Students, Faculty and Staff Join Residents in Hamilton Protests, Discuss Changes on Campus

Addressing over 475 Colgate affiliates, Hamilton residents and members from neighboring communities assembled on Hamilton’s Village Green in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Associate Professor of English and Africana and Latin American Studies Kezia Page characterized systemic racism in the United States as a “persistent and heavy knee in the necks of Black people,” alluding to the manner in which Minneapolis Police officers killed George Floyd. 

“It is cutting off our breath. We can’t breathe. We die driving; we die walking back from the store with Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea; we die in random traffic stops; we die watching TV in our own homes; we die undertreated in hospitals and overcrowded in prisons; we are dying disproportionately more from coronavirus; we die because we are always presumed guilty,” Page said. 

Sponsored by the Hamilton Area Anti-Racism Coalition (HAARC) and organized by Page, A. Lindsay O’Connor Chair of American Institutions Dominique Hill and Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Brenda Sanya, the first of two Black Lives Matter protests took place on Thursday, June 4. Attendees joined speakers Page, Hill and Colgate alumnus Anthony Wright ’20 in honoring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and many others while protesting police brutality and systemic racism.

Following an introduction from HAARC, social-distancing and anti-violence instructions for protesters and a Black Lives Matter chant, Page told protestors that the rally was held on account of frustration with the ways in which Black people have been treated and hope for a future in which parents no longer have to coach children on how to avoid being presumed guilty due to racial bias.

“We are here today because we oppose a system that does not protect, respect or value us. We are here today because that system still does not treat us as fully human,” Page said. 

Hill went on to say that one of many reasons for the congregation was to recognize the “monstrous deaths [that] have occurred at the hands of the police,” but also to take part in accepting responsibility for the complicity that led to the loss of Black lives.

“Many people have taken on this idea that blue lives matter; we added this on to the tails of Black Lives Matter. But Black Lives Matter stands in as an opportunity to recognize the ways that, paradoxically, we have been necessary and also obliterated, disposable and yet necessary to this very institution, to this very institution being the [United States of America],” Hill said. “So I ask us to also, while we’re standing up in recognition of these people whose lives have literally gone, think about the spiritual, the physical [and] the emotional murdering that we participate in: our complicity, our not speaking up and our not recognizing.”

Wright echoed Hill’s sentiment regarding accountability and accepting responsibility, focusing on racism being perpetuated on Colgate’s campus by professors, students, faculty and staff. Entering a classroom to find he was the only Black student was daunting, Wright said, as it placed him in an uncertain position as to where he stood with his white classmates and professors. Rather than being able to freely speak his mind, Wright felt as if he had to cater to “a white power in place.”

“It’s easier to say ‘oh, it’s happening elsewhere.’ However, it’s also happening in our communities. It’s happening here in Hamilton. It’s happening on Colgate’s campus,” Wright said. “To my white folk, to my non-Black people: the fight is also in your hands. It’s not always up to Black people, Black students, Black faculty [and] Black staff to educate you. It’s on you to educate yourselves. Especially when it comes to Colgate.”

Addressing the frequency of racial incidents occurring on Colgate’s campus, Wright expressed frustration with the University’s responses thus far, calling for action plans and accountability in order to create a sense of safety for Black and Brown students on campus.

“It’s on you to actually put in that work and change yourselves. It may be uncomfortable but guess what? It’s uncomfortable and harmful and scary for Black and Brown students to live every single day of their lives. So, if you’re uncomfortable, oh well. Go out there, talk to your family, talk to your communities because otherwise, nothing’s gonna change,” Wright said. 

Page followed by asking attendees to lift their signs and observe silence for the amount of time that matched the reported time Floyd was held under former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee. 

“To kneel on a handcuffed man’s neck for seven minutes and 23 seconds when he is begging for his life, his mother and for breath is unspeakable wickedness. In memory of George Floyd and all the other Black lives snuffed out by the police we ask you to be silent for seven minutes and 23 seconds,” Page said.

The end of the first protest on June 4 was marked by the “serendipitous appearance” of former Oneida Mayor Alden Maxwell “Max” Smith of Peterborough, Page said. After speaking to the crowd, Smith led the rally speakers and audience in “We Shall Overcome.”

Smith made a second appearance after the march held on Saturday, June 6, which senior Sarvesh Kaul had attended. Kaul found Smith’s appearance to be especially memorable. 

“The end was the best, actually. They brought on [Smith] [and] he was talking about the history of his family and how it kind of evolved from slavery to his grandpa being able to be a legitimate citizen of the country. It was just a really powerful speech that he gave,” Kaul said. 

As a Colgate student, Kaul said he felt it was important for him to speak out for certain causes, leading him and his friend senior Colin MacEwan to join the protest.

“I spent a week and a half in Hamilton this summer doing some work there and when these things emerged and the opportunity to protest came about, me and my friends thought it was like our duty, almost as students and members of the Hamilton community to attend it. So, I guess, that’s where we were coming from,” Kaul said.

“Of course, that was the time that everything was kind of erupting across the country and I felt kind of left out being part of this Hamilton bubble,” MacEwan said. “I was seeing all my friends back home taking part in these D.C. protests and my sister out in Portland, Oregon and I just wanted to do my part.”

Page likewise felt affected by outside influences, as was seen through her announcement of the protest via email following a conversation with friend and activist Staceyann Chin, who had been marching in New York City.

“One of the great difficulties of watching the responses to the latest big-news trio of (Black) murders, especially during the pandemic, is the feeling that I was watching the revolution be televised. In many ways, I still do. I look at the crowds in D.C. and Philadelphia, in New York City and I want my feet and my voice to be part of the groundswell of ‘enough is enough,’” Page said.

The planning of the June 4 protest, according to Page, was minimal. Organizers instead relied on faculty support and “community action and participation.” Soon after the emails were sent, Page was told that HAARC was planning an event for Saturday, June 6. Page was then in touch with HAARC member Cris Amann, deciding that instead of trying to combine the protests, they would hold the two separately. The march on June 6 was co-sponsored by the HAARC and Madison Chenango Call to Action.

“We marched the first half of our march in silence, because it was about eight minutes, around the amount of time that cop kneeled on George Floyd’s neck. For the next half of the March, we chanted ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘white silence is violence,’” Amann said. 

Wright spoke of the march’s significance and how attendance by residents in rural, predominantly white Hamilton reflected on the town’s eagerness for change.

“The fact that they [showed up] means that they’re aware and it seems to me that they’re looking to actually initiate some change. And, the fact that the Hamilton Area Anti-Racism Coalition also held their own protest a couple days later also shows that it’s something that they’re trying to strive to make equality and actually make changes for people in the community. It’s not just Colgate or it’s not just the town; there are parts from both sides coming together to actually make things happen,” Wright said.

Following the protest in Hamilton on June 4, Colgate’s Africana, Latin, Asian, and Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center organized a student forum in the Hall of Presidents. Dean of Students Dorsey Spencer Jr., Senior Lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric, Coordinator of Second Language Writing and Academic Director of the Office of Undergraduate Studies Suzanne Spring, Director of the ALANA Cultural Center Esther Rosbrook and student participants discussed challenges that minority students face and changes on campus. The forum was broadcasted on Zoom.

Mabel Dart Colegrove Commons residential fellow Tracy Milyango said she thought it was a “useful direction of energy and discussion” to hold the forum right after the protest, but that her experience was “largely repetitious.” Milyango said she has taken part in multiple conversations in her time at Colgate as both a student and later as alumni, only to feel like visible progress was “so few and far between.” 

“As a former staff member, I now understand more deeply how these processes work, and usually students speaking up is only the first step not the final one,” Milyango said. “In part that’s just the bureaucracy of higher education, but in large it’s due to hidden, oppressive, and systematic forces in the makeup of this institution that slow down that work.”

The main difference in this forum, Milyango said, was the “intentional presence” of Spencer. 

“Having him present to hear it from the horse’s mouth [in] his first week of work was key. One, It was a symbol of assurance that our needs and grievances will make it into the rooms that matter and two, it placed him in a position of accountability as we can now assess if he’s an ally to our cause or not,” Milyango said. 

With the fall semester approaching, attendees brought up questions surrounding implementation of anti-racism education and training for students, faculty and staff. Milyango spoke of the importance of having Colgate openly acknowledge their history of racism.

“For a school that’s 200 years old, we do a really (excuse the language) shitty job of recording the work, accomplishments, and contributions of students of color to this campus. There’s a system of erasure of the work (especially non-token work) that we do on this campus. Our contributions graduate with us, and when we leave we are erased from the fabric of history that we helped create. This creates a void in keeping the institution accountable, and is a process that those hidden, oppressive, systematic forces I mentioned above heavily rely on,” Milyango said. 

Unaware of the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protest and the “Colgate for All” sit-in when he arrived on campus as a first-year in 2016,  Wright said this lack of awareness has become a trend among incoming classes, perpetuated by the University’s failure to acknowledge its history.

“I am concerned about the incoming first-years because the University doesn’t acknowledge what has happened over the course of the years,” Wright said. “I’m pretty sure students who are coming in now don’t know about the glue-gun incident…These things are happening on our campus where Black and Brown students are put at risk if they’re not hearing about it. You can’t have students who are clearly being profiled and outed and not having anything done to actually inform them about what campus life might be like for them,” Wright said.

Wright feels the fault also lies with white and non-Black students who refuse to speak out against injustice on campus. 

“They have the privilege and opportunity to walk away when things happen. When the whiteboard incident in the fall happened, there was a speakout. White students don’t have to come because it doesn’t affect them,” Wright said. “You can say you’re not racist but you have to show that you’re actually anti-racist because if you’re complicit and if you’re silent then, by association, you are also causing violence towards people.”

Many students suggested revisions to the curriculum to incorporate race, racism, oppression and privilege in a class setting. 

“Teaching about the aftermaths of slavery and the pervading racism in America should not be limited to just having ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ as a required reading for Challenges of Modernity,” Junior Fairuz Ishraque said. That fails to acknowledge the fact [that] anti-blackness and racism is still everywhere in this country. More timely and relevant texts to 21st century America should be added to the curriculum.”

Until core revisions are instituted, Wright stressed that the responsibility to engage in and encourage difficult conversations belongs not only to students, but also to white and non-Black professors. 

“Something happens [and] professors choose not to talk about it because either they don’t care or they don’t think people understand or whatever it may be, but not talking about it also is diminishing the effect that [the incident] has on students, especially if there are Black and Brown students in your class and you don’t talk about it,” Wright said. “But, it’s also important when it’s an entirely white classroom and professors don’t talk about it because now you’re not holding each other accountable and acknowledging the privilege that comes with being white.”

Ishraque said the issue of faculty training was brought up at the forum, one concern being that better bias and diversity training needs to be instituted for faculty as “[Intergroup Dialogues] (IGD) hasn’t really worked very well.”

“Students of color facing insensitivity and downright micro-aggressions from racially ignorant faculty is not a new thing on this campus, so we all agreed on the fact that it is high time there is a required faculty (including tenured faculty, of course) training that is repeated semesterly, or at the very least, annually,” Ishraque said.

Forum participants also discussed the Budget Allocation Committee’s [BAC] lack of funding for majority-POC organizations on campus, particularly for counter spaces and programming that Ishraque felt were necessary after Heather Mac Donald’s lecture, ‘The Diversity Delusion.’

“We had no money to arrange any programming for students…[or creating] spaces where students of color, especially black students, could feel safe,” Ishraque said. “Why does the BAC look like the majority of the campus: white? That ends up affecting every decision they make, all the funding they do. Why does a cultural club have to explain themselves 10 times for a fraction of the money a predominantly white club demands and gets immediately?”

Change at Colgate, according to Milyango, begins primarily with white and non-Black students and alumni. When white and non-Black students choose not to show up to discussions like the forum, Milyango said, it communicates ignorance and privilege while placing the burden of “being on the front lines” on POC students. 

“When the institution is so used to disregarding the cause of the minority, it is the duty of the majority stakeholders to step up, speak, and follow through in a manner that the institution will listen to. If we’re a united front we can achieve anything,” Milyango said. 

However, Milyango acknowledges that there’s “no use” in student and alumni efforts to pressure administration if faculty and staff, as decision makers, are not likewise motivated. Despite being impressed by progress made by the Colgate Student Coalition, Milyango said that the measure for true social change lies in the way Colgate will operate in the future. 

“If our students don’t attend or know about any “insert ethnicity” history month/week events? If MLK events continue to be largely unattended by the student body? If the institution continues to make decisions like making things like diversity training “optional” for staff/faculty? If WMST and LGBTQ studies continue being in a basement? If the institution continues to maintain our “peer institutions” as the benchmark for diversity? We took the first step, and that’s great, but we can’t be satisfied until we reach where we aim to be as an institution,” Milyango said. 

After the forum, Spencer presented student feedback to President Brian Casey and his cabinet, SGA president Amarachi Iheanyichukwu and various campus committees, including the Core Revision Committee which is nearing curriculum recommendations to the full faculty and the Dean of the College division, working to implement new DEI education into New Student Orientation this fall. A second forum is planned for early fall.

“From my brief time here thus far, I believe the University is genuinely making an effort to fix the issues students named at the forum and in the past. From the experiences they shared, we still have a lot of work to do. A number of the challenges are systemic and will take time to change in a manner that is both positive and sustainable,” Spencer said.