At Syracuse University’s wellness center, it’s hard to find a clear path these days to even take a step. Students often cover nearly every inch of the entry hall – sitting on the floor, talking, eating meals, doing homework, sometimes spending the night.
The scene might seem like chaos, but it’s not. These are organized protesters engaged in a weeklong rally against what they say is university administrators’ inadequate response to a recent spate of racist incidents on campus. What’s happened in the past two weeks, some add, mirrors a broader culture of racism at the private school in upstate New York.
Those who occupy the Barnes Center at The Arch describe themselves as a “black-led student movement” that’s “faceless.” Participants won’t share their names publicly so no one is seen as a spokesperson. They also want to mitigate the threat of being targeted by students who disagree with their views.
But while the identities of the “Not Again SU” protesters remain secret, their demands are clear.
They want university officials to commit to 18 short- and long-term changes to how they handle racial incidents. Those include requiring faculty and staff to undergo diversity training; establishing a housing portal where students can pick roommates based on mutual interests and identities; and allocating $1 million for a curriculum “that educates the campus on diversity issues, specifically anti-racism.”
Syracuse University officials already have begun investigating the incidents of racism, boosted campus security and vowed a stiffer student conduct code and more diversity in hiring. Still, the student organizers refuse to disband their sprawling sit-in, insisting that their goals also include changing the culture of a campus so their peers aren’t ignorant of the biases they say they sense all the time.
“I think in order to understand why I’m here, it’s important to understand what has bought us all here,” one student organizer from Chicago told CNN. It is “the fact that we don’t feel seen and we don’t feel heard.”
The number of racist incidents has climbed
The latest racist incident on campus was reported early Tuesday. The school said it was investigating reports of a document “purported to be a white supremacist manifesto being posted in an online forum and allegedly ‘air dropped’ to several cell phones of individuals sitting” at the university’s Bird Library.
The campus Department of Public Safety quickly said no specific threat existed and that local, state, and federal authorities had been notified.
The alleged document drop happened on the eve of the seventh straight day that student protesters had occupied the Barnes Center. The demonstration started a few days after a report that graffiti disparaging African-Americans and Asians was found in a residence hall.
Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud didn’t respond publicly until five days later. That’s a point of contention for protesters, who say that “transparency from the administration is necessary…[and] the safety of underrepresented and underserved students is paramount.”
Two more similar reports of graffiti were reported on campus as protests unfolded, along with a report of a swastika etched into snow not far off-campus.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo weighed in and directed a state hate crimes task force to help investigate.
Five “Not Again SU” representatives who spoke with CNN say they have personally experienced racism on campus, from being treated like a “token black kid” to having “slanted eyes” made at them to being lauded for speaking English well, even though they were born in the United States.
They also say racial divisions among the student body are evident.
“Everyone knows where the black students live on campus,” a 22-year-old political science student and “Not Again SU” organizer said, adding that many black students choose to live on a particular part of campus because it provides a sense of community and support that the university at large does not offer.
Another protest organizer, a 20-year-old studying magazine journalism, said some of their peers seem to use racist language without even thinking about it, saying, “If you’re going to a white frat party, you’re going to hear them say the n-word when a song is playing. You just have to wait.”
Campus racism is routine for some but stuns others
Shuwei Zhu, a 22-year-old management student from China, said she immediately teared up when she heard about the November 7 graffiti incident and its acknowledgment days later by Syverud.
“I just thought, Why didn’t the school tell us? When I heard the story, I got really mad. There’s racism here on campus, and I’m not feeling safe,” Zhu said.
Yirui Shen, a 23-year-old graduate student, also from China, said he has been the target in the past of racial slurs on campus. “None of the people in the Asian community know exactly what was said” in the initial scrawling of graffiti, he said.
“There’s no transparency from the administration,” Shen said. “They’ll just hit you with, ‘It’s an ongoing investigation, we cannot give further details.’”
Yet those experiences differ widely from that of other students who were also holed up to study this week at Syracuse’s Bird Library.
Angelica Livanos, an 18-year-old education student from New Jersey, said she found the reports of racist incidents upsetting but had never before witnessed any sort of racism on campus.
“This shouldn’t be something that happened at our school. I never thought that this would be an issue,” Livanos said.
Mark Hamilton, an 18-year-old management student from Florida, said he has never felt unsafe on campus. While he was disgusted by the news, Hamilton said, he also “wasn’t really believing it at first.”
Another student, a male undergraduate who declined to give his name, believes the school’s bias-related incidents are “a non-story” that have “been blown way out of proportion.”
“We’re a huge school. I think it happens at all schools across the country. I’ve never even thought of it being a problem,” he said. “How are you going to control a few individuals who are doing this? There are much bigger problems out there than what they’re protesting.”
Talking about campus racism may yield ‘some good’
While the protesters’ perspectives have not been not widely acknowledged on campus, their message is spreading, said Catherine Leffert, managing editor of the Daily Orange student newspaper, which has printed stories about the movement in English and Chinese.
“These people are experiencing something very serious, and it’s something that a lot of the community doesn’t understand and can’t probably understand,” she said. “But if they can hear the students involved and if they can see those effects, at least on some scale, you know, maybe some good will come of it.”
To date, “Not Again SU” has raised more than $15,000 to support its cause. Donations of food and supplies are being stockpiled at the Barnes Center, and the students have received visits from state and local lawmakers.
None of the student protesters expect university officials to eliminate the school’s racial tensions, but they want the issue handled better, they told CNN.
The embattled chancellor, Syverud, acknowledged in his November 12 message that campus officials could “have communicated more swiftly and broadly.”
University officials announced Sunday in a video message that $50,000 has been made available for rewards for information in the cases “leading to an arrest or actionable referral to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities,” Syracuse University Department of Public Safety Chief Bobby Maldonado said.
Syracuse is also increasing security around the campus, including additional student shuttle services, Maldonado said. Meantime, University administrators announced plans to review and revise their code of student conduct and said they will work to hire and retain a diverse staff to support students.
Chancellor Syverud said in a university-wide letter Tuesday that the school is committing more than $1 million for curriculum development, and making facility decisions that support a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students, including international students and students of color.
Hundreds of student protesters made their way this week in and out of the Barnes Center, sharing a food station and an open mic and participating in teach-in events. Choir groups and step teams have performed, all against a mounting backdrop of handwritten notes and posters of solidarity bearing the communal hashtag: #NotAgainSU.
In some ways, the movement itself has created something that protesters have long been searching for.
“This has become what we’re asking for the university to create,” the 19-year-old student from Chicago said. “We were asking for this space, and we made it and demanded it ourselves, and it’s been beautiful to watch it unfold.”