Re-Imagine OSU: Attendees Rethink the University

May 23, 2012
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On May 16 and 17, thousands of students, faculty, and staff made their way to the South Oval at Ohio State to participate in the 1st Annual Re-Imagine OSU. Teach-ins and in-depth discussions about an array of issues took place, including racism, sexism, tuition increases, student/faculty power, the democratization of the University, and privatization and corporatization at OSU.Many professors opted to hold their classes on the South Oval.

N. Michael Goecke, Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusciology, attended Re-imagine OSU and has compiled an overview, highlighting impactful aspects of the 2-day event.

Re-imagine welcome table. Photo credit: CJ Jones.

Social Responsibility and Racism

On Thursday, I led a discussion about racism at OSU. We had a very engaged group that explored various definitions of racism, the way in which race plays a daily role in the lives of all members of society, racial prejudice, white privilege, race as a social construct, race as an economic process, and the way in which race perpetuates socio-cultural disparities.

We also explored an anti-racist, community organizing definition of racism which posits that any person who does not actively work to undo racism is a racist. This way of thinking could be applied to all forms of oppression. For example, I’m a male and am aware of the privileges that I am afforded in this society because of this role. If I were to not use male privilege to actively undo sexism, then I would be a sexist. In light of the above, we discussed different ways that we can use our varied social roles and privileged positions to undo racism. Finally, we discussed the way in which certain administrative ‘gatekeepers’ perpetuate the fundamentally racist power structure on campus and in this society. Our group considered actions that we can take to hold gatekeepers accountable to the will of the people. It was determined that if the people do not work to hold gatekeepers accountable, that there is no real interest for them, in general, to undo institutionalized racism. It was agreed that we must continue to organize ourselves, educate our peers, and stay vigilant in our efforts to eliminate racism on campus.

Session on structural racism at OSU. Photo credit: CJ Jones.

Debate on the Freedom of Speech

At 4pm on Wednesday, Dawn Miles led a discussion about structural racism at OSU. She began by talking about the origins of OSU Stand Your Ground (SYG), and our efforts to fight race-based hatred and demand inclusion on campus. In addition to talking about the recent rash of hate crimes on and near OSU, she explained that there was an outspoken evangelical preacher named Micah Armstrong on the Oval spewing hatred at students. She said that he was “calling people homosexuals, who are going to hell, because they don’t look ‘masculine enough’, girls with sorority shirts [are] “sowhoreity” girls, [and] men with their shirts off [are] “masturbators”, etc.” Other students said that he was very Islamophobic asserting that all Muslims will burn in eternal damnation. This speaker appeared to be very popular, as hundreds of students surrounded him to watch and listen to him. Dawn called the campus police who contended that his hate speech was protected. Dawn also reported the incident to Bias Assessment and Response Team (BART).

This sparked a vigorous discussion about the degree to which his hate speech can be considered ‘protected speech’. One student pointed out that not all speech is inherently protected. Others asserted that biased slurs directed at a specific person, as this man was doing, should be considered acts of hatred, and need not be protected as free speech. I, then, made the point that a person invoking the ideal of ‘freedom of speech’ as an excuse to spew hatred, doesn’t mean that he or she is free to avoid being called out and held accountable by the people on their racist drivel. Ultimately, it is our responsibility as anti-racist citizens to expose and condemn this man, or anyone else, who feels free to attack people in our community.

Power Structure Battle

During dinner, I was fortunate to sit in with the local music group The Apes. I am a jazz trombonist and love the opportunity to perform with musicians skilled at improvisation. Many students ate and danced as we jammed. Following dinner, Prof. Pranav Jani led a discussion about analyzing the power structure on campus, in the society, and within our own activist groups. This generated lively discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of our various activist groups, based upon the nature of their organizational structures, or lack thereof. Students left the discussion better equipped to analyze institutionalized oppression, and empowered to develop stronger organizations to fight it.

The Apes and Goeke perform as Kathyrn Sauma dances onstage. Photo credit: CJ Jones.

The first day concluded with a community congress where students, faculty, and staff assembled to discuss ways that we can organize ourselves to gain the power to determine the destiny of our University community. Many ideas were discussed and debated, including the implementation of student suffrage by gaining a vote on the Board of Trustees, the development of a REAL student union that is accountable to the students, the need to fight hate on campus, and to expose and fight corporate greed at OSU. It was suggested that we should be thinking even bigger than just OSU’s campus. Given our grievances with the Board of Trustees, it would follow that an analysis of the state policies that govern and support the current system be considered. It seems that part of this particular battle would need to be fought on the state level.

In addition to the above, other students suggested that more provocative demonstrations may be necessary to affect change. Re-Imagine organizer Thomas Lee mentioned that he has observed an increase in the amount of activism at OSU over the past year, and that we will be able to accomplish some amazing things if we keep up the momentum. In sum, the overall consensus was that we need to continue discussing these issues, educating our peers, and mobilizing the community.

Community Atmosphere

Thursday proved to be a very eventful day at Re-Imagine. Many professors brought their students to the south Oval for teach-ins, and discussions continued about racism, corporate greed, and student power. OSUStandYourGround leaders Martez Smith and Stuart MacIntyre facilitated a discussion about ways to change the power structure of OSU. Also, I played music at the entrance as greeters passed out fliers, collected signatures, and invited people into the event.

 

Participants socialize on a dinner break in the Browning Amphitheater. Photo Credit: CJ Jones.

OSU student and SYG member Woodrow Davis said that the vibe of the event reminded him of Columbus’s famous Comfest, i.e. Community Festival. An older gentleman, whose name I do not recall, agreed and asserted that our event resembles what Comfest started out to be, i.e. a socially conscious and politically charged event where the community came together to share ideas and organize to demand societal change.

March to Deliver Letter for Student Trustee Suffrage

The event was to conclude with a march to Bricker Hall to inform President Gee of issues raised at Re-Imagine. What happened was quite remarkable. 40 to 50 of us assembled and marched into the Oval rhythmically chanting “Black, Latino, Arab, Asian, and White, No racist hate–No more No more, let’s stand up and fight!” On our way to Bricker, we thought it prudent to pay our racist pastor friend a visit. We marched into his circle, made up of over 150 OSU students, chanting while I played along with my trombone. I must admit, it felt good to express my displeasure with his racist attacks by blasting my trombone in his face as my colleagues chanted. Obviously not accustomed to being challenged in this manner, the racist pastor became very quiet and turned red. At one point it seemed as if he wanted to threaten us with his little black-haired dog, but the K-9 seemed much more loveable and peaceful than his master.

Student Pushed by CFO

After about 5 minutes with the pastor, we marched to Bricker Hall to deliver our message to President Gee, but the OSU CFOGeoffrey S. Chatas was there, and we thought it might be a good idea to talk with him. At Bricker Hall, Molly Shack kindly asked Chatas for a minute of his time to talk, and he did the unthinkable. He shoved Shack out of the way and proceeded into Bricker. This is reprehensible! No student, faculty member, or administrator has the right to put their hands on someone else without their explicit consent, regardless of how hard the push was. ‘No place for hate at OSU?’ As this occurred, we learned that President Gee was making his way across the Oval to his office.

Our group of 40-50 concerned students quickly approached him and began to express our grievances. Shack led the conversation by explaining that she had just been assaulted by the CFO of the University. Some students quickly demanded for the resignation of Chatas. Gee said that he wasn’t going to do that, but that he would need to sit down in a private discussion with Chatas to talk and that he would set up a meeting to talk to Shack “tomorrow” about the push if she wanted. However, many students felt that such a discussion should, and must be, made public.

Large signs were created with slogans, invoking spirit of activism. Photo credit: CJ Jones.

Encircling Gee for Answers

Following discussions about student suffrage, corporatization at OSU, unfair bonuses awarded to the faculty elite, increased tuition, Gee’s bloated travel budget, and student loan debt, I asked him about the climate of hatred on campus. I re-informed him of the racist OSU anti-Asian Twitter account, the recent rash of racial slurs being hurled at the dorm room doors of our students, and the racist graffiti being found on and off campus, including ‘Long Live Zimmerman’ on the Hale center. I explained that the students are not happy with the results of the task force and that hate must be taken much more seriously at OSU.

The task force – started after the OSU Stand Your Ground (SYG) march to a Board of Trustees Meeting with demands for hate crime alerts and increased diversity on April 6 after “Long Live Zimmerman” was sprayed on the Hale Black Cultural Center – included students, faculty, and staff chaired by vice president for student life Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston and vice provost for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer Dr. Valerie Lee that would be charged with providing recommendations for solutions due in three weeks to president Gee and the Board of Trustees’ Diversity and Inclusion Working Group. An email went out with the new steps forward after the task force gave their proposals, however many students, faculty, and staff claim it is “watered down”. Gee said that he is pleased with the progress being made to combat ‘structural racism’ on campus. He feels that the task force has made great progress and noted that he just met with a council of local pastors to discuss solutions for racism in the neighboring community.

Board of Trustee member costume, called a “BoT” by Re-imagine organizers. Photo Credit: CJ Jones.

Student activist Darsheel Kaur then asked if he was aware of how watered-down the final proposal of the task force became. She explained that very few of our original propositions and suggestions survived. James Hayes, who is a SYG student member on the ‘No Place for Hate’ task force, confirmed that the final proposal became impotent, and he expressed his frustration with the way in which the task force operated. I, then, asked what it would take to sanction immediately change without the creation of a system of committees and sub-committees that delay the process. I pointed out that there is a great urgency to make change now, as people are suffering from these acts of hatred on campus. Gee reaffirmed that he is satisfied with the actions that the administration and students are taking to fight racism at OSU.

President Gee spoke with us for a substantial amount of time. At 5:30 his secretary came out to pull him away for a meeting. About this time, a swarm of University police and secret servicemen became visible around our group. We expressed our appreciation to President Gee for his willingness to speak with us, and marched back to the south Oval to debrief and clean up.

Re-Imagine Attendees Join Anti-Sexual Violence Rally

Many of us then participated in “Take Back the Night” rally, whose purpose is to condemn violence and hatred against women, and create a support system of students, faculty, staff, and community partners to those who are survivors of abuse. Traditionally, this event has only been for women, but this is the first year that male allies were invited to attend. One highlight was a march that proceeded from 12th street, to Indianola, up 15th street, down High Street, and back to the south oval amphitheater.

This was a very powerful demonstration that informed and energized onlookers. Unfortunately, sexist hecklers at the bar on 15th and High felt the need to yell sexist slurs. One female demonstrator told me that one of the males said that he had “raped 4 women yesterday.” The girls that he was drinking with just passively laughed. She said that she confronted the hecklers and expressed her displeasure with their sexist blather, while asking the females how they could hang with guys who held such hateful views toward women. The event ended with a breakout session for allies where we discussed ways to combat sexism. This coincided with a ‘speak out’, which is a safe space where survivors of abuse are able to share their stories. Following the break out session, the allies where asked to join the speak out portion and offer support.

Overall, Re-Imagine OSU was a great representation of what the students and faculty are capable of when we work together to educate and organize ourselves. It was amazing to see students, faculty, and member of the local community come together to substantially elevate the social consciousness on campus.

N. Michael Goecke is currently a graduate associate pursuing a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology and MA in African-American and African Studies at the Ohio State University where his research interests include jazz education, institutionalized racism, and music-making cultures of the African diaspora. Goeke is a jazz trombonist, music educator, and co-leader of the jazz collective Breathairean Ensemble.  He was an adjunct professor of music and Black studies at Northern Kentucky University and a private instructor for trombone performance and jazz improvisation.

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