With a gathering at the Russell Union billed as a walkout Tuesday and further actions today, African-American students are drawing attention to what they see as evidences of racism at Georgia Southern University and serving university officials with a list of demands.
Among those demands, instead of calling for a university president to be fired, as happened recently at the University of Missouri, the NAACP student chapter is demanding that interim GSU President Jean Bartels be hired as Georgia Southern’s continuing president.
Over social media, the Georgia Southern NAACP called Tuesday’s 11:45 a.m. gathering a “Black Out, Walk Out,” with students to walk out of class and meet at the student union. It followed what some students viewed as a threat by a white student, Emily Faz, also via social media.
Ali Ross, 23, a Georgia Southern junior, announced that students would “sit in” back at the Russell Union from noon until 1 p.m. Wednesday and then meet for a forum at 6:30 p.m. called “Niggas vs. Negus.” “Negus” means “king” in the Amharic language of Ethiopia. The forum is slated for a room in the College of Education building.
The forum “is going to break down barriers to really discuss some of the things that I feel like … in light of what’s been going on, need to be said,” Ross told the crowd.
Students taking part in Tuesday’s walkout had merged with the usual midday foot traffic at the union, plus some activity planned by a black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, for its 104th anniversary.
Ross invited students to “come show love and support” and told reporters that tonight’s forum is meant to be educational and a show of unity.
“We’re going to kind of shed light on some of the stereotypes and shed the light on some of the racial profiling that some of the people around here have been going through and shed light on what it means to be black or be a person of color, coming from this heritage,” he said.
James “Major” Woodall, 21, the Georgia Southern senior recently elected Georgia NAACP Youth and College Division president, said the events are intended to let students stand together after comments made by a student Monday on social media as well as other concerns.
The comments were posted on the Facebook page of Faz, identified on Linkedin as a Georgia Southern public relations and communications student.
On Facebook, in relation to a news story headlined “Mizzou protesters, Black Lives Matter complain Paris attacks stole their headlines,” Faz’s name and picture appeared with a comment that included, “I swear if I see this BS at Southern, I’ll make you regret even knowing what a movement or a hashtag is, and you’ll walk away with your tail tucked. This whole black lives matter movement is misguided and out of hand. … All lives matter, that has always been the case …”
These comments were reposted by students organizing the protest events.
Not just about Facebook
But Woodall said the current demonstrations were not just a response to Faz’s comments.
“I think it is appropriate action and an appropriate response to it, but this has been going on way before her comments,” Woodall said.
The events here, he said, are part of a day of action for students all over the country.
“They’re going to attempt to try to get some things done to address a lot of the issues that are going on in our universities,” Woodall said. “This is not just an isolated incident. This is a systemic culture of discrimination, of prejudice, of bigotry, of hatred.”
A Facebook message from the reporter to Faz seeking an interview or comment was not returned by 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
While the Facebook comments may not have been the only reason for Tuesday’s gathering, some students, such as senior KeyAnna Tate, 21, cited them as their reason for attending.
“I think it’s important to know the difference between freedom of speech and a threat, and it seems like when it comes from a white student at this school, that sometimes the line is being blurred because of who it comes from, because just a few years ago, when a black gentleman made a threat, he was arrested, and I feel like it’s important that we give consequences evenly at this university,” Tate said.
GSU Dean of Students Patrice Buckner Jackson met with students attending “Black Out, Walk Out” and spoke to reporters.
“We have a value of voices on our campus, and our value says every voice has the right to be heard, but every word must be spoken with respect,” Jackson said. “It’s a right and a responsibility, and any time there’s an accusation of incivility in how our voices are used, then we investigate every one of those issues.”
Several students had shared concerns with her office about the Facebook posting, and her staff is following through with those reports in accordance with the Student Code of Conduct, she said.
The six demands
Jackson said she and President Bartels had also received the list of six demands from the Georgia Southern chapter of the NAACP.
DeAndre Hollier, president of the Georgia Southern NAACP chapter, referred the Statesboro Herald to the list of demands posted via Twitter but declined to comment on behalf of himself and the NAACP.
“We don’t want to release any independent statements right now until we talk as a whole, as an executive board,” Hollier said. “So I don’t want to take any questions or respond to anything yet, but later on, once our exec board is here and tomorrow, we’ll release an official statement on behalf of the Georgia Southern NAACP.”
The demands are these:
· That the Georgia Board of Regents establish Bartels as president of Georgia Southern University.
· That by academic year 2020, the university increase its number of black professors to 12 percent of the total.
· That the university conduct a campus climate survey.
· That the university complete an audit of the Multicultural Student Center.
· That the university establish the Catherine Davis Center to house the Multicultural Student Center and honor the accomplishments of the black alumni. Davis was the first black student to graduate from Georgia Southern with a four-year degree.
· That the university further advance and promote its African Studies program.
Without commenting on the demand for her hiring, Bartels issued a statement about the overall situation. She said that the university takes threats, but also freedom of speech, seriously, and will be prevented by privacy law from revealing the outcome of an investigation into a student’s conduct.
Bartels concluded: “As we struggle to grow and change in a positive direction, I call upon all of you to do the following things: listen to each other, respect each other, and treat each other with dignity and concern. This is my personal commitment as well. If we are able to rise to this challenge, I am confident that we will move forward toward a place where each student is able to learn and thrive in a safe, diverse, and inclusive environment.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.