Friday, February 23, 2018

Beyond the March: A brief local history on black student organizing, 2015-2017

Students prepare for 2016 march

On January 20, 2015, on January 19, 2016, and on September 21, 2017, the Black Student Union (BSU) at SIUE organized silent marches to raise awareness about the treatment of African Americans. The marches, which involved a variety of people and student organizations, were the results of extended coordination as well as trial and error. I serve as the group's advisor, and we chose silent marches as a way of creativity prompting people at the university to listen.

[Related: Beyond the March event]

During Black History Month, there are books and films and other programs designed to chart major historical events, but how does one learn about developments that take place in one’s own community? The exhibit we hosted yesterday provided one attempt at an answer. The photos and brief observations about the marches provide documentation of what took place.

2015 march preparation
The challenge of learning local black student history
In a debriefing session after the 2017 march, a first-year student said, “this is just the beginning.” But was it really? If the aftermath of that march was the beginning, then what were the days of preparation leading to the march? What were the 2015 and 2016 marches? What were the years of less-publicized, organizing among black students that took place prior to 2015?

Faculty and staff, new students, and others outside the BSU loop are sometimes unaware of what groups of black students have done beyond a single march. Becoming knowledgeable about what African American students at SIUE have done over the years to respond to cultural insensitivity and anti-racism is a challenge.

2015 March

The 2015 BSU March
The January 2015 emerged as students in BSU were trying to figure out how to make some of their concerns more apparent to the university as a whole. In retrospect, that march had broader, beyond-the-campus messages in comparison to the subsequent marches. Students created signs that addressed police brutality and mentioned names like Sandra Bland and Mike Brown.

2015 die-in
The 2015 march channeled the Black Lives movement with signs referencing Mike Brown and Sandra Bland, and a die-in in the MUC.

2015 march

2015 die-in

The 2015 march provided a core group of students with experience planning and organizing. Their experience would form the basis for a series of events that took place on campus over the years.

The 2016 BSU march

The 2016 BSU March
The January 2016 march involved more than 70 students participated. The march was an extension of ongoing activism and consciousness-raising among African American students on campus. The organizers were trying to address at least two audiences. On the one hand, they had been charting how university officials and programs exclude African American students. To take one example, the full scholarship recipients, honors program participants, and many other major extracurricular academic support beneficiaries at SIUE have been whiter than the 2016 Oscar nominees.

2016 march

On the other hand, the BSU students were trying to speak directly to fellow black students. They sought to raise consciousness by producing signs that encouraged their African American peers to embrace "black knowledge" and "unity."

2017 march

The 2017 BSU March
The September 2017 march sought to raise awareness about the inadequate response by university officials to a black student who was the target of a racist slur. This march, like one in 2016 and one in 2015, was part of a continuing effort on behalf of African American students at SIUE to express their concerns.

2017 march

From die-in to walk-in

Students prepare to walk in to office of Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs

The 2015 march included a die-in in the MUC, but the 2017 included a different approach. Students decided to walk into the offices of the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs. The students left notes urging the administrators to do more about racial slurs and apparent indifference that are distinct hazards for black students at SIUE.

2015 march 

BSU don’t get no credit
Relatively few people at SIUE understand just how self-critical BSU officers have been of themselves. As the advisor, I’ve thought about it quite often. Each year, when I meet with new executive officers for the group, I listen patiently as they run down a list of critiques they have or have heard concerning BSU. Some of the critiques are legit, I suppose.

2016 march

"But here’s the thing lil brothers and sisters," I’ve repeatedly had to say, "BSU don’t get no credit," certainly not enough acknowledgement for the many positive contributions the organization has made on campus. Hardly anyone discusses the implications of a group with so much black diversity that has consistently mobilized large numbers of people – black and non-black – and addressed important, timely issues.

2016 March

Underground organizing
There was concern among some BSU members that whenever they advertised events that were critical of the university, their activities were somewhat silenced. As a result, they began devising ways to promote events below the radar, off of social media. Sometimes, they sent text messages. Other times, they went further old-school by distributing information about public events by word of mouth.

What difference did the marches make in the short term?
First and foremost, the marches gave a large number of SIUE students, especially black students, an opportunity to participate in direct, organized, collective action. The marches gave student organizers opportunities to think and act creatively about addressing problems at the university. In addition, the demonstrations gave a group of black students the chance to express themselves to a group of university administrators – who have historically been and remain almost exclusively white.

2017 march

What difference did the marches make in the long term?
The January 2015 march advanced a long process of making university officials more attentive to African American student interests. Among other outcomes, that march paved the way for BSU organizers to take an active role in a meeting with administrators that took place on the evening of November 16, 2015, which led to a university commitment to hire more black professors. That commitment would have taken much longer without that meeting, and that meeting would have been harder to imagine without the previous march.

All three marches have been directly and indirectly linked to African American hires and appointments made by the university as well as more pointed conversations about African Americans on campus.

A few news outlets in the region now take more notice of black student organizing, which includes the BSU marches.

Black Student Union Demonstration (2017)
Black Student Union: chalking about anti-black violence (2016)
Silent March at SIUE (2016)
Smarter Than You Think -- from book title to political statement (2016)
3,600 seconds before a silent march at SIUE (2015)
Silent March at SIUE (2015)

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