Demonstrators gather, call for engineering student’s arrest charges to be dropped

Students brought attention to racist incidents at UMass and demands to administration on Monday, following the release of a petition

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Liesel Nygard/Daily Collegian (2022)

By Ella Adams and Liesel Nygard

On the afternoon of Monday, Nov. 21, over 40 students gathered outside of the University of Massachusetts Student Union to speak out against the charges brought against a UMass engineering student of color in early November and against other racially-motivated incidents happening on campus.

The demonstration was held alongside a petition calling for “UMass administration, UMass Police Department and the prosecutor’s office” to drop charges against the student arrested on Nov. 1 by UMPD. The petition has over 2,170 signatures from UMass alumni, undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty.

On Nov. 8, Chancellor Subbaswamy wrote to the campus community via email that the arrest was under “investigation” after witnesses contacted his office with concern.

The student-led petition states that the arrest “must be re-examined within the context of the existing environment of racial tension on the UMass Amherst campus.”

The petition, along with demonstrators, made it clear that the march was about more than just a singular arrest; the UMass community has long experienced an environment of racial tension. There has been a string of racially-motivated incidents in the past year or so, beginning last year with an anonymous anti-Black email sent to Black student groups, continuing with verbal assaults and another email chain targeting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts and a Latino staff member of the College of Engineering. On Nov. 4, a PVTA driver asked a Black student to get off of the bus and called the police after the student boarded the bus with a cup of lemonade.

At about 3:30 p.m. on Monday in nearly frigid conditions, the protesters marched from the Student Union to Whitmore Administration building while holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and chanting “Black Students Matter,” “Black Faculty Matter.”

When the protesters reached the outside of Whitmore, organizer Bedphiny Deng, a junior studying biology, spoke through a megaphone to demonstrators. She spoke about the arrest, the incident on a PVTA bus in early November, and other negative, racially motivated experiences students have faced on the UMass campus.

“The student’s life has been thrown away just from that simple interaction. And that’s not the first time — that happens all the time. The smallest things, even for the bus situation that happened to these two Black women. [They] came on [the bus] with one drink and had the police called on them…” Deng said.

“Something needs to be changed. We’re demanding that change now. Because it’s not fair — we’re already a small minority on this campus and we’re being targeted for every little thing we do. We’re not safe. We’re not safe anywhere,” Deng continued.

Liesel Nygard/Daily Collegian (2022)

Demonstrators then walked inside Whitmore to the Student Affairs and Campus Life office and marched up to Sarah Littlecrow-Russell, Associate to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life, and Cheryl Ponder, Interim Assistant Vice Chancellor for Advocacy, Inclusion and Support Programs.

Students shared with members of the administration their negative, racially-charged experiences on the UMass campus and with UMPD.

Mya Pol, a fifth year communications major, said around the time she started attending UMass, she was having trouble with mobility and would collapse on her way to class. She shared that one time, she was walking back from class and was stuck on the pavement for a couple of hours. Pol called a friend to come get her, who brought a rolling chair from the Isenberg School of Management building to push Pol back to her dorm. UMPD pulled up as they were trying to cross the street in the chair, Pol said.

Pol said she explained to them that she has a condition that makes her pass out, and “instead of offering a form of assistance, UMass Police Department tells me ‘taking property from a federal building is a felony’ and then drove off. Rather than offering any assistance they told me, a Black disabled student, that I was committing a felony. This needs to change. I am sick of seeing stories time and time again of my peers, my community being harmed on a daily basis. It is sickening. I am sick of it.”

“So please,” Pol said to members of administration, “make it stop. People here have the ability to make it stop. Enough is enough.”

Dele Osinubi, senior biology major, spoke as a friend of the student of color arrested by UMPD on Commonwealth Ave. on Nov. 1.

Osinubi said that he watched the video and saw an officer stop his friend to ask where he was going. His friend said he was going to his car, Osinubi said, to which the officer responded by grabbing his friend’s hand without warning. His friend, an engineering student, then asked the officer for his badge number multiple times — to which the officer did not respond nor let go of the student’s arm.

“You can clearly see that there’s a fuss of frustration because there’s no reason for this to be happening. He’s walking the same way other people are walking,” Osinubi said. The student being arrested yelled at that point, Osinubi said, because of his frustration with having to yank his hand away. Osinubi said that it was at this point when another officer came forward and “treated him like a complete slave,” pushing his friend against the cop car.

“When you’re publicly embarrassing someone after class, dog-walking them to a patty wagon in front of everybody, in front of the Mullins Center,” Osinubi turned to the group, “This is theatrics, guys.”

“My frustration is not only are you [UMPD] lying, you’re also embarrassing someone. You have the nerve to charge them with assault and battery of a cop,” Osinubi continued. “Th[ese are] not children’s charges, he’s an engineering major, this can get him expelled from school, this is why this is not a game because yeah, there are misunderstandings, but you’re playing with someone’s life.”

Osinubi said that when he heard of an email from Chancellor Subbaswamy addressing the arrest, it felt like “the same theatrics that happened last year” in reference to the anonymous, racist email sent to Black student organizations last fall, and another again in the spring.

“You said last year that you did an investigation and nothing was solved — what investigation is going to be done this time that’s going to solve something? I just want to know because I don’t see it happening. I came here to demand charges be dropped,” Osinubi said. “I came here to make sure that my friend is well-taken care of.”

Liesel Nygard/Daily Collegian (2022)

Among other students who spoke out about the racism they’ve personally experienced on campus, at the hands of students, faculty and UMPD, Jordan O’Hare Gibson, a senior studying biology and Afro-American studies, spoke up about the observations he made upon walking into Whitmore.

“When I walked into Whitmore, I noticed you have these signs everywhere: ‘Building a community of dignity and respect, honor differences and cultivate belonging,’” Gibson said of the posters on the walls of Whitmore.

“Raise your hand if you feel like you belong right now,” he told the demonstrators. No hands raised in the crowd.

“That’s what I thought. It’s all reactive. Everything is reacting to incidents that are happening after the harm has already been done,” Gibson said of University administration’s responses to the numerous racist incidents that have happened over the years on campus.

Instead of continuing to cultivate a community of racism and unsafe student conditions, Gibson suggested UMass implement something like the town of Amherst’s CRESS program — Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service. The defunding of UMPD and allocation of money to more equitable resources for students was a topic of discussion on Monday, prompted in part by a sign made by a demonstrator that read that UMPD’s budget is over $7 million.

UMPD’s FY22 actual base budget is 7,011,009; its FY23 projected base budget is 7,156,148, according to University financial reports.

Demonstrators confronted campus administrators, asking them if demands outlined in their flyers were possible. The demands included dropping all charges for the arrested student, enforcing body cameras for UMPD officers, implementing better race and equity sensitivity training, and creating a safer and welcoming environment for Black students and students of color.

Ponder, Interim Assistant Vice Chancellor for Advocacy, Inclusion and Support Programs, responded to students by saying that “systems change slowly.”

Littlecrow-Russell advocated for the student’s arrest charges to be dropped. “I will be on the record to say I truly and sincerely would be so happy and would love to be able to see charges be dropped,” she said. “I don’t have control over that, I am not the District Attorney, I am not the person. But that would be something I’d be extremely, extremely relieved to see.”

Ponder agreed. Administrators spoke few words to demonstrators.

As demonstrators made their way down to the lobby of Whitmore to congregate, Deng thanked them for their willingness to share their experiences with administration, adding that this would not be the last instance of protest regarding racism at UMass. When the group dispersed, Deng reflected on the protest and administration’s response to their words.

“I wish [administration] would do better, especially as women of color that are coming out to speak with people about something that also impacts people in their community. I would think they would have more inclination to be raw with us, but they failed to do that. So there’s not much we can do about that,” Deng said.

Deng said there is a lot that she plans to do to combat what she feels is administrative inaction. She plans to collaborate with other Black student organizations on campus in the future, and to find outside resources to help support the community in these changes and demands.

“I’m trying to find direct connections and the right vocabulary so they understand what we want.”

“This is just one protest. This is just one incident. Don’t let this be a stop,” Deng said. “We have to continue to do this. This is an everyday thing, not only for the Black students on campus, but for everyone… we need to attack the institutions.”

Ella Adams can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Ella_Adams15. Liesel Nygard can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @LieselNygard.