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06-03-20-philadelphia-george-floyd-protest-black-lives-matter
Student groups have begun mobilizing to enact social change both at Penn and across the country in light of George Floyd's murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Amid nationwide and local protests over the police murder of George Floyd, Penn students have founded initiatives responding to police brutality in hopes of enacting change within the University community and beyond.

Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck against the ground for more than eight minutes. Following his murder, student organizations across Penn have responded by matching donations, organizing events to address criminal justice reform, and sharing educational resources through online platforms.

Speak Up Penn — a website created by rising College seniors Mitchell Cornell and Shabaig Chatha, rising Wharton senior Kyle Whiting, and rising Engineering senior Zulfiqar Soomro — lists all of the student organizations that match donations to Black Lives Matter Philadelphia, Philadelphia Bail Fund, Project HOME Philadelphia, and Black and Brown Workers Cooperative. 

Cornell said the students thought to create the website when they realized many campus groups had leftover spring semester funds after on-campus activities were suspended in mid-March. He said they chose four Black-run Philadelphia activist organizations after being consulted by UMOJA, the umbrella group of Black cultural organizations at Penn. 

The website currently lists 15 student organizations that are matching donations, including performing arts groups and fraternities. Over 50 other Penn student groups have donated to these organization for their donations to be matched, which Cornell said UMOJA can utilize to show the administration the widespread student support for Black-related causes.  

“When non-Black groups are trying to make contributions, I think that it’s very important they do so in an actively supportive way,” Cornell said.

Cornell said Speak Up Penn will continue to support Black-led organizations even after protests end, which have now continued for nine days nationwide and five days in Philadelphia, and also said the organization hopes to gain support from other local universities.

Greek organizations are also participating in the movement by soliciting donations and having conversations about race and privilege within individual chapters.

Panhellenic Council President and rising Wharton senior Sahitya Mandalapu said Panhel members first collected donations from the Penn community before they realized they had the funds to match donations too. 

She said Panhel released a statement to their community that listed educational resources on anti-racism — such as books, videos, and podcasts — as well as places they could give donations to. Mandalapu added they also started a Panhel-wide book club for the books that were listed in the club's statement. 

“Greek life, historically, hasn’t spoken out about these issues,” Mandalapu said. “For me, that’s just more reason for us to speak up. We’re already talking about what we can do to make our organization more inclusive.”

In addition to collecting donations, political groups on campus have been taking action by discussing and promoting criminal justice reform.

Penn Dems President and rising College senior Owen Voutsinas-Klose said the organization collected close to $2000 and matched donations up to $500. Penn Dems split the collected donations between the Minneapolis Freedom Fund and Reclaim the Block.

Voutsinas-Klose added that Penn Dems is also planning a future speaker event to discuss criminal justice reform and a phone-banking event to advocate for spending cuts in the Philadelphia Police Department. 

He added that after the protests end, Penn Dems plans to continue advocating for criminal justice reform by pushing people to vote. Voutsinas-Klose said although he doesn’t think voting is a complete solution, it is important to encourage people to vote in local elections because local government officials are responsible for supervising the police department.

“Activism is an ongoing thing,” Voustinas-Klose said. “The protests are going to end eventually, and we can’t have people forgetting until something else happens.”

Penn Justice Democrats Co-Founder and rising College junior Jack Cahill said Penn Justice Dems did not have the funds to match donations because they are still transitioning from Penn for Bernie. Instead, they are providing their members with information about petitions and donation funds. 

Cahill added that they are also endorsing more progressive candidates who will enact criminal justice reform, such as Jamaal Bowman who is running for New York’s 16th Congressional District supporting issues of criminal justice reform and education. 

“This past week has highlighted the grotesque racism that permeates across our criminal justice system,” Cahill said. “I think it is becoming more clear to us that law enforcement procedure as we know it must be abolished and replaced with something much better.”

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