On an otherwise quiet, gloomy November afternoon, hundreds of student dressed in all black gathered to stand in solidarity with colleges across the nation. The frustration and anger was palpable in their voices as they chanted.
This Thursday, protesters met at 2:30 p.m. at College Green and marched to 30th Street Station, where they participated in a sit-in in the middle of Market Street. It was led by Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation, with support from UMOJA, the Black Student League and the Penn National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. At the end of the march, protesters gathered outside of Amy Gutmanns' house and read off a list of demands they felt would make the University a better place for minority students.
Demands posted on the SOUL Facebook event included that University City college presidents state their solidarity with students of color on their own campuses as well as at Mizzou and Yale. Students described during the protest how the minimal amount of black faculty negatively affected their experiences at Penn, and later demanded that Penn increase black faculty and staff to 10 percent. They also demanded that Penn hire more counselors of color at Counseling and Psychological Services, establish more sensitivity training, a "mandatory racial awareness curriculum" and establish a social justice center for student activists.
The group also called for the adoption of "zero-tolerance policies for bigotry perpetrated by Greek organizations by adopting a council responsible for investigating discriminatory issues."
Penn President Amy Gutmann could not be reached for comment in time for the publication of this article, but Vice President for University Communcations Steve MacCarthy wrote in an email, "At Penn we are committed to creating and fostering an ever-more inclusive community where everybody is, and feels, respected and valued. It is a good thing that our students care about these issues because they really matter."
On Market Street, students sat down in the intersection, refusing to move despite countless cars honking and drivers berating them. Some held signs, while others chanted or quietly walked alongside their peers.
Leaders of the protest yelled “No Justice!” and the crowd in turn responded “No Peace!” In another chant, the leaders yelled, “Who are we?” and the protesters responded, “We are Mizzou. We are Yale. We are Philly” — the same words used in hashtags on social media posts to promote the cause.
Students at the University of Missouri, Columbia called for the resignation of President Timothy Wolfe following his lack of action after the harassment of minority students by other students, including death threats. On Monday, Wolfe stepped down, and the chancellor of the flagship school promised to take on a lesser role at the end of the year.
Tensions at Yale boiled over later in the week, when over 1,000 students started protesting. In particular, students referenced an incident in which Sigma Alpha Epsilon members allegedly told black partygoers that their event was for “white girls only.” In addition, students demanded the resignation of Associate Master of Silliman College Erika Christakis after she sent an email saying that it wasn't the administration's place to monitor culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, in response to an administrator's email asking students to be sensitive of other cultures on the holiday. Some students at Yale felt there was a lack of concern for minority students. The movements at Mizzou and Yale were a call to action for students at college campuses across the nation.
On Wednesday, minority group leaders across the country sent out an invitation for students to wear all black on Thursday in solitarily with protesters at Yale and at the University of Missouri.
Penn students echoed the concerns of minority students at Yale and Missouri, who felt unwelcome and unsafe on their own campuses. Minority students asked that their voices be heard and their pain be acknowledged by others in the Penn community.
“We don’t get to feel fragile. We don’t get to feel pain. You will not ignore our pain for your convenience any longer!” one protester said on the megaphone at the sit-in.
The protest blocked traffic on Market Street, though the group made sure to let all emergency vehicles get through.
“This is a demonstration of our power,” chanted College senior and founding member of SOUL Gina Dukes, referring to the closure of city streets.
Protesters said they came out to show solidarity. College freshman Chris Harrison said, “It’s sort of important to know that you don’t have to go out and do this alone.” Another protester, College freshman David Bakali said, "Whenever our freedom is challenged it seems that no action is taken at all, and I feel that that's absolutely ridiculous."
Bystanders' reactions to the protest were mixed. Some cheered on the crowd, but others yelled at them in frustration.
One man stepped out of his vehicle demanding to be let through. “I know you got to make a point, but we have to go too,” he yelled. “We just want to get out of here!” The man eventually got past the protesters by driving on the sidewalk.
University Chaplain Chaz Howard was present for the protest. "I was very proud of our students today," he wrote in an email. "They organized a powerful and informative demonstration that not only educated observers about the painful situation in Missouri and at Yale, but they communicated solidarity and love to their counterparts at both of those schools. The older activists that I have heard from, those who marched on College Green, Locust Walk and around the city in prior years, communicated to me how moved they were to see and hear of current Penn students keeping up the struggle for justice and an end to racism in our world."
Staff Reporter Mitchell Chan contributed reporting.
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