Women's March in Ithaca in January 2017.

Cameron Pollack / Sun File Photo

Women's March in Ithaca in January 2017.

December 12, 2019

Cornell Student Activism Shines Throughout 2010s

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Correction appended. 

Responding to national events or fighting for change on campus, Cornellians have fostered a strong culture of activism in Ithaca over the past decade.

Throughout the years, Black Students United has led a number of protests in response to racism and racial acts on campus.

In 2015, members of BSU stood on tables at Trillium to denounce racial discrimination at Cornell. The protestors shouted their demands, and afterwards saw concrete change –– The Cornell Plantation was renamed to the Cornell Botanical Garden.

After a black student was assaulted in Collegetown in an altercation involving racial slurs, black students led by BSU took over Willard Straight Hall in 2017, nearly 50 years after the Willard Straight Hall takeover, to demand change. They occupied the building for several hours after delivering a list of demands to President Martha Pollack. Changes, such as hiring more mental health officials of color, are still being implemented today.

In 2017, members of Cornell’s marching band stood in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the national anthem. Kaepernick knelt to protest racial injustice and police brutality. After witnessing band member Kyra Butler ’20 take a knee during a game against Yale, the other members of the band wanted to ensure that she was not alone in her protests.

In 2010, Cornell’s move to fold the Africana Studies and Research Center into the College of Arts and Sciences was strongly rebuked by ASRC faculty and students: Prof. N’Dri T. Assié-Lumumba, Africana studies, called it “institutional racism.” Prof. Carol Boyce Davies, Africana studies, called out then-Provost Kent Fuchs’s decision: “They claim they want to build Africana but they want to blow it up first.”

Student protest has also brought varying responses from University Administration. Protests in 2015 against raising the CU Health Fee saw the university dispatching a Cornell Police investigator to confront a student organizing a protest.

Hashtagged #FightTheFee, student protestors were voicing opposition to the universities’ potential implementation of a $350 health care fee for all students not enrolled in the Cornell health plan. Cornell Police Investigator Justin Baum threatened  Daniel Marshall ’15 with arrest unless he complied with the investigation, the Ithaca Times reported. In Feb. 2015, students occupied Day Hall before storming then President David Skorton’s office, The Sun reported.

Moments of protests on campus and around the city throughout the decade have often represented national movements.

One day after the Inauguration of President Donald Trump, over 8,000 people descended into the Ithaca Commons for the Women’s March on Ithaca, the local installment of a day of Women’s Marches in most major US cities. As the Sun reported, the peaceful protests were the largest the city has seen in recent memory.

Likewise, in 2019, Global Climate Marches found their way to Cornell’s campus on Sept. 20, when hundreds of Cornellians mobilized to voice the concerns of a generation –– or, as one sign stated: “tides are rising, so are we.”

Another prominent demonstration this decade coincided with national protests over Arizona Senate Bill 1070 in 2010. MEChA organized a mock Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid. The group stormed a lecture hall while asking students at random to present immigration papers.

Protests on the Ithaca Commons have also marked the decade: In 2011, protestors rallied on the commons to demand a $12.78 per hour “living wage.” In 2013, on International Workers Day, students and members of the Ithaca community marched through Day Hall and then down into the Commons to promote free speech and political activism on campus.

In 2014, three hundred people gathered outside City Hall after a white Ithaca Police Officer drew his gun on two teenagers of color fleeing a crime scene. The protestors demanded that IPD protects the youth of the city. In 2016, Ithaca residents outside City Hall protested a potential expansion of a ban on gorge swimming.

In 2013, Native American Students at Cornell organized a rally in Ho Plaza in opposition to Canadian law Omnibus Bill C-45, which would allow for the sale of Indigenous lands.

Guest speakers — often right-of-center politicians — have inspired strong student push back as well. In 2018, former Vice President Dick Cheney was met with professor and student protest upon arriving to campus for a talk sponsored by the Cornell Republicans. Prof. Russell Rickford, history, called Cheney — who served under President George W. Bush — a “war criminal” during the protest rally.

In 2016, Trump’s election brought sharp rebuke from students on campus. Hundreds of Cornellians walked out of class the Friday after the election, covering campus. Traffic on Tower Road and East Ave was temporarily stopped, and Prof. Bruce Monger excused students from class to attend the protest.

In 2017, Pro-Palestine protesters hosted a die-in at a celebration of Israel Independence Day. In the spring of 2019, protests demanding that Cornell divest from some Israeli companies swept across campus, with the Student Assembly narrowly rejecting a resolution to ask the University to do so.

These are only a selection of this decade’s activism on campus — despite most students’ short tenure in Ithaca, Cornellians continued to keep making their voices heard.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the acronym of student organization MEChA.