May 16, 2012

Protesters Demand Cornell ‘Take Responsibility to End Racism’

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In a march that denounced the alleged racial incident at Sigma Pi and the reportedly inadequate response from the administration, protesters from Cornell, Ithaca College and the Ithaca community walked from the fraternity to Day Hall Wednesday, bringing with them the sound of syncopated drum beats and the fervor of about 100 shouting voices.

“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” protesters shouted as they walked through Ho Plaza.

Printed on yellow pieces of paper, their 11 demands were delivered at the feet of Kent Hubbell ’69, dean of students. The demands were also hung on the entrance of Day Hall on a spray-painted banner.

Among the demands was a call for the administration to “take responsibility to end racism and stop putting this responsibility on students,” to create an “anti-racist joint task force” and to “require all faculty and staff to undergo ongoing anti-oppression and social justice trainings.”

Although these three demands were prioritized, according to the organizers, other demands included creating a “social justice requirement” for all undergraduate students and the elimination of the word “diversity” from the University’s lexicon to replace it with the term “anti-oppression.”

At Day Hall, as administrators looked on, a number of speakers –– including Prof. N’Dri Assie-Lumumba, Africana studies, and several students –– urged the University to cease its “empty rhetorical promises” in favor of stronger action against issues of racial and gender bias.

The protesters were responding to a May 5 incident at Sigma Pi, in which individuals at the fraternity house reportedly threw bottles and other objects at black students walking by early that morning. Additionally, the students were allegedly taunted with references to Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager whose controversial shooting sparked national outcry.

Sigma Pi later released a statement saying the perpetrator was not a member of the fraternity, but rather visiting from a chapter at another university. Still, Cornell’s Sigma Pi chapter was placed on interim suspension on May 8, and Cornell held seven forums last week as part of a “series of conversations addressing bias.”

But, referring to one of the events, Prof. Paula Ioanide, comparative race and ethnicity studies, Ithaca College, said Cornell administrators turned to a “bunch of rhetoric” instead of “acting to contest proactively such racist acts of violence.”

After the incident at Sigma Pi, Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, issued a statement to the community condemning what happened, saying, “There is no place for this kind of behavior at Cornell University; we celebrate our diversity and expect all our members to respect one another.”

James Ricks, an Ithaca resident, expressed skepticism about Murphy’s statement. It did not “sound very apologetic” and came off as a “belated attempt at damage control,” he said.

“You expect us to believe that it was a departure from your normal social interaction, yet someone — a visitor, you say — suddenly felt comfortable enough to attack black students with bottles cans and reprehensible taunts,” Ricks said.

Moreover, protesters expressed frustration about their perception that students and faculty bear too much of the responsibility to promote anti-racism on campus.

Omar Figueredo grad said that “it is not our job to change the institutional culture of Cornell University.” Although the administration is paid to take on the responsibility for doing so, he said, students of color have had to take on the burden of fighting discrimination on campus.

Assie-Lumumba agreed, saying that “the [administration] likes to shed responsibility on students.”

Holding posters that read, “Stop and frisk the frats” and “Greek system check your (hetero)sexism,” protesters also voiced their frustrations about Cornell’s Greek system, saying that fraternities and sororities are part of an “institutional culture” that perpetuates racism and sexism.

“[The] Greek culture constantly harasses women on the basis of their gender and sexuality,” Ioanide said.

Several speakers also said that the racial incident that occurred at Sigma Pi was not an isolated occurrence.

Referring to a Feb. 18, 2006, incident when Nathan Poffenbarger ’08 allegedly stabbed a visiting black student — reportedly yelling racial epithets as he attacked him — Prof. James Turner, Africana studies, said that such events are “sort of brushed aside” before they inevitably re-emerge.

“So, here we are again,” he said.

Turner further condemned the use of Trayvon Martin’s name in the incident at Sigma Pi.

“As if [the killing of Trayvon Martin] wasn’t bad enough on its own terms; it had to be deepened,” he said.

As the protest came to an end, participants, declining Hubbell’s offer to shake hands with them, placed their printed list of demands at Hubbell’s feet.

As the protesters left, they expressed skepticism about the administration’s intents to act.

As she asked all the protesters to return their posters, Anna-Lisa Castle ’13, one of the organizers of the protest, said, “We will probably need to use them next semester.”

Ricks, echoing Castle’s doubts, said, “It’s difficult to heal a wound when the first thing you apply to it is bullshit.”

Original Author: Jinjoo Lee

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