After the grand juries’ final decisions to not indict the police officers who were involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Ithaca College students have come together in protest and discussion to deliberate how they can make a difference in terms of perceived systematic oppression students feel on campus.
Their efforts are among a wave of nationwide demonstrations, including “die-ins,” marches and statements, on college campuses.
At Ithaca College, students have taken the issue to the streets, to the administration and, most recently, to the campus police in a panel discussion called IC for Ferguson.
Terri Stewart, director of public safety and emergency management, communicated with students as a panelist at the event Dec. 8 in Emerson Suites, alongside three members of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity: assistant professors Gustavo Licon and Sean Eversley Bradwell and associate professor Paula Ioanide.
Senior Malika Giddens and sophomore Victor Lopez-Carmen organized the panel discussion in conjunction with Sister to Sister and the African-Latino Society to host an open dialogue about racism and systemic oppression, issues that many students have already voiced on campus.
Though multiple members of the Ithaca Police Department were invited to be panelists at the event, Giddens said there were too many administrative processes to go through to bring in the IPD. Stewart was the only member of Public Safety invited, and she said she did not feel it was an appropriate place to have officers in uniform. Instead, she said she came on her own simply to listen.
“I was invited here, and I hope people aren’t surprised that I have a wide range of emotions as well,” she said. “I also bring to this table my experiences, my values and my beliefs of who I am.”
The event began with students expressing their discontent with the grand juries’ decisions and what those cases signified to them. On Facebook, nearly 300 people said they would attend the event, but the discussion only pulled in an audience of around 60 people. Junior Audra Prowell said she was disappointed with the relatively low turnout and how it implied the social justice movement was already dying down.
“Progressively, since the first rally that took place right after break, I have lost hope, and not just because of certain verdicts,” Prowell said. “You all are opinionated, but you’re not here to speak up.”
Students later discussed how social issues are handled in a classroom environment. Many complained that concerns like racial oppression were not brought up in classes at all. Ioanide said students should take control of this and speak up in classes.
“It is your education — you’re paying for it,” Ioanide said. “It is you that has to raise these issues out there, and the classroom is the safest place you can do so. Speak up, and hold your professors accountable. At least you spoke, and that won’t choke you later in the night.”
Many students also expressed complaints about the fact that there are no people of color within the campus police officer staff and wanted Stewart to explain how Public Safety handles racism within the department.
Stewart said campus police officers undergo six months of training with the New York State Police Academy and an additional six months on campus. Public Safety also holds annual training sessions, which are not required by state law, to teach officers how they can approach somebody and what a reasonable cause is, regardless of position, race, gender, age or sexual orientation. As to why there are no people of color on the Public Safety staff, Stewart said the African-American officers Public Safety has hired were quickly promoted to higher-paying jobs in different departments.
“In my five years here we have been deliberate about hiring diverse officers, but it’s difficult to retain them,” Stewart said. “Part of that is that in campus policing, it’s highly competitive. As soon as we hire someone of a particular race and they come and get good training, someone higher up wants to hire them.”
Ioanide said students should stop looking to the Public Safety institutions they feel oppressed by and rather work from the ground up to mobilize change.
“The first thing you have to do is create a community of consciousness that does validate and witness that systematic oppression exists,” she said. “Until you get solidarity around this grassroots community, it’s not likely that you will be successful with those higher institutions you feel marginalized by. From there, you build enough power.”
The grassroots events began Dec. 1 with the student-organized “Hands Up Walk Out” rally at Free Speech Rock at the exact time of day Brown was shot. Students echoed chants of “No Justice, No Peace” and “Hands up Don’t Shoot” in conjunction with similar walk-out protests across the country.
Their cries continued the afternoon of Dec. 4 when over 300 students participated in a die-in protesting the Eric Garner decision in three areas of campus: outside of Emerson Suites, IC Square and in front of the college’s Information Desk. The students later joined townspeople for a similar demonstration on Aurora Street at sunset the same day.
After the afternoon die-in, the students spontaneously took the protest to the Peggy Ryan Williams building, where the offices of the president and provost are located. Once there, many members of the group yelled for Ithaca College President Tom Rochon to address the crowd. As Rochon spoke to the students, he was interrupted multiple times by protesters asking for him to address the police brutality issue and then for his support in establishing a Native American Studies minor program, to which he responded with assurance of his advocacy.
Three days later, Rochon issued an Intercom statement saying the college already offers a Native American Studies minor in the School of Humanities and Sciences with courses that draw on seven academic departments and four faculty members connected with the program. CSCRE Director Asma Barlas disputed Rochon’s data in a comment on his statement.
On Dec. 9, the Native American Student Association addressed Rochon’s statement, advocating for the hiring of a full-time, tenure eligible or part-time faculty member within the minor.
The crowd of students in Peggy Ryan Williams also demanded a response from Rochon to the issues of racial injustice.
“I’m not going to speak of police brutality and injustice — you are the leaders, this is your issue,” Rochon said to the crowd of students.
“You have your voices,” he later said, to which the students promptly responded with the familiar chant, “White Silence is White Consent.”
This article has been updated to reflect the following change: The original article reported that multiple members of the Ithaca College Office of Public Safety were invited to be panelists and that only Terri Stewart decided to attend. Stewart was the only member of Public Safety invited to be a panelist.