Campus Silence is Violence: BIPOC Student Activism in Times of Unrest

We’ve just witnessed the election of America’s first female, Black and Asian American Vice President. Yet, this country finds itself arguably the most divided it has been in decades. Following the national summer of racial uprisings that sprung up in reaction to George Floyd’s unlawful murder, we as a nation (and as a campus community) have slowed and simmered out. It is no secret that institutional racism is rife on a predominantly white liberal arts campus like Bard. 

The origin story of this campus begins with slave labor exploitation, and indigenous land use. The College currently acknowledges these stains in its pristine history, but the reality remains. Black and brown students do not cease to exist in spaces that, at their cores, aim to reject their presence.

This campus is one of those spaces. Social media outcries as recent as last week indicate that racially motivated turmoil remains at a high in local towns of Red Hook and Tivoli. This was only amplified by the election and its subsequent results. In the last month alone, plenty of anonymous tips sent to Black at Bard have been received against the Men’s Lacrosse Team in particular. Black at Bard is an Instagram account dedicated to being a safe space for BIPOC students to air grievances and feelings. The slew of recent posts indicates that the long hidden racist tendencies and policies of this institution, and the aforementioned sports team, have yet to really change at all. The team has been said to harbor unaccountable instances of racism and discrimination, both against other atheletes of color, and more generally, students of color on campus. 

Black women remain in an especially precarious position, other posts suggest. One polite email after another, a college wide statement here and there, and the acronym BLM in one’s Instagram profile. This is the kind of clicktivism that much of the summer ignited energy has come down to. 

In attendance at the November 13th, 2020 Presidential Commission on Racial Justice and Equity, students shared accounts of their experiences with racial discrimination inside and outside of the classroom. Unequipped professors, unattentive peers, and a complacent administration amount to emotionally and mentally exhausted BIPOC students.This is happening, this is here, and this has always been here. BIPOC students continue to shoulder the burden of responsibility and existence. 

Cops in the United States kill three people a day. All in a day’s work, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore stated in a recent interview. Yet another black man was murdered on October 27, 2020 in Philadelphia: Walter Wallace Jr.  Bodycam footage was present. Police intent for excessive brutality and murder was also present. September 2020 marked the one year anniversary of a racially motivated attack against a black female student on the Bard Simon’s Rock campus. Testimony and witnesses were present. Black people are being murdered and it does not matter if there is bodycam footage or witness testimony anymore. It never did. These bodies are simply deemed expendable by the state we live in. 

These black voices, narratives, incidents and deaths, named or unnamed, must not be forgotten. These lives are not stones to be thrown into the ever expanding lake that is racism and brutality against African Americans, simply sinking to the bottom, and awaiting the next one. We cannot keep falling into the cyclical trap of burnout– a bursting ball of energy for change that loses momentum by the next news cycle.

Sitting to write this piece, I am struck by the silence surrounding this campus’ own racial uprisings. It feels as though the violent incident that transpired at Simon’s Rock is unspoken of by many today.  The student momentum borne out of Fall 2019 has slowed, frozen in time. What can be done about this? How can we prevent narratives from being swallowed up by the test of time? Is student activism the answer? How does one act in allyship with these affected student groups? At a time when this campus and local communities remain overwhelmingly occupied with violence and racial aggression, questions like this must be posed.  

These questions are especially poignant in light of the universal decrease in activism surrounding black and brown lives. Murders continue to happen, day after day, headline after headline. Yet, many have yet to carry on or continue their summer agendas. What has one done activism wise since the summer? 

Speaking to Talaya Robinson-Dancy ‘20, a senior who has long been active with BIPOC student groups and organizing on campus, I learned more about what activism can really entail, and if anything has changed at all. Robinson is currently co-head of Womxn of Color United (a club), and a Trustee Leader Scholar (TLS) Leader of the Black Body Experience. Robinson addressed that there have been increased Bard initiatives and efforts to ensure BIPOC student safety and wellbeing, like different Commissions and racial justice working groups.

In discussions with Head of Security John Gomez, tensions surrounding campus police presence and the accessibility of Annandale Road are perpetual. According to a recent newsletter from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at Bard group, there have been recent meetings between “Dutchess County Public Works Commissioner Bob Balkind to discuss short- and long-term goals for securing the safety of Annadale Road.” Since last year’s student outcries, an increased amount of emergency blue lights have been installed around campus. More generally, lighting along secluded pathways has also increased. But, Gomez’s connections to state troopers, and his employment of retired police officers as security guards, undermines these slow administrative responses to change. 

Robinson spoke of the way students of color, particularly black students, feel intimidated and threatened by what is at times unnecessary police surveillance on campus. Increased police and campus security presence can help bolster safety for BIPOC students in times of insecurity, like in response to recent Trump rallies and caravans in Red Hook and Kingston, Robinson told me. Vice President Jonathan Becker detailed the six times in one day the local sheriffs were called to visit the recently opened Campus Center polling site on Election Day. These calls were instigated by Republican Commissioner Eric Haight in an attempt to “root out phantom political signs supporting candidates” as well as to “object poll workers encouraging voters to go through Covid-related screening…” More often than not, as evidenced by behavior on Election Day, this type of police presence is uncalled for. 

Much of the onus remains on BIPOC students themselves for charging change. On November 23, 2020, students spearheaded a demonstration and sit-in to “address the harm the Men’s Lacrosse Team has inflicted on POC/LGBTQ community members.” The event began with a sit-in at the Lorenzo ferrari Soccer and Lacrosse field, and ended with peaceful communication of demands in front of President Leon Botsetin’s on-campus home. This is an example of the lengths to which BIPOC students and non- BIPOC allies must go to be heard in the face of administration, particularly President Botstein.

Robinson is co-head of the Gilson Place Steering Committee, with Gilson Place being a cottage on campus named after a former Montgomery Place slave turned head gardener. Gilson Place is a safe space designated for BIPOC students in particular. With pandemic pressures, the space remains open virtually, and is a site for “… attempts to start discourses about everything that is happening,” she said. An important part of the work that needs to be done is as simple as conversation, discussion. Clubs and student groups are at the forefront of creating these windows for conversation: “You cannot lose sight of what you want to do,” Robinson said. 

Often, student continuity is the biggest impediment to student movements. Finding a predecessor that can carry the work forward is key to BIPOC student engagement. There is a fine balance to be struck between other clubs being allies, and co-opting BIPOC goals and progress all together. Robinson suggests contacting alumni and former students, whom she has reached out to for help regarding her own campus work. Sustainability of student practices are the base through which more involved activism and action can flourish.

Myra Armstead, the Vice President for Academic Inclusive Excellence, is an example of administration beginning discourses of change locally. Robinson detailed Armstead’s work with Red Hook’s Mill Road Elementary School’s administration in creating a more inclusive curriculum at the school. Other faculty members and divisions on campus have created Racism working groups, that include both students and professors, as can be seen with the Environmental and Urban Studies and Anthropology Departments. Armstead, also a Historical Studies professor, has spearheaded much of the archival research surrounding Bard’s slave labor filled past. 

The College’s founder, John Bard, was not directly linked to slavery, according to archives from that time period. His father, William Bard, had ties to slavery through his insurance company, while his grandfather, Samuel Bard, directly owned slaves. Montgomery Place was once an estate run by slaves. This campus was founded on slave exploitation. However philanthropic and good intentioned our founders may have been, their family fortune was a slave family fortune.

Red Hook has been the site of much controversy, beginning with the summer uprisings in support of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. Jennifer Mañón, a resident of Red Hook and mother of two, said that “The uprisings that occurred during the summer mobilized people in our community. Our hearts and minds were pulled towards some deep thinking about how our community and school district operates.” 

As one of results of this heightened awareness, a mural in downtown Red Hook, painted in 1996, has been accused of glorifying the Mid-Hudson Valley’s overlooked slave past. A petition has been made, and received support from the original painter, the mayor and more– all of whom address its meaning within the context of racism in the town, although initially denying the image was intended to offend anyone. 

Work in town continues to be carried on by members of the Red Hook Equity Division Inclusion (RHEDI) group. This group strives to create an existence in Red Hook “where everyone can feel valued, respected and welcome,” as detailed by their mission statement on their social media. Sarah Imboden, a member of the RHEDI group, detailed the way this summer’s events have impacted the town’s present. Imboden said:  

Some community members are digging deeper and listening to their neighbors and realizing perhaps for the first time the racist dynamics that are present locally. It remains to be seen whether this is a majority of the community.

Imboden and Mañón detailed the various initiatives underway in Red Hook and Tivoli right now. This includes the formation of the Red Hook Equity Collective (RHEC), and Red Hook En Espanol (RHEE). Both of which are groups of town members and citizens formed to target the school board, and more generally, formed to “actively listen to people’s experiences and understand everyone’s role in perpetuating a cycle of inequity,” Mañón explained. RHEC has already spoken to the Board of Education. 

A petition, signed by 300 community members, asked “for the district to develop an Equity Action Plan, including reviewing and changing hiring practices, curriculum, disciplinary policies and more specifically with an antiracist lens.” The Red Hook Central School District’s (RHCSD) new superintendent, Janet Warden, has been receptive, Imboden and Mañón said. In addition, listening sessions between the Tivoli Village Board and the Red Hook Town Board and its respective residents regarding policing, racism and discrimination have been underway. 

Bard alumni and employees contribute to the demographic of these community groups, like RHEC and RHEDI, as well as town and village boards, helping to bridge the gap between these towns and the Bard campus student population. Imboden fears, however, that “there may still be a lack of understanding in the wider community, and even in town [and Red Hook Village] leadership… about how racism is impacting Bard students and employees.”

Demands to administration and governments can’t rest. No matter who politically prevails, conversations need to keep happening, stories need to continue being heard. On November 23rd, students on campus held a sit in and peaceful confrontation with President Botstein against recent uninvestigated accounts of BIPOC student harassment. Students led the sit-in and demanded action.

 Local government is essential to our lives on and off the Bard campus, meaning pressure for change must similarly be placed on Red Hook, Tivoli and even Kingston’s administrations. Contact board members and elected officials, like Red Hook Town Supervisor Robert McKeon. Attend forums and discussions on policing and racism in these towns and villages. Join in on the community efforts to tackle biases and shine lights on issues of systemic racism around us through groups like RHEDI and RHEC. 

Imboden and Mañón acknowledge the incidents of racism against the Bard community by village and town members. Mañón said: “How can we create a statement that shows how much we need each other as neighbors, citizens, patrons, workers, educators, caretakers and beyond?” We are as much part of these communities as the efforts that we put into them for overall change. Robinson recognizes, along with other BIPOC students and even administration, that change is slow. Students have never asked for revolution overnight. Robinson only hopes that “… in ten years time, things will be different.”

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