University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe announced Monday morning that he is resigning, “effective immediately,” in the wake of student protests over his handling of racial matters on campus. News spread fast, and even those who weren’t aware of what was happening at Mizzou had to catch up quickly. In the wake of a year of increased police violence targeting African-Americans, and the significant galvanizing work done by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, this is an important moment demonstrating just how effective direct action is.
Consciousness raising works. Social media has allowed for the sharing of information in a way that we have never witnessed before. Hubs of credibility like Black Twitter or Black Tumblr engage freelance journalists, students and public researchers to share, revise and disseminate evidence that is shifting paradigms. Locally and globally protesting and resistance works. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to this in his Letters from a Birmingham Jail,
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see . . . that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
There are those who question why it has reached these epidemic proportions and many argue that in fact racism has been persistent; only now we are able to capture and archive it publicly. Our history is being recorded by the same institutions who are perpetuating inequity. We don’t hear about our success or the ubiquitousness of these issues, while studies and working groups are struck that don’t effectively create change.
As has been the case across the country, the events at Mizzou that led up to this moment cannot be traced solely to one incident. Most recently, a swastika had been drawn with feces on the dormitory wall. Although striking, this was not the first time.The cycle of racist violence and underwhelming, often dismissive responses by the university has a long legacy at Mizzou.
When the university was founded in 1839, Missouri was a slave state. The state capitol was built by enslaved Africans and the university also criminally used the labor of enslaved people. Several of its founders were ardent slavery supporters.
In 2010, two white students were caught scattering cotton balls all over the campus’ Black Cultural Center lawn and were only convicted of “littering.”
On Aug. 9, 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, a police shooting that made both national and international news and sparked protests across the country. However, the university remained conspicuously silent about it, despite numbers of the students driving to Ferguson to protest.
On Sept. 11, Payton Head, who is queer and black and the Missouri Students Association president, was called a n*gger as he walked home. University Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin took over a week to respond, while other students continued to be harassed.
Then there was the hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler.
“I already feel like campus is an unlivable space,” said Butler. “So it’s worth sacrificing something of this grave amount, because I’m already not wanted here. I’m already not treated like I’m a human.”
The tipping point for university President Wolfe, whose background is in business, was the football boycott that interupted Missouri’s $20-million-a-year revenue-producing football program and the Southeastern Conference’s half-a-billion-dollar schedule. If the boycott continued, there would be an immediate fine of over $1 million. It’s an over simplification to identify the football players decision as the primary event, but that would discount all the efforts of so many queer young women and men along with other students who made this issue one that demanded urgency.
It was the collective sustained actions and organizing of the students and some faculty that ousted the head of a system that employs 25,000 people and educates over 77,000 students.
Removing Wolfe was just the beginning. In addition, they published a list of demands. Since then the backlash has been fierce, with threats called into the Black Culture center, as well as on the social media site Yik Yak. There have also been death threats on campus and activists have noted the presence of the KKK.
Meanwhile, white students at Mizzou have been riding around in pickup trucks terrorizing Black people. There are groups of white students standing in circles chanting "White power!”
It’s been a cascade in more ways than one.
University Director of Greek Life Janna Basler has been put on administrative leave to investigate her actions, and nutrition and exercise physiology Professor Dale Brigham resigned after dismissing the racist threats to students as the actions of “bullies.” The email he sent out admonishing students for the fear made its rounds on social media earlier this week.
Notable activists Deray McKesson, who was also recognized as part of the OUT100 and Johnetta “Netta” Elzie are both currently in Mizzou spending days organizing and supporting planning efforts with students on their campus.
Mizzou students have intentionally been absent from corporate news outlets, learning from the ways Ferguson protesters were villainized and focussing their efforts on their next steps and the remaining lists of demands.
This unrest has been present at schools across the country. Nooses were hung at Duke University the University of Mississippi, active death threats have been directed toward Howard University students and Massive protests have erupted at Yale.
This has all led to the creation of the #BlackOnCampus hashtag describing the climate of PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions) as racist: from historically not admitting Black students to ignoring incidents of racism by decrying them as isolated incidents or dismissing students as oversensitive.
Despite this cultural and political climate, at least 71 percent of Black millennials feel they have the ability to make a difference through political participation. These young people of color are taking a stand on the issues that matter to them, according to research from The Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago. This is true both on a grassroots and electoral level. In 2012 the level of voter turnout for Black millennials was higher than that of white voters of the same age.
Whether it was the abolition of chattel slavery, the civil rights movements of the 1960,s or the current #BlackLivesMatter movement, progress has always been the product of the tenacity and solidarity between marginalized communities. There is still so much more work to be done and the urgency of these intersecting issues means that the resistance must be insistent. As King reminds us,
“Patience is not a political strategy. It is a diversionary tactic. It is a patronizing recommendation made only by those who do not believe that oppression is killing us all.”
Kim Katrin Milan is a writer, multidisciplinary artist, activist, consultant, and educator. Milan is the co-founder and current executive director of The People Project, a movement of queer and trans folks of color and allies, committed to individual and community empowerment through alternative education, art activism and collaboration.