BSU organizes Juneteenth Jamboree, a ‘space to amplify Black student voices, lives and futures’

Students gather to share thoughts and experiences

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By Claire Healy, Assistant News Editor

On Friday, June 19, the University of Massachusetts Black Student Union held a “Juneteenth Jamboree,” designated as a “space to amplify Black student voices, lives and futures.”

In the hour-and-a-half long Zoom call, students discussed their views on the protests, racism, social media and shared personal experiences, as well as their thoughts on moving forward. While there were planned discussion topics, the meeting was styled largely as a conversation.

The event was led by BSU president Rebecca Louisthelmy, a rising junior majoring in biomedical engineering, and moderated and facilitated by Joshua Dodds, UMass’ assistant director of Event Management and Student Activities.

Dodds began the event with a discussion of the origins of Junteenth, a holiday commemorating the day that news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, over two years after the signing of the Proclamation.

From there, students discussed a number of topics prepared, including what being Black means to them, and their specific experiences of racism, such as those faced by Black women.

Students discussed different ways to get involved with protests that have followed the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer, and how that involvement may look different for people who are further away from major cities.

“As a Black person, I feel like I always have to have it together, especially when these things are all over social media. Everyone’s talking about it and I feel like social media adds another pressure where you have to know everything,” Louisthelmy said. “You have to be doing what everyone else is doing, you have to be standing up the same way everyone else is standing up, but I feel like it’s okay to not be able to fight every battle at one time.”

Students went on to discuss policing, defunding police and prison abolition, including conversation about specific experiences with UMass police. Students mentioned encountering police in high school and disparities between the way police operate in predominantly white neighborhoods as opposed to predominantly Black neighborhoods. This was talked about specifically in regard to the school-to-prison pipeline in Boston and other public schools.

“All this is systemic. It’s part of what is embedded inside of our judicial system. A lot of people complain about the system is always rigged, but the system really isn’t rigged,” Dodds said. “It was never meant for us to succeed… there was never a time where the system was really equal when it came to Black and brown people. Period.”

Multiple students pointed to observing additional police presence in Southwest, as compared to other residential areas, like Central.

“I feel like UMPD, their presence is unnecessary. Every time, like on Fridays, I feel like there’s a large militarization of them,” said Caroline Ault, a rising senior communication and psychology major. “And I feel like they can target Black students more. UHS and stuff like that—they need more funding compared to UMPD.”

“I lived in Central my first year at UMass, none of the police were ever in their riot gear, and stuff like that … until I got to Southwest,” added Tamira Powe, a rising junior communication and journalism double major. “And it’s really interesting that a lot of the Black community lives in Southwest, and they will be very fast to put on riot gear, for whatever large gathering it is… they would just be in plain clothes patrolling, walking around, and it’s like we moved into a completely different environment because we moved to a different part of campus.”

Students discussed personal experiences with the police on campus. Hussein Abdi, a rising junior political science and economics double major, discussed getting stopped three times in the span of two weeks when he first moved to UMass. He explained how that prompted him to avoid driving in certain areas of campus because he felt that anytime he saw the police he would get pulled over.

“I would go all the way around just so I could avoid them, because I know their hot spots are over there and what-not, but I shouldn’t be feeling like that, you know what I mean?” Abdi said. “I should not be like, ‘Oh wow, if I see a cop, I’m definitely getting pulled over,’ but that’s how I felt, after getting pulled over three times in two weeks. I did not feel safe whatsoever.”

“I had a personal experience with the police and it basically just showed me it doesn’t matter where you are in the world or in the United States, because you think Massachusetts is such a progressive state and we’re way better than the states in the South, but you can still see heavy racial discrimination with the police system. Everywhere you go. And it’s something so small,” said Karren Atakora, a rising junior public health major.

“I was walking back from a party and I got stopped with a friend,” she remembered. “We walked by the same cops stopping a white person … seeing the difference in their interaction between me and the Black boy with the same cop and then seeing the white people with the same cop. I was recording, I was scared, and he was as well, but the white people were just chilling on the car, waiting for the police to leave. Nobody was recording, nobody was on edge. It was so natural and casual for them, while I just had the most terrifying experience of my life.”

When asked what they might expect from UMass, students talked about the need for more Black faculty and anti-racism training.

“I mean, if we’re being honest, has UMass addressed the racial things happening on campus to begin with?” asked Leah Kydd, a Class of 2020 graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in microbiology and music performance. After another student answered no, she said, “So what then can I expect? What can we expect? Another mass email? Another diversity campaign?”

“I’m an RA on campus, and as part of being an RA we have to go through these two-week periods of training, and within that we did this racial bias training,” said Akili Sundai, a rising senior majoring in psychology. “And there were some problems with it, but I think that if every UMass student had to take it—like within the first few months of college… and then retake it in the middle so that it’s fresh in their mind again—I think that’s at least one step that they could do.”

Students concluded the meeting by sharing what they love most about being Black. As each student went around, they talked about appreciation for; “Black beauty,” fashion, trends, versatility, “being the blueprint,” humor, Black twitter, diversity, music, “the sense of community,” “how we’re all different,” “how we’re able to come together,” resistance, “how we can adapt to change,” mannerisms, global “ties to each other,” and “the fact that you can see another Black person and feel comfort.”

Claire Healy is an Assistant News Editor and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @clurhealy.