Syracuse, New York—After eight days of sit-in protests in response to at least 16 hate crimes and bias-related incidents, organizers of the #NotAgainSU movement announced on the evening of November 21 that they would cease their occupation of the university’s health, wellness and recreation complex, the Barnes Center at The Arch, but called on Syracuse University chancellor Kent Syverud and other top officials to resign.
Wearing a #NotAgainSU hoodie, one protester read a statement to sit-in members and viewers watching on Instagram live rejecting the chancellor’s approval of 16 out of 19 of the activists’ demands. “[Chancellor Syverud’s] administration’s mishandling of the numerous racist and bigoted instances that occurred over the past two weeks solidifies our lack of confidence in this administration to follow through with our demands.” Syverud’s refusal to meet all 19 of the group’s demands and a failure to reach out to student organizers, the statement argued, justified a call for his resignation.
#NotAgainSU, a peaceful protest led by black students, occupied the Barnes Center at The Arch starting November 13. The protesters, at their peak numbering about 250, had gathered in response to racist graffiti targeting black and Asian people that was found on two floors of Day Hall dormitory, which, though reported to DPS on November 7, was not acknowledged by the university until it issued a statement November 11, after The Daily Orange, SU’s independent student newspaper, and Renegade Magazine, its black general interest periodical, published stories about the incident. (A much more recent appearance of graffiti, this time in support of the protests, prompted Syracuse police to arrest an SU freshman on November 21; the student was charged with two misdemeanors: criminal mischief in the fourth degree and making graffiti.)
Law enforcement officials investigating the racist graffiti believe there are between one and five people responsible. Many students think the slow response has to do with the launch of SU’s $1.5 billion fundraising campaign, Forever Orange, announced on November 8. Syverud denied rumors that the slow response time was an effort to hide the racist incidents from potential donors, according to CitrusTV News.
Since the initial graffiti, more than 14 additional racist incidents have been reported, including slurs and graffiti targeting Native American, Jewish, and black students scrawled on the walls of dormitories and classroom buildings, as well as a swastika drawn in the snow near an apartment complex close to campus.
In addition to written attacks, 14 people leaving Alpha Chi Rho fraternity—four of whom were SU students, and who have been placed on interim suspension—yelled a racial epithet at an African American student on the night of November 16, prompting Syverud to suspend all social activities for fraternities indefinitely.
Hate crimes also began to spread online, first late that Monday night, when a link to the white supremacist manifesto written by the perpetrator of the March Christchurch mosque shootings was posted in a Syracuse-related forum on Greekrank.com. The next day a professor, who is Mexican and Jewish, received an anonymous e-mail containing an anti-Semitic attack. Following the posting of the manifesto, the FBI joined investigations into the racist incidents on campus.
During a press conference held on November 12, Syracuse Police Chief Kenton Buckner defended Syverud, saying that while he understood why students were uncomfortable, he didn’t believe there was any physical threat to students on campus. “I can tell you that from my view, from where I sit here on the ground in Syracuse, the chancellor could not have done more to try to respond to the issues that are going on on that campus,” he told reporters.
But students say the incidents are a consequence not only of the university’s overall failure to address systemic issues of racism but also of a lack of empathy from a group of predominantly white school officials. (Though Syverud did share a story with the University Senate about raising a mixed-race family in the South, where his kids and wife experienced racial epithets.) Consequently, the protesters are also calling for the resignation of the Department of Public Safety Chief Bobby Maldonado, DPS Associate Chief John Sardino, and Senior Vice President for Student enrollment M. Dolan Evanovich.
On November 20, protesters and community members held a forum at the campus chapel, where they called for the chancellor to sign all the demands or face calls for his resignation. When Syverud, in response, said he could not meet every demand, student protesters left the event and marched to his home on nearby Comstock Avenue shouting, “Sign or resign.”
The next day, in an e-mail sent to the university community, Syverud repeated that he would agree to 16 of the 19 demands presented by students as written and revise three that require compliance from law enforcement or approval from SU’s Board of Trustees. The demands in dispute include expelling anyone associated with the hate crimes, requiring mandatory diversity trainings for new faculty and staff, allocating $1 million toward anti-racism curriculum and allowing future residents to choose roommates with mutual racial/ethnic identities.
Chantelle, an African American master’s student whose last name has been withheld at her request, attended the Barnes Center sit-in frequently over the past two weeks. Chantelle said she hasn’t felt safe on campus since the racist incidents occurred and feels the university has handled the situation incorrectly. “Signing something and actually implementing [the demands] are two different things,” she said. “Until we see actual progress being made, I don’t think [Syverud] signing it is a big deal.… He has to make sure he’s taking the steps to get these things done.”
During the forum, a #NotAgainSU organizer said, “The present situation is only the latest incident in the unfortunately long timeline of students of color consistently being under attack on this campus,” including an incident in April of 2018, where the SU chapter of Theta Tau was suspended after videos surfaced of crude skits forcing members to repeat an oath that was racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, and hostile toward people with disabilities, according to The Daily Orange. And earlier this year, The DO reported an incident in which a white individual called a student of color the n-word and a white woman hit three students of color in the head with a pistol.
Daniel Deng, a master’s student from China who also completed his undergraduate studies at SU, attended the sit-in twice. He said the spate of racist incidents is disturbing but not surprising. “I’m shocked because of the volume,” Deng said. “It’s not the first time it’s happened on campus.… I think the educational part of the school is not enough, and I’m also shocked by the reactions from various departments and DPS, because the school tried to hide it at first. I just don’t see the actual reaction or willingness to help.”
In response to the string of incidents, SU’s Department of Public Safety doubled patrols and positioned DPS and New York State Troopers on and off campus. Despite students’ concern, it did not increase safety shuttles and escorts, but referred to a September news release when the department enhanced those services. Meanwhile, numerous professors canceled class, allowing student protesters time to attend the sit-in at the Barnes Center and giving concerned students an early Thanksgiving vacation.
Harriet Brown, a professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, said that in lieu of class, she’s had numerous students stop by her office crying or upset about the situation. She said she wishes SU had canceled classes completely and been clearer and more concise in its communication with students. “The messaging has been clumsy, but more than clumsy, it’s been like ‘You’re safe,’ and the thing is, that’s not true,” Brown said. “It’s not only true in the existential sense [that] we can’t guarantee anyone’s safety.… But that doesn’t take into account other kinds of harm, and I think that’s part of what students are feeling.”
Chantelle, the master’s student and protester, said she came to Syracuse University because of its prestigious reputation. She endured racism and bias at her undergraduate institution and thought she had put this kind of hatred behind her. But after recent events, she’s had a change of heart about SU, even discouraging a friend from home who wanted to apply for admission.
“I basically told her I don’t think it’ll be safe for her to be here,” Chantelle said. “This is a school I always wanted to go to, but after everything that’s happened, I’ve lost faith in it and I don’t feel comfortable having my friends come here.”