PULLMAN – Several hundred Washington State University students held a tense but peaceful sit-in in response to an escalation of racial issues and threats on campus over the last two weeks.
Organizers Chijoke Emeka and Lashae Daniels said the sit-in followed the discovery of multiple swastikas in Stimson Hall and the two bomb threats WSU experienced this week. They also discussed the ongoing debate over the university’s line between hate speech and free speech and how it has been applied to the activities of the WSU College Republicans and the participation of their former president, James Allsup, in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“In the first week of class, we shouldn’t have to deal with three swastikas and two bomb threats,” Emeka said during the sit-in.
The group gathered under the skybridge at the Lighty Administrative Building, where the Office of the President and Provost are located. After going over the rules of the sit-in, Emeka read the group’s demands and motivations.
“The atmosphere on this campus continues to worsen as tensions thicken,” she said. “Students want nothing more than to focus on the education that we are so privileged to have.”
Emeka said five WSU groups came together to create a list for the university. The demands were specifically addressed to Ron Sims, the vice chair of the board of regents, WSU President Kirk Schulz, Provost Dan Bernardo and Title IX Coordinator Kimberly Anderson.
The group asked for a clear policy defining free speech and hate speech, as well as required cultural competency and ally training for all first-year students, faculty and staff. In addition to policies and training, they asked for increases in the number of minority faculty as well as retention of Critical, Culture and Race Studies and the campus resource centers.
Their final request was for an increase in gender-inclusive bathrooms and free menstrual products in school bathrooms.
The sit-in officially began a few minutes before noon. Students filed onto the first floor of the campus administrative building, chanting “White silence is white violence,” and climbed two staircases to stand in front of the Office of the President.
After arriving, students listened to several of their peers share their experiences of discrimination, microaggressions and their frustrations with the cultural illiteracy they see from fellow students and WSU faculty.
Junior Basheera Agyeman addressed the exhaustion that she and several other students at the sit-in said they felt.
“This is the type of fatigue that privilege doesn’t really know,” Agyeman said. “We are in a constant state of fatigue, because our identities are constantly under attack.”
Approximately an hour and a half into the sit-in, Bernardo and Anderson addressed the crowd, repeating many of President Schulz’s previous condemnations of racism on campus and their commitment to taking action. Anderson assured students that their concerns had been taken seriously and action would come soon.
Several students around the room expressed doubts that university leadership’s response would translate into concrete change, and would instead be reduced to the creation of a committee or new position to be filled in a year that would emphasize diversity.
Phil Weiler, director of marketing and communication for WSU, replied to the students’ issues with Bernardo’s and Anderson’s responses.
“I want us to get to a place where we can be in agreement on what steps to take, and I want you to hold us accountable for those,” he said.
Both the president and vice president of WSU were not in attendance during the event, due to a trip to American Samoa. University leadership said they would meet with students after the sit-in and again as soon as the president returns from his trip.
“I think the timing is unfortunate,” Weiler said. “If the president was in this state, he would have been here. But he was out of the country and this is something that has been planned for months.”
Weiler said he believes the demands are reasonable.
After a little over two hours, the sit-in ended peacefully with chants of “No justice, no peace” as students filed out of the building.
Outside, Emeka said she believed the sit-in was effective and could lead to change.
“I think it has been a long time since something this drastic has happened,” Emeka said. “I think by doing that, they’re really going to hear us. And if they don’t, we’ll do a follow-up. I think at this point, even though it’s long and it’s tiring, we have to remain hopeful.”