‘We will not be ignored’: Black coalition urges WU to reevaluate WUPD, donate to Black organizations
A petition calling for Washington University to reassess the role of police on campus and make substantive financial contributions to Black organizations in St. Louis has been signed by more than 4,000 people, including current students, alumni and faculty, as of Monday night.
Titled “Demands from a Coalition of Black WashU Students In Light of the Lynching of George Floyd,” the petition was a direct response to Chancellor Andrew Martin’s email to the student body on May 31, which was sent out more than a week after Floyd’s murder and criticized for failing to include concrete actions or resources.
The petition called for a reevaluation of the Washington University Police Department, pointing out the inherent racism of law enforcement institutions and emphasizing the importance of including Black students in conversations about demilitarization and other procedural shifts.
“We want to ensure that while WUPD is tasked with the campus’ safety, Black students are not made to feel unsafe by the forces tasked to protect them,” the students wrote. “…Washington University in Saint Louis must show their active commitment to Black liberation by taking steps on campus that will reverberate off-campus and into these police task forces that exist in the surrounding areas.”
The coalition highlighted the University’s previous lack of investment in and explicit support for the Black community of St. Louis, adding that this inaction, along with the inaction of large institutions nationwide, has contributed to an ongoing epidemic of racist police brutality.
“While we are using a petition format as a method of tangibly tracking support through signatures, this is not an ask,” the students wrote. “We are explicitly demanding these terms.”
In comments on the petition, many current and past students recalled seeing WUPD engage in racial profiling. Others pointed out the University’s role in the ongoing gentrification of St. Louis.
“As a Wash. U. alum, and a Black man, I’m all too aware of the mental impact caused by having law enforcement in my presence while having little to no communication and accountability between my identity and those in law,” class of 2016 alum Darius Calliet commented.
The petition also challenged the University to make an $18,000 donation to be distributed evenly between Arch City Defenders, Action St. Louis and the Organization for Black Struggle. Students pointed out that the sum was merely a third of the cost of a single year’s tuition for one student.
“Broad statements and vague promises are not enough; it is necessary for the university and the Board of Trustees to make tangible and financial contributions to the community it exists in,” the petition read.
The petition demands that the University’s donations increase annually as tuition rises.
Archaeology Ph.D. student Ximena Lemoine commented that the University has an obligation to address issues affecting St. Louis residents, of which nearly 50% are Black.
“Washington University added the ‘in St. Louis’ to their name in 1976. That’s 44 years of not living up to that name,” Lemoine wrote. “The University has a responsibility to better serve the city and the communities that compose it and that includes a promise and commitment to be actively anti-racist. This is a start.”
Sophomore Nkemjika Emenike emphasized the importance of the University making a commitment “not just in the financial aspect, but in spending the energy, time and resources to consistently educate students about these issues to make sure students are going into the communities that we’re connected with and treating them with the respect, dignity and understanding they deserve.”
“I think Wash. U. and its students take a lot from St. Louis,” Emenike added. “I don’t think we necessarily give as much as we take, and I would like to see more of that from the University.”
On June 10, Martin sent another email to the student body.
“Along with other university leaders, I have heard from many of you during this time, sharing your passion for these extremely important issues and expressing your strong desire for the university to take concrete action to address racial inequity and injustice in the St. Louis region and at Washington University,” he wrote.
While the email still lacked concrete initiatives, Martin promised that he would send another message this week containing three deliverables.
The first, he wrote, would be a plan for holding virtual discussions throughout the summer, while the second would outline immediate concrete actions toward addressing systemic racism.
The third proposed deliverable was a “plan for the upcoming academic year, to share how we will organize ourselves to harness our collective wisdom and passion into action and plan, together with the St. Louis community, how we can best be ‘in St. Louis, for St. Louis.’”
The coalition quickly responded with an update to the petition.
“Chancellor Martin’s most recent email was not a direct response to our demands, nor was it a response to CS40 + SU’s demand that Wash. U. invest in local Black activism,” the students wrote. “We will not be ignored.”
Emenike emphasized the importance of centering the voices, needs and ideas of community members as the University moves forward with establishing a plan for action.
“At the end of the day, even though we live in St. Louis, we don’t know as much about the issues of St. Louis as the people of St. Louis themselves,” she said. “They know what the problems are, they know how they want to get them fixed. We need to constantly listen to community organizers.”
Junior Johnnie Teng commented that as a student, he has noticed a pattern of the University releasing statements on social justice issues, but following up with few tangible actions.
“I mean no disrespect to the current admin (ok maybe a little) but I feel that Wash. U. has something to say, a statement to make, about almost every major social cause in the form of some nice words from some high-up that most students have never spoken to, yet very little actual action that is noticeable or recognizable,” Teng wrote. “Substance over form, please, especially since support for BLM is long overdue. Looking forward to a safer and more just campus.”
As of Sunday night, the University had not yet acknowledged or directly responded to the petition, students said.
“This isn’t the first time these issues have been addressed…there have been so many colleges that have had incidents of racial bias on their campuses, and they’ve done insufficient jobs at handling that,” Emenike said. “I would hope that this time would be different, but I can’t say I’m optimistic that it will be. I’m waiting to see what the concrete steps are.”