Following an assault in which a black Cornell student said he was called the N-word and repeatedly punched by a group of white students in Collegetown on Friday, Black Students United at Cornell declared a “state of emergency” over the weekend and President Martha Pollack issued a series of initiatives meant to improve the campus climate.
Ithaca Police arrested one Cornell student after the fight on Eddy Street at about 1:30 a.m. on Friday. The arrested Cornell student, who had not been identified as of Sunday evening, was charged with misdemeanor assault, Ithaca Police Lt. John Joly said, adding that the department is investigating “any racially biased motivation.”
Pollack said in a message to the campus community that Cornell, pending a final investigation, will not consider reinstating the Psi Upsilon fraternity, which had its recognition revoked in 2016. At least four student groups said in separate statements that members of Psi Upsilon were responsible for the assault, although the fraternity’s alumni group denies this. On Saturday, “You Rasist Fucks [sic]” was seen in paint on the Psi Upsilon’s uninhabited former house.
Delmar Fears ’19, a co-chair of BSU, said in an interview over the weekend that the organization had declared a “state of emergency for black students” following the assault and had warned black students not to attend Interfraternity Council or Panhellenic Council parties because of concerns for their safety.
“Are we safe walking home from class — from the library at night?” Fears asked.
“Are we even safe at our own Collegetown parties?” Traciann Celestin ’19, a co-chair of BSU, added.
Cornell Kappa Sigma identified the assaulted student, a junior, as one of its members, adding in a statement that the student is recovering from his injuries. The student, who spoke to The Sun from Cayuga Medical Center on Friday, said he was “pretty bloodied up” following the altercation. He underwent X-rays for a possible concussion, but those tests were negative.
The Kappa Sigma junior said he attempted to break up a fight in the front yard of his residence on the 300-block of Eddy Street when a group of four or five white men began shouting expletives and the N-word at him.
“They said, ‘Fuck you, nigger,’ over and over, as they were leaving,” the student said.
When the junior confronted them, the group of men “came up and started punching me in the face repeatedly,” he said.
Pollack said she is convening a presidential task force in the next two weeks that will examine and address “persistent problems of bigotry and intolerance at Cornell” and recommend how the University can create a more inclusive environment. The list of measures, Pollack said, is only “a starting point.”
Pollack said she is also asking Vijay Pendakur, the dean of students, to create a new dispute resolution process “based on restorative justice” that will coexist with the current disciplinary system. She is also tasking the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils with developing a diversity training program for its members before spring recruitment.
The presidents of those two councils, as well as the Multicultural Greek Letter Council, said in a statement that they were “outraged” by the assault and committed to fighting hatred.
In a video recorded early on Friday morning and obtained by The Sun, two men can be seen arguing with an unidentified student. One of the men uses the N-word multiple times. A witness of that incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it occurred about an hour after the physical assault. The assaulted student said he was not present for that verbal exchange.
One of the two men, while standing on a sidewalk on Eddy Street, says, “We live right here, what do you mean ‘go the fuck home’?”
In a second video reviewed by The Sun, the same two men can be seen standing outside of 306 Eddy St., where police said they responded to a reported fight. Several students identified the house as Psi Upsilon’s unofficial annex. No one answered the door at that house on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 told The Sun that police had reviewed at least one of the videos.
Thomas Fox, executive director of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity, said in messages to BSU that he plans to investigate the matter to make sure no one who took part in the assault “has any association with our fraternity at any time in the future.”
The Alumni of the Chi of Psi Upsilon at Cornell said in an unsigned statement to The Sun that the arrested student “is not and has never been a member of the Chi of Psi Upsilon.”
The alumni said Psi Upsilon at Cornell submitted a list of students to the University this semester, naming students who wanted to re-establish the chapter. The arrested student “was not one of those students on our list,” the group said.
The Collegetown assault occurred about nine days after a resident of the Latino Living Center heard someone in the Zeta Psi fraternity, which is next door, chanting “build a wall” and saying, “let’s build a wall around the LLC.” Pollack said the events of the last few weeks are “deeply painful.”
“The pain is magnified a thousandfold for those whose dignity and, indeed, very bodies have been attacked,” Pollack said.
About 15 members of BSU met with Vijay Pendakur, the dean of students, in an emotional meeting on Friday afternoon, but some BSU members were frustrated that Pollack did not contact the group until Sunday, nearly three days after the assault.
Fears, the BSU co-chair, said many of the initiatives proposed by Pollack in her statement were ideas that members of BSU had first shared with Pendakur in their meeting. Fears said it was frustrating to see Pollack “claiming” the ideas as her own.
“Why did it take a black man being beat almost to a concussion for Pollack to say that we need to change?” Fears said on Sunday. “She should’ve been working on this earlier.”
“Black students are not going to slip into complacency because Martha sent a nice email,” Fears said.
Six members of the BSU Executive Board, in an interview on Saturday, before Pollack’s statement, said Cornell has not made the University a welcoming place for black students.
“How do black students on this campus walk into class on Monday and feel like they have equal advantage to learning, to doing well in that class, to being respected by their peers and professors in that class?” said Celestin, the BSU co-chair.
“We really want the Board of Trustees to pay attention to this,” she added.
Most important to executive board members, they said, is that black students and other students of color feel safe on campus.
Imani Luckey ’19, a BSU political action chair, said she had not been able to focus on school work since she first learned about the incident on Friday morning and began asking herself, “What if that was me?”
“I’ve taken that walk in Collegetown with my friends so many times and it’s just really scary that people who go here feel that much anger and that much hate that they’re willing to act on it in that manner,” Luckey said.
“There’s a lot of emotional investment that goes into being black on this campus,” added Amari Sealey ’19, also a BSU political action chair.
Joseph Nelzy ’18, the BSU funding chair, said that many Cornell students “have the privilege to just be on campus and just live their life and just be free.”
“I don’t think we have that privilege,” he said.
A support fund initiated by BSU had raised more than $1,400 for the injured student as of Sunday night. Through a friend, the junior Kappa Sigma brother declined to speak again with The Sun on Saturday, and his fraternity asked the public to “respect his privacy” as he recovers.
More details on the arrested student are likely to be available on Monday. A clerk at Ithaca City Court had not received paperwork for the arrest on Friday afternoon when The Sun inquired, and a supervisor at the Tompkins County Jail said no one had been booked on Friday morning, meaning the student likely posted bail before going through the jail.
BSU Executive Board members said they were baffled by why Ithaca Police had only arrested one student and why that student had not been charged with a hate crime.
“These people are walking around scot-free with absolutely no repercussions,” Fears said. “I think these people are going to have happy fine lives after beating up a black person until he was bloody.”
Some BSU Executive Board members also said they were disappointed after their meeting with Pendakur, saying the dean of students had put too much of the burden of demanding change from the administration on students.
“Students of color are working so hard to fight this fight and the administration needs to step up,” Celestin said.
“We’re not the University’s hired diversity consultants, but that seems to be what we’re doing right now.”