Black students, allies rally in solidarity with University of Missouri

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Ethan Epstein/Staff

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In light of increasing tension regarding the experiences of black students at universities nationwide, hundreds of black UC Berkeley students, allies and community members rallied Wednesday to express solidarity with the wider movement and to call attention to the situation on campus.

The crowd, which numbered between 200 and 300 at its peak, gathered at the base of the Campanile about noon and marched to Downtown Berkeley more than an hour later, temporarily halting traffic on Shattuck Avenue and Center Street and occupying Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

The rally, organized by the campus’s Black Student Union, intended in part to show solidarity with black students at the University of Missouri, where recent student protests driven by instances of intolerance on campus led to the resignation of the university president.

During Wednesday’s peaceful action, students and community activists gave testimony and performed songs and poems on topics ranging from police brutality to the naming of campus buildings to the recent Paris terror attacks.

Demonstrators carried signs that read, “From the Ivy League to the Hood, Black Lives Matter” and “#[email protected] We Refuse to be your Silent Respectable Markers of ‘Diversity’ #studentblackout,” and chanted, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop,” among other things.

At UC Berkeley, black students make up slightly more than 3 percent of the total population, including undergraduate and graduate students.

“When every single class you have is nothing but white faces, that’s a problem,” said Tre’Shunn Harlan, a UC Berkeley student and BSU member. “That’s a problem when you’re talking about issues you’re having in 2015, but not a single person of color is there to speak about it.”

Demonstrators testified that they feel their experiences at UC Berkeley have been negatively affected by the relative lack of representation of black people in the student body and faculty, asserting that the campus’s reputation as a progressive institution obscures issues faced by black students.

Many students discussed how they felt their education was rooted in assumptions that ignored black people’s histories, experiencing what they referred to as a “white-washing” of instruction.

“We are here to acknowledge what’s been going in in Mizzou, but it’s also a commentary on the larger social environment that black students have on predominantly white campuses in this country and around the world,” said Minkah Smith, a UC Berkeley student and BSU member.

To address the issue of race and campus climate, campus administration launched the African American Initiative earlier this year, which aims to increase representation for black students, faculty and staff by addressing recruitment strategies and implementing a $20 million endowed scholarship fund.

Associate Vice Chancellor and Dean of Students Joseph Greenwell, who attended Wednesday’s rally, acknowledged that black students face issues of representation and climate at UC Berkeley. He added that the responsibility lies with students, faculty, administration and alumni to mitigate those problems.

“Today’s rally is just one way that students have been voicing their concerns about this, and it’s important to listen and work together to create a more inclusive campus,” Greenwell said in an email.

Nailah Sewell, a UC Berkeley student and BSU member, said incorporating more black history into the curriculum is a necessary step. Many others advocated more sweeping societal changes.

“This fight we see on campus, this fight we see in the streets, this isn’t just a fight for us to be more comfortable,” said David Turner, UC Berkeley graduate student, during the rally. “This is a fight for our lives, y’all.”

Staff writer Maya Eliahou contributed to this report.

Michelle Pitcher is the university news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MichellePitcher.