Reflecting on the Howard University Protests

“Now they have come to the place where their faith can no longer feed on the bread of repression and violence. They ask for the bread of liberty, of public equality, and public responsibility. It must not be denied them.”

If any single figure in history embodied the spirit and legacy of Howard University, it was Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. During his record 34-year tenure serving as Howard’s first black president, beginning in 1926, Johnson bolstered student enrollment and hired distinguished scholars on as faculty. He also succeeded in transforming the law school into the nation’s most prominent institution for African-American lawyers, including future Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Johnson wrote the above quote in a 1922 edition of The Crisis to reinforce his conviction that substantial societal change was paramount towards ending racial oppression in the U.S. Ninety-six years later, as I watched students announce the end of a nine-day occupation outside of Howard University’s administrative headquarters, which bears Johnson’s name, his words felt just as relevant.

Students who flooded the Johnson building two weeks ago marched with a call for dramatic change. Days prior, the organizing protest group HU Resist published a list containing nine demands aimed at Howard’s Board of Trustees. Their list targeted a variety of administrative failures including the university’s weak sexual assault policy enforcement and unsubstantiated tuition hikes. One message was constantly reinforced by leadership during my five days at the protest: we are not leaving until all demands are all met.

Few of us can really anticipate the full experience of attending a historically black university (HBCU). For myself, a white kid from the Philadelphia suburbs, that fact seems obvious. But I hear my black friends who attended high school in primarily white institutions (PWIs) speak of the unusual experience of seeing so many faces in class that resemble their own. The HBCU experience, as many have attested to, is one-of-a kind in so many ways.

HBCUs also brand themselves as institutions where black beauty, culture, and self-love are celebrated. They are meant to provide spaces where young people do not have to apologize for taking pride in their skin color. In a class conversation, one friend recounted an incident in her hometown in which a group of white neighborhood mothers lobbied to expel her from school after her group of friends dressed up as the Black Panthers for Halloween. The hope of a school like Howard is to help students escape from those hostile environments.

But my peers have made it clear in conversations that of one of the greatest disappointments in attending Howard was realizing that even in a nearly all-black school, the forces of systemic racism and oppression still hold sway. They just take another form.

One of the pressing issues that HU Resist raised in their concerns was the presence of armed security on campus. In their list of demands, the protest group asked for “the immediate disarming of campus police officers and the formation of a Police Oversight Committee controlled by students, faculty, staff, and off-campus community representatives.” They stressed the need for a way to hold campus security accountable to student complaints and “a preventative approach to police violence.”

The administration agreed to the task force, but has been very hesitant on the disarming of security.

African-Americans have long had a tense relationship with law enforcement. And the uneven power dynamics between the police and students of color do not disappear simply because the officers at Howard are black. Representation in law enforcement is certainly important for the community, but research suggests that racial diversity in police departments actually has little impact on police violence. With good reason, there are concerns about having armed police patrol a historically black campus.

Protest leadership asked students at a debriefing meeting to indicate if they ever had a negative experience with security from the Howard Department of Public Safety (HDPS). About half of the students raised their hands. When leadership asked those who knew someone with a negative experience, almost the entire room raised their hands.

Many students complained that campus police made them feel more intimidated than secure. Howard shares its status as one of two schools in D.C. with armed campus police with the University of D.C., another historically black college. Some students on campus wonder: why do the black schools need to have police with guns when other schools don’t?

Another reason to question the benefit of armed security is that the D.C. Metropolitan Police already has jurisdiction over serious crimes committed on campus. Howard University Police are simply contracted through the MPD, so it does not make sense to regard them as extra resources at the city’s disposal either. If anything, HDPS faces a larger issue with its infrastructure. Many of the blue light posts on campus, intended to instantly alert security to a crime, are not functional or are labeled “under repair”. One student recounted an incident in which she helplessly ran from post to post and pressed the emergency buttons while being followed, only to realize that none of her calls were being answered.

Many at the protest also complained that an app rolled out by the university intended to allow students to instantly contact campus police does not work. In other words, there are police with guns, but no real campus safety for students.

Howard’s complex relationship with its students and community are not limited to just police relations. Anyone who has lived in the LeDroit-Shaw neighborhood for more than a decade can attest to the rampant gentrification that has been changing the area. What used to be the center of the “Chocolate City” has seen a sharp decline in the black population as higher-earning whites have poured into the area, causing home prices to skyrocket. Howard University has played a key role in these changes.

In 2016, President Wayne A.I. Frederick signed off on a deal to convert student dormitories into luxury apartment rentals near Meridian Hill. The move has been praised as a step towards reviving the university’s financial standing, but is also a contributing factor towards gentrification. As housing prices in D.C. have more than quadrupled since 1991, many rentals are simply becoming too unaffordable for residents to stay in. Some elderly residents speak of not being able to pay taxes and moving out.

In February, HU Resist held a joint student-community meeting at a church down the street to discuss gentrification. One demand leadership raised two weeks ago included the allocation of funds to fight food security and gentrification in the surrounding neighborhood. The administration has agreed to establish a food pantry, and will decide on the creation of a community board to preside over new real estate projects by 2019. Hopefully, these measures are not too little too late.

HU Resist also sought to address the under resourced mental health infrastructure at Howard and encouraged the university to designate mental health issues as a legitimate reason to miss class. Many students have complained that it can take weeks to schedule an appointment with the university’s limited number of counselors, and walk-ins are forced to wait hours before receiving services. Additionally, HU Resist voiced that the university does not staff counselors who specialize in gender/sexuality or interpersonal violence.

Students speak of a stigma surrounding mental health in the African-American community, and African-Americans on average experience 20% more serious mental health issues than the general population. For an HBCU to not provide adequate resources to address mental health is to both reinforce that stigma and fail to satisfy student health needs in their unfamiliar college experience.

Racial politics are also inevitably intertwined with the university’s finances. The Trump administration’s most recent budget proposal makes significant cuts to the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program and the Federal Work Study program, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. 90% of students who attend HBCUs receive some sort of federal assistance for college, and Congress recently made cuts to Howard’s operating revenue. The federal government’s opinion of universities like ours has a tremendous impact on our ability to function effectively.

Oliver Robinson, an organizer with HU Resist, said at the end-of-occupation press conference Friday that the safe space leadership attempted to create over the 9-days in the Johnson building reflected the hope that black people would be made a priority. People of color at Howard may not experience overt racism and microaggression the same way they might at a primarily white institution. However, the shadow of systemic oppression still encompasses many aspects of life here. Organizations like HU Resist have been working tirelessly to address this reality. Based on the statement of commitments issued by the university, we can trust grassroots action to be an effective tool for change in the future.

But unfortunately, issues like gentrification and federal funding are bigger than Howard. The question as to whether students can effect change at that level remains to be answered. Howard’s future—and ability to protect its students from structural racism—might depend on that answer.

As we were joking about various aspects of the university’s dysfunction, my best friend at Howard recounted talking to his mom about me last year:

“I said to her, ‘For Colin, this is all ‘Haha, shit hitting the fan’. But for black people, this is what we deal with our entire lives.” It’s on Howard to change that fact for its students.

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