Cries of “the students united will not be defeated!” filled Ho Plaza Thursday afternoon when nearly a hundred students banded together for the Million Student March and demanded tuition-free public college, cancellation of all student debt, a $15 minimum wage for campus workers and immediate divestment from fossil fuel corporations.
Despite a student’s post on social media calling for its cancellation, students gathered on the steps of Willard Straight Hall at 3 p.m. for the march, which was organized by the Cornell Independent Students’ Union for a national event with more than 100 participating colleges.
An hour before the march, a student posted on the Facebook event page a screenshot of a CISU statement of the union’s demands, underlining a portion of the sentence, “Alongside students, faculty must demand that low-income and colored people traditionally excluded by the status quo, are invited into the university system.”
Pointing to the phrase “colored people,” the student said in her post that she found it insensitive.
“This is NOT okay. CISU needs to be held accountable. Students of color will not be tokenized by this organization,” the student posted.
In a comment on the Facebook post, CISU said it was “an unacceptable error” and that they planned to issue a public apology and “work hard to repair” it.
Later in a post on the event page, Allison Lapehn ’17 called for the protest to be cancelled, stating that CISU “cannot host an event promoting student power and solidarity when a group of students on campus no longer feel safe under your representation.”
She later told The Sun that she had called for the member of CISU responsible for the “racially insensitive” phrase to “step forward and formally apologize,” but that the student union chose to collectively accept the blame, a decision that she said she believes should result in their dissolution.
“It is unfortunate that progressive movements still do not realize the full meaning and importance of inclusion and promotion of all voices,” Lapehn said.
Despite the social media posts, the march continued as planned with multiple students shouting their demands and opinions.
“Fifty percent of Cornell undergraduate students are employed by Cornell. One out of two of us is employed by this institution because we cannot afford to go here,” said Alec Desbordes ’17, a member of the Cornell Independent Students’ Union. “This is ridiculous. There needs to be a change.”
Other students highlighted the importance of presenting a united fight in order to create a ripple effect that would motivate change regarding an array of issues.
“We need to unite workers, students and full-time workers together because we work together, we strive together to make this campus work, and through our unity, we can bring change with an actual living wage and the possibility for us to not be under pressure and have an education how we should have it — free from any constraints,” Desbordes said.
Many protesters took pen to paper, canvas and cardboard, displaying signs to demonstrate their solidarity with messages that read “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” “Total liberation from domination” and “Divest!”
At approximately 3:35 p.m., the crowd marched towards Day Hall, streaming through Campus Road and East Avenue, which were both blocked off by campus police.
“Whose school? Our school! Whose money? Our money! Whose future? Our future! Whose power? Our power!” protesters chanted.
Alternating between cheering and chanting as they rounded street corners, protesters continued until they arrived in front of Day Hall, where they blocked off the intersection of Tower Road and East Avenue, and stood in a circle.
There, students made impromptu speeches, acknowledging how privileged they are to attend Cornell with students from diverse backgrounds, who they said all have the right to protest in front of Day Hall. This, many reiterated, is a continuation of a movement against inequality. To continue the spread of the movement, protesters said they must make all students and faculty feel they are a part of the same cause.
While the demands presented by all the schools participating in the Million Student March did not include divestment from fossil fuels, a demand made specifically by CISU for Cornell’s administration, protesters still said it was equally important to the other issues.
“Fossil fuels are a very important issue, but the real problem is that it is invested in with our tuition money without our consent,” Desbordes said. “We do not think it is acceptable that the money we pay for education should be invested in corporations that are killing the world. We should be in control of where our money goes.”
Cornell’s protest follows on the heels of demonstrations on college campuses across the nation. On Tuesday, hundreds of Ithaca College students and faculty participated in a walk out, accusing their president of mishandling racial incidents on campus and calling for his resignation. Students have also protested at the University of Missouri, Yale University, Smith College and Claremont McKenna.
“We are out here trying to create a culture of student activism voice, democracy, and standing in solidarity as a community with faculty and students together,” said Julien Morgan ’19, a member of CISU.
Before parting ways at around 4 p.m., many of those standing in the circle raised their fists in the air as a symbol of solidarity.
While CISU is unsure what their next step will be, they plan to escalate in a Cornell-specific direction, bringing yearly tuition increases and divestment from fossil fuels to the spotlight, Desbordes said.
“It is a powerful demonstration of student activism and how, as students, we collectively work as allies to target specific issues,” said Ilse Paniagua ’16, another CISU member. “Changes get made because students, faculty and workers, not the central administration or the trustees, are the ones that have fundamental power. So when we mobilize together, that’s when change happens.”