Amherst College students stage sit-in to protest discrimination

By Brendan Deady

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)
(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Students at Amherst College staged a large sit-in at the campus library from Thursday Nov. 12 to Sunday Nov. 15 to advocate for a more just and inclusive environment within campus, and to stand in solidarity with students of color protesting racial discrimination at the University of Missouri.

Three students organized a sit-in at the Robert Frost Library last Thursday at 1 p.m. and within hours representatives from over 54 student groups came together to form the movement they coined as Amherst Uprising, according to the group’s website. Students of color shared their personal experiences of racial discrimination on campus and formulated a list of 11 demands addressed to Amherst College’s president Biddy Martin.

The stories that were shared were described as poignant by those who attended the sit-in. One student at the University of Massachusetts, Nariman Mostafavi, said the event changed his understanding of race in the United States.

“Seeing the crying, the insecurity, people so seriously isolated that they were at the point of breaking down in front of their peers and being forced to take leaves for multiple semesters was really impactful,” said Mostafavi, a graduate student pursuing environmental conservation at UMass.

After a weekend of escalating conversations, Martin issued a formal statement Sunday that denied a number of the requests by the students but expressed sympathy with their concerns and laid out a plan of action to improve the quality of life for minority students on campus.

The formal list included a vehement demand that the college distance itself from its unofficial mascot, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who supported the use of smallpox blankets against Native Americans.

The list also pressured Martin to issue formal apologies for various instances of “the institutional legacy” of racism and white supremacy present on campus. They demanded Martin formally apologize to all students, alumni and faculty who were victims of racism and were not provided a safe place to thrive on campus throughout the history of the institution.

Other requests demanded disciplinary action against a group of students who placed anti-abortion flyers over Black Lives Matter posters on campus. Other signs stating that the protests at the University of Missouri silenced free speech drew the ire of Amherst Uprising. The Daily Beast and Washington Post ran pieces earlier this week that criticized the student groups for demanding an unequal application of freedom of speech.

The group has responded that they don’t advocate censorship but radical compassion that acknowledges the unequal positions of speakers in the discourse of institutional racism.

In an interview with MassLive, Mercedes MacAlpine, an Amherst Uprising organizer, said the goal was to educate students and provide administrative support for students who felt threatened or harassed by the posters. MacAlpine did not say whether she thought the posters were speech protected by the school’s Code of Student Conduct, but argued that requiring racial sensitivity training would not conflict with students’ first amendment rights, according to the article.
“What we’re saying is that words can be a form of violence, too,” MacAlpine said. “We in no way believe that freedom of speech should be taken away, but we do believe that students should be made to recognize in a very concrete and administration-supported way the effects that their words have on others.”

The group stated that if Martin didn’t implement their demands by 5 p.m. Friday then the sit-in would continue, followed by an escalation of civil disobedience. Martin met with student leaders Friday but did not formally respond to the demands until Sunday evening. Members of Amherst Uprising responded by attending the school’s football game on Saturday with signs criticizing the mascot Lord Jeffery.

Throughout the weekend, 14 academic departments issued letters of support for the group according to the student newspaper, Amherst Student. The group’s Twitter account @UprisingAmherst tweeted that the director of athletics Don Faulstick announced that Lord Jeffrey will be slowly phased out from uniforms.

Martin issued a formal response Sunday night that denied direct compliance to a majority of the demands and postponed the discussion regarding Lord Jeffrey until January. However, she promised that the administration would cooperate with the student body and continue the conversation.

Martin promised to diversify the faculty and continue the racial dialogue that the group galvanized. In her statement, she commended students for speaking eloquently about the pains they’ve experienced from racism on and off campus and defended the group for their actions.

Martin wrote Sunday that the demands directed towards her overstated her authority and misunderstood the system of organization of the college. She explained that she was not the sole voice of the college and would be dishonest to respond immediately without considerable consultation with administration.

She promised to continue the discourse, form a committee to study issues of racism on campus, provide safe spaces for student discussion and provide opportunities for faculty to analyze the issues presented by students.

She also addressed the debate regarding free speech.

“When I met yesterday in my office with a small group of student organizers, I explained that I did not intend to respond to the demands item by item, or to meet each demand as specified, but instead to write a statement that would be responsive to the spirit of what they are trying to achieve – systemic changes that we know we need to make,” she said.

“I also talked about why apologies of the sort that were demanded would be misleading, if not downright dishonest, suggesting, as they implicitly would, that I or the college could make guarantees about things that are much larger than a single institution or group of people.”


Brendan Deady can be reached at [email protected]