Black Students, Allies Demonstrate for Administration Support in Wake of Baltimore

Students of Black Lives Matter (BLM) Claremont and supporters organized a demonstration across the Claremont Colleges May 7 to demand administrative responses to the recent Baltimore uprising and improved community support for Black students. The students delivered a letter expressing these demands to each of the 5C administrations and ended the protest at the intersection of Claremont Boulevard and Foothill Boulevard, where they blocked the intersection for about 10 minutes to chant the names of those who had fallen victim to police brutality.

The students’ letter criticizes the administrations’ lack of response to events happening across the nation such as the Baltimore riot. Multiple Black students said that they had been disappointed when the colleges sent out support emails regarding the Nepal earthquake immediately but didn’t acknowledge students' grief caused by the Baltimore riot.

Nicole Rufus SC ’16 said that BLM Claremont students decided to organize the protest in response to the lack of discussion about the uprising in Baltimore at the Claremont Colleges, especially by the administrations.

“You kind of hope that your school will respond to things of this nature, and since there was none, and since that only further exacerbated a lot of things that are already felt on this campus by Black students and I'm sure many other students of color as well," Rufus said, "It was like, not only is there no real institutional infrastructure for us, you also don't respond when we're in pain.”

BLM Claremont makes three demands in its letter to 5C administrations: first, that “the Claremont Colleges recognize this movement through releasing a public statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter;” second, that “an announcement is posted to the school websites that is then sent to faculty, staff, students, alumni, incoming students, the Board of Trustees, etc.;” and third, that “students who have been deeply affected by recent events be allowed to postpone finals.”

Preparation for the protest was carried out privately and collaboratively among students aligned with BLM Claremont, in contrast to how the November 25, 2014 march in support of the Ferguson protests had been publicly organized. According to a Dec. 5 TSL article about the Nov. 25 protest, some participants had expressed concern about a lack of emphasis on Black voices and leadership. 

During the May 7 protest, an effort was made to affirm Black leadership with Black students walking in front and non-Black students, or allies, following in the back. Allies were not allowed to record, take photos or make statements on behalf of BLM both during and after the protest in order to create a space for Black students to reclaim and represent their own experiences. 

Alan Peck PO ’18 said that one reason for the division between Black students and allies was “because these issues directly affect Black people, so that's why we kind of stand in solidarity within our own community.” But Peck said that he would like to see more solidarity between Black and non-Black students in future protests.

“Allies were very understanding of our wishes ... However, maybe in the future if we could have a more unified protest; that would be cool because I know a lot of people are talking about 'why if you guys are talking about standing in solidarity, why do you have these separate groups,’” Peck said. “I think if they stood in solidarity with us, maybe we could have a more unified understanding of what's going on.”

Ki'Amber Thompson PO '18 said that she was happy with the way the protests turned out. 

“There was so much love from the Black students and faculty and the allies who were there, just so much support, really good communication,” Thompson said. “There were points where we're protesting, singing, and dancing and having fun. This was definitely a healing experience for us.”

The demonstration began at Pomona College’s Walker Beach where students started gathering at 12:30 p.m. A small group of Pomona faculty also joined the march, walking behind the protesters with some Pitzer College faculty joining later. As the group walked through the campuses, Black students from each college entered their respective college administration building to read out loud and hand their letter to the college’s president and/or a dean.

After passing through Pomona, Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer, Scripps College and Harvey Mudd College, the protesters walked to the intersection of Claremont Boulevard and Foothill Boulevard. The group abandoned their original destination, the intersection of Mills Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, after hearing that police officers were waiting for them there. The allies sat down on each of the four crossways of Claremont and Foothill, blocking the intersection while Black students formed an inner circle and chanted the names of victims of police brutality for about 10 minutes.

Rufus described the demonstration as an important and collective recognition of Black students' interests. 

"For me personally, I thought it was definitely my best day in Claremont. I feel like it was the day that I felt most heard, most acknowledged," Rufus said. "I think as a Black student here, I've experienced a lot of isolation, a lot of feeling like there isn't anyone really who is looking out for my interest, so it was definitely an important thing to know that there are not only people in my own community as a Black student here, but in the larger Claremont sphere as a whole."

A small police force from the Claremont Police Department surrounded the area, but no arrests were made. Detective Lieutenant Mike Ciszek said that no action was taken immediately by the police due to the large number of students versus a small number of officers but that a dispersal order would have been issued if the students had stayed longer.

“We're there to try to enforce the laws but also allow people to express their first amendment right to free speech," Ciszek said. "It ended peaceably. They got their message out, they made their statement, and we made ours.”

Ciszek and Campus Safety Director Stan Skipworth said that they were informed beforehand of the protests. Ciszek said that the police department is still discussing whether there should be any follow-up response by the police but that there would be no action taken for now. 

While some drivers showed support by honking and cheering for the students, others expressed frustration. One driver angrily asked how long the protest would take, to which an ally answered, “As long as they need,” according to multiple students.

All five presidents responded within a day of the protest by sending email messages to their respective college communities. They acknowledged the receipt of the letter, expressed a commitment to improve support for Black students and informed students about how to receive academic accommodations.

Isaac Tucker-Rasbury PO ’18 said that he appreciated Pomona President David Oxtoby’s response for its clear message of support and for meeting the students’ demands, except sending the letter to alumni and the incoming class.

Oxtoby said that a public statement has been posted on the college’s website but that it won’t be sent out via email to incoming students and alumni. Regarding the third demand, Oxtoby said that students should contact the Dean of Students office for academic support as stated in his email to the community. TSL could not find a public statement on the front page of any of the 5C websites nor when several related terms were searched.

Oxtoby had been in a meeting during the protest but said that he came back to his office to meet the students when he was informed that they were heading towards Alexander Hall, where his office is located.

“I felt it was a moving personal statement from the group, individually and collectively,” Oxtoby said. “What they were chanting was silence is violence, so they were connecting that not speaking up is in some ways equivalent to violence, which is a powerful message. So I felt they were both forceful and articulate, but respectful as well. I thought it was a very powerful moment to meet the group.”

Errick Jackson HM ’18 said that he was relieved and happy to see HMC President Maria Klawe’s email response and her promise for support. According to the 2014-15 Common Data Set, there are currently 13 Black students in HMC’s student body of 802, five of them in their first year. Jackson said that even though HMC could do much to improve, he appreciates HMC’s efforts to increase diversity, explaining that there are about 25 Black students in the incoming first-year class.

“Small things make up a big change, and so it's going to take a few things coming together to create a big tidal wave,” Jackson said.

Tori Sepand SC ’15 wrote in an email to TSL that Black students met with Scripps President Lori Bettison-Varga on Friday, May 8 and “discussed the support we need to thrive on this campus.” Sepand expressed that even though it is disappointing that “a critical mass is needed for administrators to pay attention to our challenges and needs,” she is “excited to see how things are implemented and how these conversations will continue and hopefully produce results.”

Bettison-Varga said that she was planning to work with students and other administrators to address the protesters' demands, starting with her meeting with students during her office hours.

"I had about eight or nine Scripps students with us," she said. "We talked about specific things that they really wanted us to pay attention to at Scripps and that we could participate in with respect to the consortium as a whole."

While Rufus was also glad that the administrations released public statements, she said that she is more interested to see the actions that come from those responses. 

"I think words are empty from the administrations," Rufus said. "I'm excited that they did it but I'm also very skeptical, but it's a great first step and I am really hoping to be pleasantly surprised by the schools. I would be happy to be proven wrong in this instance."

Peck said that students in BLM Claremont are discussing plans for further demonstrations to “keep having our voices heard.”

“We definitely have made our voices be heard and have spoken the changes that we demanded to be seen on our campuses. We've put the issues so far in people's faces that they have no choice but to listen to them and at least try to come to an understanding of why we feel so strongly about the issues that are happening. So it doesn't end at that one protest,” Peck said. “It doesn't stop with that one.”

Julia Thomas and Kevin Tidmarsh contributed reporting.