Winston-Salem students answer activism’s call

Winston-Salem students answer activism’s call
December 11
00:00 2014
WSSU Photo by Devin Davis   Winston-Salem State students hold a campus rally in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case.

Winston-Salem State University, Salem College and Wake Forest University students are joining their contemporaries around the nation in expressing their dissatisfaction with what they see as the justice system’s devaluing of black lives.

Saturday, students capped the city’s annual tree lighting ceremony in Corpening Plaza with their hands raised and chants of “Black Lives Matter.” The “Hands Up/Black Lives Matter” movement has spread across the country since two separate grand juries failed to indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Winston-Salem State University Student Government Association President Olivia Sedwick was among the student protesters. She said the group of about 30 students decided they wanted to make a stand in a very public way.

“We did not have to create the crowd. All we had to do was get the demonstrators there. We had some parents and their children who joined in with us,” she said.

The protesters were met with some hostility, Sedwick said.

“There were people who were out there heckling us and saying things like, ‘Nobody cares about what you kids are saying;’ ‘Go home;’ ‘Thug lives don’t matter;’ and one guy almost cussed and he was with his two small children,” Sedwick said. “That let us know that these mentalities are truly taught to children. It makes me concerned for the future because if parents are still recycling these old, antiquated feelings about race and class in America we will never progress.”

Black student activism has been strong at local campuses as of late. WSSU students have held on-campus rallies and forums in response to tumultuous national issues like the deaths of Brown and Garner. Last year, students held a die-in, where hundreds lay motionless in the center of campus – in response to a jury’s decision not to convict George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin.

Wake Forest students have taken campus cops to task for what they see as an insidious pattern of racial profiling. A pair of student organized campus-wide forums have been held to address the issue. Some WFU students have also taken to the controversial tactic of “chalking” – using chalk to write their complaints along campus walkways.

Sedwick said that for a long time, young people felt they did not have anything left to fight for, but now see the issues of the past are still relevant.

“My generation finally realizes that the only way things are going to change is if we change them,” she said. “Our generation is able to align across cultures because we are not just processing this as a black issue, although it is and we are framing the narrative as black lives matter, it is about issues of human rights. Issues that all oppressed people, across the world are able to identify with.”

Javar Jones, a WFU senior and a member of the N.C. NAACP’s People’s Forward Together steering committee, said often students fail to realize how much power they wield.

“I try to stress to them to realize the power that they have on campus. As a student leader, you are often told that ‘it’s great that you have this idea; however, where’s your backing or support for this?’ We have to get students to realize that they have the power, just as much as me or any administrator, to change the campus, but they have to get people to believe it and find support in their work to get that done,” he said.

He said getting administrators to truly address the concerns of black students is a work in progress at Wake.

“We’ve been trying to move very strategically on our campus and trying to make concrete change because we’ve never really had this much buy-in and input on matters regarding race,” he said.  “As a student leader, it has definitely been my goal to harness as much of that potential and influence as possible and try to move forward pragmatically so that we can get the administration to see where the campus is going, in hopes that they will change it for the better.”

Like Wake, Salem is a majority white institution. Salem junior Shelby Rittman said that it is vital that black students at white schools are not muted.

“With Salem and WFU being predominately white universities, I like the fact that we are not leaving it to WSSU to do something, but joining and standing by them,” she said. “We are all taking part in this movement. We are fighting to be heard and are willing to stand up for something we believe in. It’s important for the protest not to die and the action not to waver.”

Rittman said students are empowering themselves by taking a stand for what they believe in.

“Often times young people tend to be ignored and sometimes we let ourselves get ignored,” she said.

Jones thinks the work that he and other student activists do today, could have a lasting and far-reaching impact tomorrow.

“Black students on campus are not looking for a handout or reparations, but a greater understanding about our culture, lifestyle and hope that people will be more perceptive and cognizant about the things that they say and do,” he said.

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Chanel Davis

Chanel Davis

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