CGWI Director's Statement on May 4th, 2024

The University has failed. Across this country, the university has failed in its most fundamental stated purpose—fostering student learning and expression. We vocally oppose the University leadership’s decision to call the police, full stop. We implore the University to drop all charges against members of our community who have “No Trespass” orders, especially students whose presence on Grounds makes this University possible. We remain dismayed at further decisions made by University leadership:

  1. the fact that our University leaders, President Ryan and Provost Baucom, among others, decided to deploy university, local, and state police after witnessing that similar tactics were not effective at other Universities around the country;
  2. that these officials remained alarmingly absent in what was reported as a “control center;” 
  3. the fact that within the safety of this protected zone, these leaders eschewed their responsibility to members of their community, colleagues, and students, alike, failing to respond to pleas from faculty and students facing imminent violence at the hands of the police.

During the afternoon of May 4, 2024 as students in my Introduction to African American & African Studies took their final examination, emergency alerts blasted through the class intercom system, clearly indicating that all was not well at the Rotunda. Though unsure of what exactly was happening at the Rotunda, the students persevered and finished their final exams, although clearly agitated by the situation. As we soon discovered, some students did not make it to the final, as they were being tested in chillingly different ways. As one student explained to me later:  

  • “Today, I stood beside my peers and demanded that our university divest from Israel and stop supporting and endorsing genocide. As 35,000 Palestinians have died, and there are students here that are courageously standing up against the oppressive actions of this university I had to get involved as their freedom and livelihood was being threatened. As I was protesting, I missed your final. It was not necessarily my goal to skip the final, but I am not apologetic for my actions as state police were attempting to violently silence us. Your class has taught me a multitude. I have learned so much about the power of my voice and the impact it can have. From the children in Soweto (many of whom were murdered by South African police on June 16, 1976, when they protested against the apartheid regime), to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, to the Black Panthers (during the Civil Rights & Black Power eras), and so many more young people who used their voice to make a change, I knew that today I had to be on the right side of history and not in a lecture hall writing an essay.”

This student’s activism continues the longer history of Black Studies at the University of Virginia, and is reminiscent of February 18, 1969, when 1,000 students gathered at the Rotunda to demand an end to the University’s “racist atmosphere,” including the successful establishment of a Black Studies program by 1970. Many of my students referenced this history in their final exams. And other students bore witness to that history of UVA student activism by making their own history fifty-five years later. 

We love our students. Students make the University. This is not a grandiose claim. We are all here because of a fundamental commitment to the future as exemplified, epitomized, and embodied through those we teach and alongside whom we learn. Yet, the students are not symbolic, nor are they passive vessels to be filled with the lessons of our instruction.

As educators, we are primed to capitalize on all teachable moments. And, yet in times like these, the knee jerk reaction to "teach" must be met with a concomitant impulse to listen and to truly learn.

The student teacher relationship represents a microcosm of larger structural dynamics. We teach our students to be critical thinkers, think globally and act locally, wrestle with the grandest ideas and attend to the most granular details. We, as teachers within a university, are likewise instructed to pursue the cutting edge of academic research to advance the values of democracy as the loftiest aspirations of what the University can be in the abstract and in practice. We apply these values in all aspects of the profession, most especially undergraduate education. For the sake of argument, we are the University's students, too. The University administration ensures that students and faculty can advance knowledge production at the highest level by cultivating a supportive environment and investing heavily in the potential for students to achieve transformation, individually and collectively.

As many recent statements on the events of May 4, 2024, assert, there is a fundamental tension between the stated objectives to pursue knowledge, equity, and inclusion, and the show of police force that took place on that day. We cannot hold the position that the University innovates and transforms the world through the power of knowledge and curtail the application of that knowledge in the world. We cannot silence our students at the very moment when they are urging us to listen. We cannot insist that our students be global citizens and ask them to ignore the plight of their fellow citizens of the world. We cannot treat our students as symbolic, hypothetical, and abstract. Therefore, slipping into the teachable tone, we return to the refrain: we love our students. We are all students.

  • We love our students who remind us of the long tradition of activism, particularly student activism, that launched the field of Black Studies at UVA and other institutions of higher learning across the United States. Who remind us specifically of the student organizers who insisted that UVA should be a place where Black Studies can thrive.
  • We love our students who keep us accountable to our deeply held values.
  • We love our students who protest and express their freedom of speech rights, who act on the courage of their convictions amid militarized police in riot gear, armed with guns and tear gas.
  • We love our students who remain steadfast, compassionate, and optimistic even though they sustained the trauma of the events on May 4th. Some of whom carry the additional weight of the trauma of gun violence that killed three of our students close to 18-months ago.
  • We love our students who call us to interrogate the marked contrast to the treatment of community members on May 4, 2024, to the lack of police presence when Neo-Nazi’s stormed UVA Grounds on August 11, 2017.
  • We love our students who quote our favorite authors back to us and who use the knowledge gained in the African American & African Studies department to make a case for why they might not come to graduation.
  • We love our students who have been through so much. Always.
  • We love our students’ numbers 1, 15, 41 and to infinity.
  • We love our students at the PhD level who, at a year-end event, instead of deferring to the professional autopilot of enumerating their many accomplishments, invited us to join those assembled on the lawn. An invitation to normalize protest as inherently peaceful, without the qualification “peaceful protest” in that they simply made the invitation to spend some time among the group gathered on the Lawn, to bring food, to answer emails, co-work, read a book, and be in the space with others in order to carve out an opportunity to recognize that we cannot proceed with “business as usual,” while so many innocent people in the global community are suffering unnecessary and preventable violence. 
  • We love our students who include our colleagues because we're all students – we love our fellow-student-colleagues who have written, who have felt, who have been too scared to write, who have resigned, who have been too scared to resign, who cancelled class, who gave extensions and grace.
  • We love our fellow-student-colleagues who win the most prestigious awards, while standing alongside undergraduates, who publish field-defining monographs, while contributing to statements in solidarity, who continue to enrich our intellectual community, through their acts of speech in protest, public fora, academic environs, and beyond.
  • We love our students who are leaving in May. We love our students who are staying.
  • We love our students who have been through so much. Always.

 

It is with this perspective that we call to mind the refrain: we are all students.

If the true spirit of the University is the academical village, is lifetime learning, is the great and good, is democracy in action, then we ask the administration, how do we reconcile the treatment of students that was witnessed on May 4? What would it look like to treat students as students, as people with whom you live and work alongside, not as symbolic, or abstract entities, but people, embodied, flesh and bone, in your and our community?

As a teacher, one's goal is not trying to change the student's perspective, but instead to channel their natural curiosity, their goodwill, optimism of spirit, and boundless energy toward topics about which they are passionate. At times, students may not express themselves in ways that everyone approves. But they have the inalienable first amendment right to free speech. The University as a social structure provides an opportunity for the experiment in American democracy, which is why so many are proud to have our university so directly tied to Jeffersonian ideals. And yet, there is no reconciling the fact that the University administration deployed police on their own students. The University administration criminalized its own students, faculty, and staff, issuing "No Trespassing" orders to those who have lived, worked, and learned here for years.

At present, there are students detained for putting their learning into action. At present, there are students who are at risk of failing classes, being penalized, or earning lower grades from having to persevere during this unimaginably stressful situation during Final Exam period. There are many students whose experiences over their time at UVA has been tarnished irreparably. There are immediate and tangible consequences to actual students due to the administration's actions. There are also longer-term intangible consequences to such a decision.

As the eminent historian and Black Studies scholar Robin D.G. Kelley reminds us, “unlike other ‘mainstream’ academic disciplines, Black Studies was born out of struggle for freedom and a genuine quest to understand the world to change it.” We honor our students who know well that the mere imparting of information is not education, to paraphrase our namesake Carter G. Woodson, and that deep learning comes from acting on the courage of your convictions. We demand that the University that aspires to be “great and good” follow their example.

We condemn the decision of the University administration, and we stand in solidarity with our students who continue to teach us every day, through word and deed. We implore the University to drop all charges against members of our community who have “No Trespass” orders, especially students whose presence on Grounds makes this University possible. We love our students. Students make the University possible. We are all here because of a fundamental commitment to the future that our students are imagining and building in real time.

 

-Robert Trent Vinson

Chair, Department of African American & African Studies

Director, Carter G. Woodson Institute of African American & African Studies