all you need to know about ongoing student protests in missouri
“This is not a moment, it’s a movement.” – Johnathan Butler
For months students at the University of Missouri (commonly referred to as “Mizzou”) have been protesting against an administration they say does little to protect minority students on campus. Over the last few weeks there has been no shortage of news coming out of Missouri. On top of being difficult to stomach, the ongoing developments are also hard to piece together. But these unfolding events are significant and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Here’s what you need to know about the situation in Missouri:
The Who’s Who
- Tim Wolfe: Former president of the University of Missouri. He resigned Monday after serving as the school’s president for three years.
- R. Bowen Loftin: Former chancellor of the university. He resigned Monday.
- Payton Head: President of the the school’s Student Body.
- Jonathan Butler: Graduate student at the university who began a hunger strike in protest of the school administration.
- The Missouri Tigers: The university’s football team. Also protesting administration, the team refused to play or practice until Wolfe resigned.
- Concerned Student 1950: The school’s Black Student Union. Its name is a historical reference to the year the university admitted its first-ever Black student.
An Ugly Past
Many of us have only recently heard of racist incidents at the university. However the school, founded before the abolition of slavery, has a disturbing history of racism and violence. In 1938 the school denied admission to Lloyd Gaines, a law school applicant, on account of him being African-American. Although his denied application was overturned by the Supreme Court and eventually led to a landmark decision, one year later, Gaines mysteriously disappeared.
He was never seen again and many speculate his disappearance is related to the overturned decision.
Over a century later, the university continues to be shrouded in controversy and violence. In 2011 Sasha Menu Courey, a 20-year-old Toronto woman who attended the school on a swimming scholarship, committed suicide after she was allegedly gang-raped by players on the football team. The alleged attack was reportedly brought to the school’s attention however, no action was ever taken.
With over 35,000 students enrolled last year, Blacks accounted for only seven per cent of Mizzou’s population while white students made up 77 per cent. Although the university’s official Black student government, the Legion of Black Collegians, has called for increased minority representation on campus since the 1960s, this demand they say, has yet to be met.
The Tipping Point
On September 12 Payton Head, president of Mizzou’s student body, wrote a Facebook post alleging he’d been the target of racial slurs on campus. “For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university,” he wrote. “This is my reality.”
Less than a month later, members of the Legion of Black Collegians were also the subject of racial epithets. And on October 24, a swastika made of feces was found on a dormitory wall.
Throughout it all, students say the incidents were reported to administration but no action was taken. But worse are students’ claims that these three now very public instances of racism are only a few of many.
The Concerned Student 1950 eventually submitted a list of eight demands. They included a call for Wolfe’s immediate removal and an increase in the percentage of Black faculty and staff on the university’s campus. The student group met with Wolfe October 27, however no agreement was reached.
The events that followed seemed to happen in rapid succession. On November 2 Jonathan Butler, a senior student and activist, announced his own hunger strike.
“I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.” – Butler
In solidarity, members of the university’s football team soon after announced they would not play or practice until Wolfe resigned. Given the significance of university football in the U.S. (Mizzou’s football team generated over $14 million in 2014 alone), many say this was perhaps the most pivotal moment of the protests.
Tensions were rising. Security was put on high alert as students claimed they had been threatened with violence. Classes were canceled. Protestors set up camp in the university’s quad-area and Mizzou faculty staged a two-day walkout.
Just as everything was about to fall apart, the world was finally paying attention.
On November 9, both the president and chancellor of the university announced their resignations. Speaking at a press conference, Wolfe said his decision to step down came from a place of love rather than hate. He assumed full responsibility for the events that had unfolded.
“”This is not -I repeat, not- the way change should come about,” he said. “Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation. Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”
The former chancellor, Loftin, says he will be transitioning to a new role starting in January.
A Valuable Lesson
The battle isn’t over for Mizzou students. There are still threats of violence being reported and just this morning, a white student was arrested after allegedly making threats on social media. As students have vowed to continue protesting, the situation remains tense. Yet students have shown the world that not only do they want change, but that they are willing to fight for it.
A school significantly divided by race came together on a unified front and despite the odds, they came out on the other side victorious.
University of Missouri students are testimony to the unimaginable strength that can be found in numbers.
Feature image ©Light Brigading