WU protests falter, community efforts prevail
Students and community members took advantage of America’s attention to demonstrate for a variety of issues as the nation’s eyes and news cameras turned to Washington University and the St. Louis area.
While the community-led Say No To Hate March gathered several hundred protesters for a march down the Delmar Loop and Skinker Boulevard, Washington University’s most prominent student protest and march—organized by the recently formed Liberation Collective—was less impactful.Both marches took aim at an ever-widening range of issues. The Say No To Hate March executed a clear plan and advocated for more explicit policies, while the Liberation Collective’s efforts suffered from a lack of organization and specificity.
The Liberation Collective gathering at Mudd Field featured several students providing provocative rhetoric aimed not at a unified issue but at a wider theme of oppression. Topics included racial profiling, American support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the University administration’s complicity in dumping uranium in the local West Lake Landfill, campus and national bias against trans people of color and sex workers and minimum wage increases.
After speaking the names of all 20 transgender people of color (TPOC) murdered this year, one demonstrator took aim at mistreatment of this demographic by the Washington University Police Department, the RSVP center, Student Health Services and Washington University Administrators.
“I’m certain that neither transphobia nor sex work will be brought up at this debate because we live in a country that can’t wait to exterminate us. TPOC sex workers and victims of sexual assault are left no choice but to feel isolated, objectified and unsafe on a campus with no active LGBT student coordinator and a glaring lack of POC and queer leadership,” the demonstrator said. “Wash. U. is dropping $5 million on this debate, is that why we don’t have the funds to protect TPOC sex workers and rape victims?”
According to senior Christian Ralph, a Liberation Collective organizer, the group’s broad approach was intentional.
“We’re just hoping to get our voices heard. Both presidential candidates have not addressed major issues that students care about, issues that may not be addressed unless we speak out,” Ralph said. “All these systems of oppression are linked to imperialist policies, we can’t just ignore some issues in favor of others that we value.”
Sophomore Jamar McDonald also stressed the importance of advocating for causes without needing to attach them to policies.
“I’m just trying to get people’s attention and let them know we do not live in a place where everybody is equal. If you go out and ask people would you want to be treated like a black person, how many people would say yes,” McDonald said. “How many people would say yes that’s how I want to be treated, and if you’re not saying that, you know we’re not equal.”
Senior Divya Babbula, who held a sign behind the speakers, considered the demonstration a success.
“I thought it went really well. So many issues that affect the majority of Americans are ignored. Anti-trans violence, Black Lives Matter, environmental justice, these are all issues that don’t make it to the national discourse. I think having the debate at Wash. U. is really handy for us to talk about Wash. U.’s complicity in all these systems,” Babbula said.
But senior Ariel Applbaum, who left the protest early, considered the demonstration to be too fragmented.
“It seemed like a gathering of individuals interested in advertising their own grievances, rather than a unified forum pursuing change,” Applbaum said.
Sophomore Carly Strauss was unimpressed with the lack of student activism on the whole.
“There was a protest but it didn’t really amount to much so I was a little disappointed. I thought that we would protest what has been going on on campus, like Black Lives Matter, [which] I thought would be more prevalent but it wasn’t really here,” Strauss said.
After the gathering, a small cohort of Liberation Collective protesters held signs and started chants reflecting their diverse messages as they marched to join the Say No to Hate March group behind Delmar Boulevard. But the group often disagreed on where to demonstrate on campus, and after a number of protestors trailed off, only 11 students completed the march to Delmar.
The Say No to Hate March and rally, which took place in the parking lot behind Cicero’s Italian restaurant, featured a clear focus on proposals for a $15 minimum wage. The rally also gathered community members supporting Planned Parenthood, marijuana legalization and environmental activism, amongst other topics.
Ferguson Resident Fayzan Syed, one of the rally’s most applauded activists, manifested the afternoon’s vague but empowering rhetoric.
“We live in a nation today, my sisters and brothers, where there is oppression, where there is injustice, but with the injustice comes the solution. All of us who have gathered here today are the solution. When the eyes of the world are on St. Louis let us let the world know that we say no to hate,” Syed said to a cheering crowd.
After a series of speeches in the parking lot, including one from Ralph, the march began. The crowd of hundreds followed activist guides, several of whom were Liberation Collective students, as well as police car escorts down the Delmar Loop and onto Skinker Boulevard, disrupting traffic before terminating the march with chants at the edge of campus.
Senior Laura Talpey heard organizers chanting from her off campus apartment and ran to the Loop to investigate.
“I’m super impressed. It’s a really diverse group, and I think it’s really meaningful that it’s on the Loop, one of the most dividing lines in St. Louis,” Talpey said.
Senior and Liberation Collective member Matt Drew applauded the community’s organization while noting that such results may not always be possible with student protests.
“Community organization is where all the sustainable organizing takes place, because in a community like this one, people have lived here for decades. With a college, it’s so easy to graduate out in four years, there’s always that turnover,” Drew said. “But in working with the community you get long term connections that really empower people—the president of the St. Louis Division of Missouri Jobs and Justice was the founder of the student worker alliance at Wash U in 2003 and is still working with us.”
Drew also noted that while he considered the on-campus event a success, the energetic campus atmosphere may have dampened student turnout.
“I think there was a lot of participation at our event on campus, but it’s always been incredibly hard getting people off campus—there’s got to be some way to break that,” Drew said. “Everything going on on campus—free ice cream, swag, all the cameras—it’s meant to keep people on campus.”
Before the initial gathering at Mudd Field, junior Rob Curran stressed the importance of community relationships while also pointing out that security restrictions also limited protest attendance.
“We’re trying to incorporate more of the St. Louis progressive community into this event, which is a St. Louis thing, not just a Wash. U. thing. I understand safety concerns, but it’s our obligation to involve as many people as we can to make this a more encompassing and real event,” Currin said.
But in Babbula’s view, the sincerity of all involved was a testament to the success of both demonstrations.
“The people that did show up were fully involved and gave it their heart and we really connected with the community members. I don’t know that I can expect anything else,” Babbula said.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to clarify terminology.