Black Lives Matter Swells into a National Student Movement after Mizzou

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Since University of Missouri (Mizzou) football players, graduate students, and professors organized a strike last week to support the racial justice demands of student activist group #ConcernedStudent1950, there have been at least 200 campus actions around the country. Many had some impetus in grievances specific to a given campus. Some were planned months ago as part of the #MillionStudentMarch for free education. All took encouragement from Mizzou’s successful ousting of their president, who became the first of three high-level administrators to be forced out by student and faculty action that week.

If the success of the Mizzou protests gave students a sense of the potential power of campus organizing, the subsequent racist backlash made a stronger public showing all the more important. The Washington Post reported “hate speech, vandalism, even multiple threats of mass shootings targeting black people. Four campuses tightened security or locked down after receiving online threats, and four suspects were arrested.” Black students and their allies, however, refused to be intimidated, and responded quickly and powerfully to a call for a Nationwide Day of Action by a Missouri State University student.

With students rallying in each other’s defense, these coordinated actions are beginning to take on the contours of a movement. Many underlying factors have been simmering for some time, but there is now the possibility of heightened levels of unity in action. A possible hint of things to come was seen in Philadelphia as separately-planned demonstrations merged and blocked traffic. A Boston rally and march was the result of a close collaboration by multiple campuses.

By the end of the weekend, in addition to resignations and apologies, students had won the renaming of two buildings at Georgetown University that had been named for past campus presidents who sold slaves to pay school debts.

“The student activists say they also want the university to pay reparations by establishing an endowment that, accounting for inflation, would match what the university made from the slave sale. The money, they said, should provide scholarships or a professorship based on race issues.”

On Monday, protests threatened to claim a fourth administrator, as students sat in at Occidental College and promised to topple their president if he did not “take such steps as creating a Black Studies major and hiring more minority faculty,” according to the LA Times. 

If a movement is emerging after Mizzou, what kind of movement is it? Led by black youth and especially black women, it has the important struggle against anti-black racism on campus at it’s center. It could be said that it seeks social and economic justice more broadly, as well. As black UCLA students wrote, “groups like the Black Student Union have been organizing to end racial violence at school, in our communities, and in our systems of injustice. All over, momentum has been building towards a sustained student movement that focuses on the intersections of several interrelated forms of oppression, including racism (particularly against black people), class oppression through student debt, and the unfair treatment and impoverishment of campus workers.”

In addition to more straightforwardly anti-racist demands (i.e. mandatory anti-oppression education, curriculum, and resources that reflect and support black experiences, policy changes to attract and retain black faculty, staff, and students, and freedom from racial profiling and excessive force on the part of campus police), black students are demanding better and more affordable housing, democratization of campus decision-making, support for mental and reproductive healthcare, and action against sexism, sexual harassment, and violence.

Current activities also draw on community and international solidarity. Students at several campusesexpressed solidarity with the recently victorious South African student movement against tuition fee increases, and Loyola students’ call for divestment from violation of human right in Palestine found twinned support in the form of solidarity statements from both the West Coast and MidWest networks of Students for Justice in Palestine. Lastly, there is evidence of a deep sense of movement history, as students at the Universities of Kansas and Missouri revived specific student demands from 1970 and 1969, respectively.

Where will the movement go from here? The near- and medium-term have great potential, as faculty unions on both coasts in the Cal State University & CUNY systems, which together have about 1 million students, consider striking, and anti-racist activists mark a year since the Ferguson uprising and a #YearWithoutTamir. Since Mizzou, we may be approaching a lasting intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement against racism and the movement to defend and re-imagine an education system which has been degraded, re-segregated, and re-stratified in the neoliberal period. 

The movement’s next National Day of Action, #StudentBlackout, scheduled for Wednesday, will be one to watch out for. Or better yet, one to get involved in!


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