowledge our humanity and address us-- Muslim, Jewish, Black, Arab, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized students on campus-- in person on Thursday, February 9, 2017 at the Michigan Union.”

Several administrators came and met with the organizers of the protest. But Schlissel never came. I was surprised that Schlissel did not attend this event, especially since the demands being made were very basic and fundamental: Recognize us, see us, treat us with the respect that human beings deserve.

And I’d like to deliberate here why Schlissel might not have attended the protest, a well-publicized event that attracted students, faculty and administrators alike. I saw a video of Schlissel confronting protesters, who were angry about the spate of racist and anti-Semitic emails, and the subsequent lack of a concrete, immediate administrative response, outside of his home the night before the sit-in at the Union. And in that confrontation, Schlissel said, “I feel helpless.”

So perhaps it is this helplessness that renders you silent, that kept you invisible on the night of a student protest and sitting in luxury seating at a classical musical concert on the very next night. Schlissel feels “helpless” to the demands being made by activist groups on campus.

President Schlissel, if I can address you here, you ought to know that you are not alone. Your students who make demands of you also feel helpless. And it is not actually an option for you to feel helpless and then to subsequently refuse to meet with the very students who are calling for change. That’s like me, as a young boy, crying because I’m hungry but then refusing to eat the food my parents give me. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot feel helpless and then refuse to engage your students, who know best what it means to live on this campus. They are the people who can help you feel less helpless. Their demand that you meet with them is an offer to help you feel less helpless, to help you take tangible actions to push our University forward.

Schlissel’s general unresponsiveness reminds me of something Angela Davis, the renowned revolutionary prison abolitionist and civil rights leader, once said. Davis was asked about violence within the Black nationalist movement. The reporter suggested that violence was the only way to achieve the goals stipulated by the movement. And Davis responded:

“When you talk about a revolution, most people think ‘violence,’ without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for, not in the way you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society’s organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions. If you are a Black person and live in the Black community all your life, and walk out on the street every day seeing white policemen surrounding you. … And then you ask me, you know, whether I approve of violence, I mean that just doesn’t make any sense at all.”

In other words, Davis is saying one should not be surprised at violence perpetrated by the movement when violence has been perpetrated by the police and by the dominant white society against Black and brown societies for centuries in the United States. Violence is the norm. To only criticize it when it is perpetrated by Davis and her colleagues is racist and willfully ignorant.

And in this passage, too, Davis defines precisely the flaw in Schlissel’s refusal to respond to demands: Davis criticizes her interviewer for assuming violence comes only from the Black nationalists and not from the white supremacist United States government. Similarly, the idea that demands do not start a conversation presupposes that there are other options for these students to be taking up. It presupposes a sort of absolute innocence on the part of the administration, as if it has done nothing to perpetrate the need for demands.

Of course, these students understand that a demand is different from a request, from setting up a meeting with the president like other students — those students, for example, who do not feel as if their lives are threatened and their humanity silenced — might do. These students know what a demand is and their lived experience informs why demands are necessary.

Schlissel’s logic, then, does not even attempt to understand why demands must be made, why his students feel as if his administration does not recognize their humanity. Instead, you shy away from the demands, as if they aren’t necessary. As if these students ought to feel, of course, that a normal, egalitarian, calm conversation can happen.

So I ask you, President Schlissel, what reason has your office given these students to feel that way? What tangible, in-person, immediate action have you taken to defend these students? For example, you have not addressed police brutality in this country and you have not addressed that this might affect the experience and the perceived safety of marginalized students on this campus. You have not made your solidarity with these marginalized students publicly known; so, in turn, when activists literally came to your doorstep just to get you to make some public statement, to force you hand, you responded with a pathetic, hapless declaration of your own helplessness. 

And then, on the next night, when students, faculty and administrators protested at the Union, you were nowhere to be seen. What kind of a leader — specifically as someone who has repeatedly declared yourself to be a relentless advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion — disappears as your students march, sit and advocate their humanity? 

Please listen to your students. That is all.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.