Mizzou Revolt Strengthens as University President Concedes 'Change is Needed'
Tim Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri, is waging the fight of his professional life this week as protests continue over racism and discrimination on campus.
“It is clear to us that change is needed,” Wolfe said in a statement on Sunday, which stated that he was “open to listening to all sides” and would “share next steps as soon as they are confirmed”.
But as night fell on Sunday and temperatures dropped to nearly freezing, 200 or so protesters assembled in prayer on a lawn of the University of Missouri’s flagship campus, dozens of them planning to camp overnight in the frigid air and one of their fellow demonstrators, Jonathan Butler, now a full week into a hunger strike at his home.
Butler, a graduate student activist with the group Concerned Student 1950 – which takes its name from the year the university accepted its first black student – has demanded Wolfe resign over his handling of a series of racist incidents at the university.
Black players from the Missouri Tigers football team – which generates enormous revenue for the school – said on Saturday they would not participate in team activities until Wolfe steps down.
On Sunday the Tigers’ white coach, Gary Pinkel, tweeted his support for the strikers.
Meanwhile, the Steering Committee of the Forum on Graduate Rights and the Coalition of Graduate Workers – which represent grad student workers – announced that they are asking 2,800 graduate student workers to stage a walkout on Monday and Tuesday. Multiple departments and dozens of faculty and staff publicly said they would back up the grad students.
An unknown number of faculty members are even planning to walk out themselves and will reportedly hold “teach-in” sessions with their students alongside the encampment.
The Missouri University System Board of Curators – who have the power to fire Wolfe – will be meeting in a previously unscheduled session on Monday.
Two Republican Missouri lawmakers have called for Wolfe’s removal, and on Sunday, Missouri’s Democratic governor Jay Nixon said the university must act to address concerns over “racism and intolerance”.
Nixon said the university must be “a place where all students can pursue their dreams in an environment of respect, tolerance and inclusion”.
Wolfe has not indicated he has any intention of stepping down, but said in his statement on Sunday that the university is working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance and that “the majority of items listed on the Concerned Student 1950 list of demands were already included in the draft of the strategy”. Concerned Student 1950 has demanded, among other things, that Wolfe “acknowledge his white male privilege”, that he is immediately removed, and that the school adopt a mandatory racial-awareness program and hire more black faculty and staff.
But it is unclear who, if anyone, will be going to work as normal on Monday morning at Mizzou, in offices, on the athletic fields, or in the classrooms.
The graduate students certainly won’t be – and, though their contribution to campus life might be less financially valued than the football program’s, Wolfe can buy himself a few days until the Tigers’ Saturday game before the football players’ strike is fully felt. Not so with the grad students walking out Monday morning.
Connor Lewis, a doctoral candidate in the department of history and one of the organizing co-chairs of the Forum on Graduate Rights, told the Guardian that graduate student teaching and research assistants were being asked to engage in “a withdrawal of labor, of any section they are teaching or any regularly scheduled work” at least through Tuesday.
Lewis says he personally didn’t think that after the “football players got involved, that was it” for Wolfe. “He can survive a lot of things, but he can’t afford the football players not playing a nationally televised game against a prominent opponent.”
But Lewis said that the graduate steering committee “made a decision to put additional pressure, so he could realize that kind of statement, or non-statement, is simply inadequate”.
For months, black student groups have complained of racial slurs and other slights on the overwhelmingly white, 35,000-student flagship campus of the four-college system. Frustrations flared during a homecoming parade on Oct. 10 when black protesters blocked Wolfe’s car and he would not get out and talk to them. They were removed by police.
The protests began after the student government president, Payton Head, who is black, said in September that people in a passing pickup truck shouted racial slurs at him. In early October, members of a black student organization said slurs were hurled at them by an apparently drunken white student. And a swastika drawn in feces was found in a dormitory bathroom.
Two trucks flying Confederate flags drove past the site Sunday afternoon, a move many saw as an attempt at intimidation.
The athletes have not explicitly said whether they would boycott the team’s three remaining games this season. The Tigers’ next game is Saturday against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and canceling it could cost the school more than $1mn.
“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,”’ the players said in a statement. “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experience. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”
As Wolfe’s options seemed to narrow on Sunday evening, a tent city grew in opposition to his presidency in Mel Carnahan Quad, adjacent to the Mizzou Law School.
The grouping of approximately two dozen tents was “quadruple” the size of the previous night’s encampment, according to one observer who helped organize the nightly 10:00 PM prayer circle. Even over the course of a few hours, the tent city grew noticeably. Teams of young people showed up erecting new tents, and covering groups of other tents together under heavy tarps. A dozen heat lamps dotted in between them, fueled by gas tanks. Christmas lights illuminated the village, and hot food was cooking.
Jonathan Butler did not appear to be in attendance, and sources who know him said he was resting at home.
Meanwhile, dozens of volunteers – white and black, young and old, ranging from male jocks to elderly grandmothers – stopped by to bring the protesters donations of food, water, and heaps of blankets. Any activist or supporter of any race was welcome to come into the tent city, which looked like a cross between Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park, Ferguson and something from Burning Man.
But one group was not welcome: journalists.
Over the course of several hours, every person who came out from the tent city said they were “unauthorized to speak to the media” or gave a similar message. One young man said: “Our last press conference was Wednesday. We will decide if and when we will have another. If we do, it will only be on our terms, when we decide, and we will decide what questions we will answer.”
The only time this member of the media was able to get near the assembled protesters was when they left the encampment, next to a giant statue of the Mizzou Tiger mascot, create a prayer circle of about 200 people. It was then, to a great cheer of applause, several members of the Tigers arrived. They, too, did not talk to the press, but were able to offer the odd fistbump.
A center circle of activists held hands in a circle, facing outward while reciting prayers surrounded by about 10 rings of people holding hands facing inwards towards them. The prayers ranged from generic calls for grace to specific calls for the evil of racism to be expunged from Mizzou by removing Wolfe.
“This is our time to move forward,” one protester offered in prayer, before a call was made for everyone to turn to their neighbor, hug them, and tell them they love them (even if they were a member of the media) and a passionate young woman led a call-and-response chant that “we have nothing to lose but our chains”.
The Associated Press contributed to this report