Story by Max Havey and Kevin Modelski
It is an unseasonably warm Monday morning in early November. Students from across the campus have gathered at Carnahan Quad, the makeshift headquarters for the Concerned Student 1950 movement, for a morning demonstration. Suddenly there is a burst of isolated applause and it spreads to the rest of the crowd as they checked phones. Tim Wolfe, the UM System President had announced his resignation. The crowd slowly gathers together as people sing “We Shall Overcome.”
In the month since Wolfe’s resignation, it has been relatively quiet at MU. But protests have popped up on campuses across the nation, calling for issues of race to be heard. The aftershocks of the Concerned Student 1950 protests are still felt across the country, carrying on the conversation of improving race relations.
This was a long time coming.
Over the past year, black students on the University of Missouri’s campus have sought to make their voices heard on racial issues through many movements like “MU for Mike Brown,” in response to the Ferguson verdict and “Racism Lives Here,” in response to the University’s handling of MSA president Payton Head being called the n-word in public.
“Concerned Student 1950” is just the latest of these movements. It initially came together in early October in response to the Legion of Black Collegians being called racial slurs while rehearsing for a homecoming event and the University’s lack of response, from Wolfe in particular.
Some of the students who comprised the group organized a study hall sit-in on Oct. 6 in Jesse Hall, a symbol of the administration’s power. Just after noon, a group of 80 students of all backgrounds stood up as the leaders took charge of a chant. Jesse Hall, already loud, was about to get louder.
“Ashé,” one of the leaders in the middle of the floor yelled.
“Power,” the students screamed in unison. Some cupped their hands around their mouths to amplify the sound.
“Ashé,” the leader exclaimed again.
“Power,” the students responded. The screams were getting louder. The veins in their necks emerged as some closed their eyes. Ashé, pronounced ah-SHAY, is a Yoruba word similar to “amen” or “it is so.”
“When people say ‘power,’ and you say ‘ashé,’ you’re saying ‘power, it is so,’” says Jonathan Butler, an activist and master’s student at MU, who was one of the leaders of the study hall sit-in. “Really, the symbolism is that we’re trying to get them to understand the power their voices have. We’re affirming that they have power.”
Their first demonstration after the sit-in was during the Homecoming parade, when members of the Concerned Student 1950 movement locked arms to form a human chain around Wolfe’s car. Instead of listening to their message, the crowd tried to drown them out with a collective “MIZ” chant. “They were using my own university’s chant to silence me, which is traumatizing in itself,” Butler says. The crowd also tried to physically stop the demonstrators from obstructing Wolfe’s car, saying things like, “You are part of the problem.” The predominantly white parade crowd cheered when the human chain dissolved, epitomizing the problem that the movement is trying expose.
In the weeks that followed, the members of Concerned Student 1950 took to social media platforms with their demands. They implemented hashtags that addressed their problems with Wolfe and the Thomas Jefferson Statue, which had its own demonstration spring up around it. It also served as a place for newcomers and outsiders to learn about the movement, as the group posted the extended video from that Homecoming demonstration.
But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been blowback. Anonymous social networks like Yik Yak have lead to threats on the Black Culture Center and have exposed some of the racism that still exists among the student body. These posts reiterate the campus culture that normalizes offensive behavior the protestors seek to combat.
“Often times, people see us [as] passionate, and what some may deem as angry or as angry students of color,” Butler said in October. “The fact is it’s a righteous anger, and we’re facing injustice. We’re really sharing our passions in a very enthusiastic way.”
The messages of these demonstrations are not anti-white, as some believe it to be. In fact they are far from it. Danielle Walker, who led the Racism Lives Here movement, said that many people like to think that because they don’t perpetuate offensive behaviors, they aren’t part of the problem. “If you are part of this community and you aren’t doing something to help, you are part of the problem,” Walker says. “I know that makes people feel uncomfortable or upset, but that is the point; to galvanize you to actually want to do something.”
Later in October — three days after a swastika drawn in feces was found in a dorm bathroom — Wolfe met with Concerned Student 1950 without resolution to its demands. At 9 a.m. on Nov. 2, Butler published a letter to the UM System Board of Curators. He still wasn’t satisfied. He was embarking on a hunger strike.
“During this hunger strike, I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost,” he said in the letter.
The following Thursday, members of Concerned Student 1950 led a charge of students that dwarfed the size of the study hall sit-in from a month earlier. The group heavily emphasizes being educated on the issues and made that a point at their demonstrations.
As the mass of students snaked its way from the Student Center to Memorial Union and made another stop on a slippery wet Lowry Mall, Ayanna Poole, a senior at MU, wielded a megaphone at the front of the cluster of people. She led them in a barrage of chants.
“Tim Wolfe means — “ Poole called out. “We’ve got to fight back,” the crowd responded.
“You...can’t...stop...the revolution!” / “You...can’t...stop...the revolution!”
“Silence is violence. No justice, no peace.”
Between the chants, Poole and other Concerned Students educated passersby on what life is like as a marginalized student on campus. The students trudged to Speaker’s Circle and made another stop at Jesse Hall, where they echoed the same ear-splitting chants and stories. The crowd then packed itself into the narrow hallways of the Reynolds Alumni Center as its words matched the rhythm of its marching.
Students opened up the doors that led to Carnahan Quad, the home of the Concerned Student 1950 campsite, to project their voices. They wrapped around the glass windows from the outside and banged on them as a meeting took place on the inside. A woman up from her seat and opened up the door from the meeting room that led to the protestors.
She looked doctoral student Reuben Faloughi in the eye. She shook his hand.
“We’re good here,” Faloughi said as he directed the protestors away from the meeting room. The protest ended at the campsite just minutes later with Poole leading an “Ashé! Power!” chant.
Then came the following Monday, Nov. 9. It was just two days after Missouri’s football team boycotted all athletic activity until Butler could eat again. The national media had flooded the campsite. Carnahan Quad was filled with emotion after Wolfe’s announced resignation as Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” played in the background. A student from the crowd offhandedly says, “This is what I thought college would be like.” It was an atmosphere of celebration, and Butler could eat again.
The change that has come so far as a result of Concerned Student 1950 was sweeping. First, there was the announcement of diversity and inclusion training for students, faculty and staff of the university, but Butler said this kind of program had been discussed going as far back as 1969. He just wishes that more credit had been given to the students who have been working for years to make this happen.
This biggest change that Butler sees is in the dialogue students are having. “When people hear someone using a racial slur, they are interrupting those dialogues,” Butler says. “We may not have overhaul or policy, but we do have a campus that is opening itself up to activism and change.”
Faloughi makes the case for the emotions that these protests stir in the minds of students. “I think it is important for people to sit with their feelings and discomfort because it means you are growing and changing. Be OK with the challenge of change.”
At the press conference that followed, Butler led the crowd in what has become the movement’s rallying cry. It is a quote from former Black Panther Assata Shakur.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Their voices sounded tired and hoarse. While this is a victorious moment, their movement is still far from over.