“The first comment that was made was ‘Go back to Ferguson. Go back to St. Louis.’”
On the afternoon of Oct. 18, as Missouri State students got ready to cheer on the football team against South Dakota University and tailgaters partied in BearFest Village, 35 protesters had a different plan for homecoming.
Homecoming Blackout, as the protest was called, was not about Ferguson. It was not about Michael Brown. It was not about Vonderrit Myers.
“It was a protest about black rights. It was a bigger scope of things. It wasn’t another Ferguson protest,” said Jakal Burrell-El, one of the protesters.
The format of the protest was simple. Protesters marched, some wore masks and some carried signs with statements such as “Don’t Shoot,” “Stop Killing Us” and “Black Lives Matter.”
These signs were the only way that the otherwise silent protesters communicated with the crowd at BearFest Village.
“We did not utter a word,” said Riana Clark, another protester who was at the event. “I stepped on the shoes of the girl in front of me at least 20 times, and I didn’t even utter an ‘I’m sorry.’ None of us spoke.”
The BearFest Village attendees, however, were not as silent.
Along with disrupting the protesters by standing in the middle of their circle or breaking their lines while they were marching, tailgaters engaged in verbal harassment as well, yelling racial slurs and telling them to “go back to Ferguson.”
Jakobi Connor, a protester, read a list of quotes he’d written down that he’d heard during the protest:
“Fuck you all. We do shoot. This is so stupid. This is supposed to be a happy day. You’re retarded. This is retarded. Get the fuck out of here.”
Some tailgaters went as far as physical confrontation with protesters, according to Dorrean Cunningham.
“Not too long after the protest ended at 1 p.m., I was going back to my room,” Cunningham said. “I live in Freddy, and I was called out (by) my name several times, being bumped, pushed, being called a nigger, telling me to go back to St. Louis where I belong, I do not belong on this campus, this campus does not belong to black students so take your nigger ass back to where you came from. After I was leaving my room, I was still being called out (by) my name, still being called a nigger.”
It wasn’t just students saying these things, either.
“Some of the most vile things that I experienced,” Clark said, “were more from older — I don’t know if they’re faculty or not, they’re dressed in Missouri State apparel — but for a man to look me right in my eyes and say he’ll shoot me, and then hold up his hand like a gun and go ‘Boom. Boom. Boom.’?
“He was about the same age as my father.”
“We heard several people say ‘I don’t care about niggers. They’re just niggers.’”
While aggressive tailgaters may have been the most prevalent problem the protesters faced, it was far from the only issue that occurred during their demonstration.
From 1-4 a.m. the morning of homecoming, protesters chalked messages along the tailgate path, some of which said “Speak Up,” “Homecoming Blackout” and “Don’t Shoot,” along with outlines of bodies next to messages such as “He was a future doctor” or “He had a 4.0 GPA.”
By 8 a.m. these messages were gone. Chalkings saying “Go Royals!” still remained.
They’d been power washed away under authorization of the Athletics Department, in what Suzanne Shaw, Vice President for Marketing and Communications at MSU, described as an “incorrect decision.”
Shaw said that someone felt the messages were somewhat threatening, and that the appropriate parties had been re-educated on the policy.
Kyle Moats, Director of Athletics at MSU, sent out a tweet three days later, saying “I apologize that chalked protest messages were removed from BearFest Village. Thanks to all who raised awareness.”
The same day, MSU released a statement titled “Conversation on student protest.”
The statement read, “Missouri State University is committed to ensuring that its campus is a welcoming and inclusive environment where all members of its community are treated with respect. The university does not condone actions or comments directed at Homecoming Blackout participants that were inconsistent with this commitment of inclusion and mutual respect. Accordingly, the university will continue to take appropriate actions to address diversity-related concerns.”
When asked if they considered this an apology, every protester present said, “That’s not enough.”
“That was just a statement,” Ryan Johnson, a protester, said. “That was not an apology. If they were sincere about it, they will, as an administration — not just Dean (of Students Mike) Jungers — as in president, vice presidents, someone along those lines will come to speak up, after we have the conversation about what happened at the protest and so forth. Then, we would like for them to give us an apology.
“We do not want an apology on Twitter. We do not want an apology on any type of social media. We want a personal apology. We want a face-to-face apology. We want an eye-to-eye apology. And we want an explanation as to what you will do, what will be the next steps.”
University President Clif Smart stated on Twitter that “The chalking policy needs clarity. Will evaluate after football ends and will have wide student input before changes made.”
Not everyone agreed that the chalkings were incorrectly removed, however.
“There was a comment (on a blog post) that was like ‘It got washed away because everything that was chalked was aggressive sayings,’” Connor said. “And they quoted some of the chalks and they were saying that these words were aggressive. They were saying that ‘Please Stop Killing Us’ and ‘Don’t Shoot’ — they called those aggressive.
“It’s like we’re begging for our lives and they’re calling that aggresive.”
“One girl, she said ‘Go back to the hood,’ and then pushed me and was like ‘Get the fuck out of the way.’”
Mike Jungers met with the protesters before the event on Oct. 18 to discuss their plans and share some concerns he had.
“I anticipated that the students might be met some with what I call ‘ugly behavior’– name-calling– hopefully no physical aggression, but you don’t know.”
Jungers emphasized that he never attempted to dissuade them from protesting, and described the demonstration itself as “well organized, disciplined, extremely well-prepared. I’ve seen protests, and I can’t think of one more effective and more organized.”
Jungers said that the administration is responsive to the students’ calls for community engagement, and that a simple statement is not all that the university will do to address the situation. Several administration members plan on attending the Nov. 1 Speak Up event at MSU.
And the message isn’t lost on students either, he says.
“Well, I think some students got the message as well, and not the negative response. I believe it was a small minority who used racial slurs and said ‘Go home, you don’t belong here,’ etc. And I think, again, the demonstration and then the response of a few really got the attention of other students, and I know there are other students who realize now ‘We need to be involved. We need to be engaged in this conversation.’
“So I’m optimistic, and I hope I’m not just pie in the sky. I believe this is a start of something positive.”
Jungers also commented on the idea that homecoming wasn’t a “proper” place for this demonstration to take place.
“There is no proper place. I understand the sentiment, but there would not be a proper place. And a proper place would not be as effective. I think the purpose of a protest is to bring attention to something that people do not want to acknowledge, do not want to see, do not want to experience.
“So you go to places that you may not be welcomed. And I think they, in their wisdom, chose a place like that. And all the drunken behavior that I see is not ‘proper.’ And I would much rather have something of this educational value than some of the other behavior I see at BearFest Village. I think it is a proper place.”
Dee Siscoe, Vice President of Student Affairs for MSU, said, “There’s not a silver bullet. There’s not an easy answer and there’s not one quick fix” for the issues that she said had been ongoing, even before the protest.
“We want every student to feel like Missouri State is their home and that they’re welcome and safe here. So if any segment of the population doesn’t feel that way, then we have work to do to figure out how to make it an environment where people feel safe and welcome.”
“I just want to say thank you to those people as well, who stepped out of their comfort zone and were actually willing to say ‘Good job. You should be fighting for this. You should be fighting for your people. For your rights. For everything.’”
People have to face this now, Clark says, because the protesters made them face it.
“It was to create discussion. It was to pop the bubble that often surrounds universities from the rest of the world. People on this campus don’t like to talk about certain things … it popped that little bubble, and now they have to face it. And now the university and everyone on this campus has to do something about it.”
And the conversation has to be wider, Burrell-El said.
“It’s more than just black students who get harassed on this campus. I have Asian friends — I have Latin friends who get harassed on this campus. It’s a minority issue. We’re tired of it, and we’re bringing it to the table.”
Otherwise, Clark said, our university is being dishonest in one of its main beliefs.
“What is our public affairs mission? Is it really something that the core university believes? Or is it just something pretty to put out and say ‘Yes, we believe in diversity, because that’s what they’re supposed to believe in’?”
Jungers mentioned the public affairs mission as well, and admitted that the university isn’t — and likely never will be — perfect.
“The public affairs mission and the three pillars — that’s aspirational. Those are the ideals. Whether we’ll ever fully realize them, I don’t know. But we certainly have a long way to go, especially in cultural competence. We do not take advantage of the cultural diversity that we have. And it’s diversity AND inclusion for a reason. The numbers game is diversity. But the inclusion is what’s really important to me.”
While it’s unlikely that everyone will ever come to an agreement on Homecoming Blackout and its goals, it’s inarguable that they’ve made an impact that won’t be forgotten for a long time.
And for protester Shannon Shellner, there’s already been a victory.
“We were small in numbers, and then it was like hundreds of people around us,” Shellner said. “The fact that we even went out there, that shows bravery and heart, and I am very proud of what we did on Saturday.”