December 15, 2020

GUEST ROOM | To Cornell: Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep

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Three weeks ago, I finally returned home to my family in Maryland after living in Ithaca for four long months. I had been in Ithaca since early August, the beginning of residential staff training, and with no fall break in sight, those four months had dragged on until I was sick to death of Cornell. 

However, over the course of these same past three weeks I have been home, the conversations surrounding disarmament on the Student Assembly floor escalated to a peak after a semester-long debate. And now — trying to chair these meetings with over 200 attendees on Zoom with my parents walking by bemusedly — I’ve found that I can’t talk to my family, or anyone really, about the S.A.

After speaking on the phone to a reporter from The Sun recently in an effort to convey my side of the S.A. story, I sat alone in my darkened room and listened to the muted sounds of my parents preparing dinner downstairs beyond my closed door. 

I felt, all of a sudden, very alone. 

I had always heard from other women at Cornell, my friends and mentors, that leadership is lonely. I have been talked about, reported on and had my private emails and texts shared without my consent for the entire Cornell community to read. I have been equally criticized and applauded for decisions made not solely by myself, but with the students I lead and represent. And I know that no one truly understands the pressures of both internal and external politics at Cornell, or the inner workings of an administrative and institutional status quo that resists any kind of change.  

This fight for disarmament has been lonely. There is no other word to describe it. To be isolated and targeted by our peers on the Assembly and within the student body for trying to do what we think is right, to be ignored by administrators who are frustratingly resistant to calls for police disarmament and to be fighting for our cause in the middle of Ithaca, New York — amidst the further isolation of a global pandemic — has been lonely. 

Earlier in the semester, as the President of the Cornell Student Assembly, I joined with Black students and students of color in the Assembly and at Cornell to bring a resolution to disarm the Cornell University Police Department to the floor of the Assembly. I did this knowing it would be contentious and would likely raise obstacles during my presidential term, but signed on understanding that the fight for justice, allyship and solidarity is never easy, but it is good and it is right. 

Our discussion over disarming the CUPD began this summer in response to the nationwide call for disarming and defunding the police following the tragic murders of Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. And while the struggle for racial justice has always had a place on college campuses — especially Cornell’s — these past few months have forced me to confront my suspicion that Cornell University is not truly committed to supporting students in advocating for real institutional and cultural progress.

In the conversation that followed the introduction of the disarmament resolution, I was stunned by the high level of institutional pushback led by the CUPD Chief of Police to secretly meet with and lobby young undergraduate members of the S.A., sowing division on the Assembly floor. Beyond that, Black student leaders on campus who supported and spearheaded disarmament have faced racist attacks on a multitude of online platforms. These attacks have attempted to slander Black students, expel them from Cornell and strip them of their scholarships, jobs and extracurriculars. Now, these Black students and campus leaders — our friends and peers — fear for their professional and physical safety as a consequence of their advocacy work on campus and attempts to make Cornell a safer place. But the administration has done little to nothing to protect them.

I know that many of my fellow assembly members and the full Assembly have received little support from the administration during these conversations on disarmament. It’s beginning to feel like this isolation is purposeful, that the administration is allowing us students to fight it out and make a campus spectacle out of the debate. Meanwhile the University slips by, managing to not take any actual and concrete administrative steps to respond to the calls of students to disarm the CUPD and ensure the safety of Black students on campus. 

Over the summer, President Martha Pollack vowed in an email to the entire university community that “we will do all we can as a university to address this scourge of racism.” And yet, where is the University response to the student call for action and disarmament? How is the University supporting all students in having these conversations, and in overcoming our differences? Where are the statements or affirmations in support of students who have recently been subject to racist harassment? If the University stays silent in the face of student unrest, are we really doing all we can do?

Let me be clear: The bookclubs and the committees and the academic themes and projects that came out of this summer are definitely progress, but they mean nothing if we as a University community are still unwilling and unprepared to grapple with these issues. 

The conversations that have been happening on the S.A. level are unique because they have forced disparate parties to come together on the floor and confront their differences in views. But the resistance we have encountered is emblematic of a Cornell and a nation unwilling to engage in dialogue of these core criticisms of our founding institutions. As students, we have been left to deal with the heightened tensions and an almost unbearable political polarization with little to no support from the administration for students facing targeted harassment across the student body, and the unimaginable loneliness and hurt that these conversations can cause. The isolation I have felt, and my fellow students on all sides of the disarmament debate have felt, is not normal.

I’ll be the first to admit that the process of advocating for disarmament at Cornell has been riddled with the typical drama, upsets and petty politics that characterizes the S.A. In my time at Cornell, I’ve never seen the S. A. more divided or face such seemingly irreconcilable political and personal division. But these conversations are more than any one student should be trying to take on, on top of school and a literal global pandemic that has left us all grieving a loss of normalcy. This is what happens when you throw students onto a campus with the weight of the world on their shoulders and leave them alone to grapple with the problems of racism and policing that have plagued this country for centuries. 

But Cornell does not exist in a vacuum and neither does the fight for justice. Over the past few months, I have been comforted by the alerts of fellow disarmament campaigns at various other school campuses. Student activists and leaders at schools across the nation and our peer institutions across the Ivy League such as Harvard and Yale are echoing the call to disarm. Right before our last Student Assembly meeting of this semester, I was heartened to read that earlier in the day the Minneapolis City Council, the center of this past summer’s call for justice following the murder of George Floyd, voted to redirect $8 million from their police budget.

That was the greatest reminder and affirmation I could have ever received that, while we may feel alone, and despite efforts to isolate us, we are not truly alone in this fight. It was a reminder that these conversations for disarmament had on the S.A. floor call back to a summer of unity and relentless marches in the street for racial justice and the basic human right to safety and dignity. But it was also a reminder of Cornell’s promise over the summer to “do better,” that now seems to ring hollow.

Throughout the semester, Black students, students of color and students of various identities and beliefs have been putting their all on the line to fight for racial justice and the basic right to safety. And at our last S.A. meeting of the semester, the Assembly reconsidered the resolution and voted to disarm the Cornell University Police Department. Despite this success, I am ending this semester with more questions than I began with. 

Cornell, where do you stand? What is your role in reimagining the space police takes up on our campus? How and when will the University take real, tangible steps to rethink their relationships with and reliance on policing on campus? How are you standing behind your students in our efforts to create a safer campus for our most vulnerable students and communities  as we tackle centuries-old divides and traumas that our nation itself has yet to address or resolve? 

Are we really alone?

Catherine Huang is a senior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She currently serves as President of the undergraduate Cornell Student Assembly. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.