Racist threats at Mizzou

Anger, and struggle over the way forward

by Sunsara Taylor | November 12, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The Mizzou campus was eerily quiet Wednesday morning. The flood of students streaming across the campus that we saw Tuesday during class change was replaced with a trickle Wednesday. One student described attending a class that usually has 200 students but this morning only had fifteen. Many—especially Black students and other oppressed nationality students—simply stayed away.

Last night, vicious racist threats began appearing on social media against Black students. One explicitly announced plans to shoot all the Black people they saw at school the next day. Others were more vague, but also ominous. (Two young white men were arrested in relation to these threats.) Black students who walked past the “Speaker’s Circle” (free speech zone) were verbally assaulted and degraded, called the N-word. Friends who were at home rushed back to campus to pick up Black students and get them away from the campus. Many Black students not only evacuated campus, but stayed with friends off campus for their safety. A great many did not attend classes or even show up on campus for most of the day.

Just months out from the racist massacre by a young white man who murdered nine Black people in their church, there is legitimate cause for fear.

Throughout the day, many Black students huddled together inside the Black Culture Center, which kept its doors locked and allowed entry only to Black students and others who were clearly supportive of the fight. Some attempted homework, but more people spent the time connecting with and comforting each other, wrestling together with the range of anger and fear they were experiencing, and asking agonizing questions about why all this keeps going on and what must be done about it. These students were frequently interrupted by text messages and phone calls from family members and loved ones eager to check on their safety.

Black students from across the region showed up throughout the day. Forty students drove in from Lincoln, Nebraska. Nineteen came from Kansas City. Groups came from many other schools, and messages of support came from even more.

Debate raged among knots of students trying to understand what the problem is with white people, whether change will ultimately require violence, whether it is positive or negative to include broader issues (like LGBT rights and violence against women) in struggles which are initiated by and which focus on the oppression of Black people, and more. Some spoke of revolution, and I and other revolutionaries present dove into these and other discussions, wrestling together with these students over the way out of all this oppression for good and over how to move forward right now. Nearly everyone got copies of Carl Dix’s statement supporting the student struggle here and linking it to the larger fight that is needed for a revolution to put an end to all this madness once and for all—and in places this statement fed into and fueled new rounds of discussion and debate. Other organized forces had also begun arriving, some from St. Louis and perhaps from elsewhere. Some students—including some from other campuses—had been to the Justice or Else march in DC where Farrakhan gave the keynote speech. All this added to the mix of contending worldviews and approaches. Some found this all this very appealing and dove in, while others pulled away and simply wanted to engulf themselves in the feeling of togetherness in what was deemed a safe space.

At one point, we pulled out a large Stolen Lives banner and students gathered around to snap pictures and pose for pictures. While everyone was familiar with the problem of murder by police, most expressed deep shock and horror at just how many have been killed. Over and over we heard, “I’ve never seen all those faces together before.” Some, however, said they’d seen that picture a bunch already on Instagram. We talked about the need for people to mobilize protest on the November 22, 2015 anniversary of the murder of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Black child in Cleveland who was playing with a toy gun and was shot and killed by the police less than two seconds after they arrived on the scene. People gave their contact information and expressed interest in working on this. Others from different campuses expressed interest in bringing Carl Dix to their campus to speak in the near future.

Across the country, Black students and others at Yale, Ithaca, Smith, and beyond mobilized powerful demonstrations against institutional racism, drawing inspiration from the courage on display at Mizzou and outrage that the problems being faced here are present at every campus in the country.

Student leaders with ConcernedStudent19501 had initially called for a march in the early evening through the campus, but—owing to weather problems and perhaps secondarily the intensity of the threats—they canceled the march. Instead a couple hundred overwhelmingly Black students rallied inside. Some of the initiators of ConcernedStudent1950 explained who they are and then asked Black Mizzou students to share their experiences and feelings on the campus in recent weeks. A young Black man who majors in business but also is involved with campus theater described being in rehearsal one day when a drunken white guy decided to yell racist slurs at them all. “That changed my life forever,” he explained. “You have to imagine, at my home my car is covered with so many Mizzou stickers,” but this racist hostility made him feel like he will never belong here. A young woman spoke through tears, asking over and over, “Why can’t I feel safe walking to class at 9:30 in the morning?” She made clear that she respects that the movement is nonviolent, but that she feels like it is going to take more than that and that she, for one, feels ready. Another young woman started by apologizing for not participating in the protests before Wednesday, having kept her focus on class and other things and not feeling knowledgeable or strong enough to take part, but now she felt there was nowhere else she could be and she felt the strength of all the others in the room with her.

Eventually, this gathering did end up marching to the Student Center where people were divided up in groups facilitated by initiating members of ConcernedStudent1950. First folks rallied energetically, singing, jumping, and swaying to a chant that included, “We ready, for revolution.” Then, they broke into smaller groups to continue processing their feelings and “healing.” The handful of white people were led out of the room so that Black students and other people of color could have their own space. These discussions varied greatly, but in the main were more directed at processing people’s emotions and feelings of safety and not as much on strategizing over how to go forward concretely, even as there was a great determination to do so and ideas and plans did come up about how to move forward.

The Broader Mood on Campus

Earlier in the day, we had spent quite a bit of time reaching out to the trickle of students on the campus. On the surface, aside from the campus being much emptier, things seemed to be functioning with business as usual. Students were studying in the student center, friends were joking, youths were walking to class. But, if you started talking about racism on campus and the broader phenomenon this is part of, many, many students—including many, many white students—would stop and talk for a long time, posing their big questions and reservations, but honestly trying to figure things out.

A white freshman told us at first that he was “trying to stay neutral.” Asked why, he explained, “Every time I start to decide how I feel, then I am swayed by what happens next.” His inclination was to be sympathetic to the protests by Black students, but he was clearly being swayed by every reactionary objection or attempt to change the subject. He reiterated over and over that he didn’t feel he had enough knowledge or experience to really say anything for sure. He claimed that some Black students had called him a “white privileged racist male” for not attending their protests. “Those are very strong words,” he explained, but he listened intently when we told him he was wrong to evaluate these protests based on how he as an individual felt or was treated. That he had to look at the bigger picture, at what was most defining about the reality on campus and the reality in this country. We directed him to think about what it is like for Black students who are called the N-word and threatened and to have the administration—like the former president Timothy Wolfe—tell you that systemic racism is really just a figment of your imagination and, even worse, your own fault. We got into the epidemic of police murder and mass incarceration and read together the first quote in BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian: “There would be no United States as we know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth.”

He then wanted to know why it was OK for Black students to keep media out of their encampment, why is it OK for them to make a “Black space” in the middle of the public university that is “designed for everyone.” This question about the media being kept out was raised frequently and we made clear that the focus on the one incident with a student reporter being kept out of the heart of the encampment was being used by ruling class media and reactionaries everywhere to change the subject. The subject is racist terror against Black students and Black people generally. That is what is pervasive throughout society, and that is what students are righteously rising up against, and that is what all of us have to focus on and answer to. As for creating a “Black space” in the midst of a space that is “designed for everyone,” the reality is that the entire history of this country is one of forcibly creating white spaces on land and communities that belong to other people, starting with the genocide of the native peoples. This young man, and many others like him, were going through big changes in their thinking—starting to confront and grapple with questions of white supremacy they had never considered before. He was uncomfortable with the anger he felt coming from Black students, but also eager to learn more and unable to dismiss what they were raising.

This young man had grown up in a rural town in Missouri, graduating just a few months ago from an all-white high school and a class of only 37 students. He appreciated being talked to about all this and nodded in recognition when we told him bluntly that his desire to remain “neutral” is impossible—either you are part of fighting against all this racist terror or you are siding with it by letting it happen. Another white freshman who expressed a lot of the same questions told us later, “I guess the Black students had to do things as extreme as they did or else we wouldn’t really be thinking about this or paying attention right now.”

To be clear, we also ran into far too many white students who were hostile and arrogant. One responded to our challenge to pick a side by declaring, “I am on my OWN side!” A few took our leaflet and dramatically threw it down on the ground in anger. One, with his dad, spent a lot of time arguing vigorously against the notion that this country was founded on slavery, insisting that it was at least as much founded on the labor of indentured white people and expressing anger over the way histories of the Civil War portray the South as so terrible. All this is rife on the campus and beyond. At the same time, the growing polarization is forcing people to come out of their bag with this shit, forcing people to feel less able to sit on the sidelines, and making many more open to thinking in new ways than ever before.

Other white students raised that, while they agree that the racism is a problem, wasn’t it unfair to target former university president Tim Wolfe. Why didn’t the Black students target the individuals who carried out racist acts against them, rather than the president? And, if it is a system of racism, didn’t they unfairly make this individual the “fall guy” for the whole system? Taken statically, these questions reflected that the students’ basic assumptions were still to side with the status quo and to empathize more with those being called out for facilitating racism than to side with the victims of racism who were courageously rising up. But, for a great many, these questions were coming from people who are in a lot of turmoil and extremely open to having their assumptions challenged and their questions answered. One white student who asked this ended up sticking with our team for hours, at first raising questions like this, then listening as one of us engaged other students, and finally joining in arguing against these very arguments when they were raised by other white students later in the day. We saw a lot of this.

Finally, I want to recount the story of one more student I spoke to during our broad interactions in the morning. He was a Black student who had only recently transferred to Mizzou. He had grown up near Ferguson and his coming of age was largely defined by the murder of Mike Brown, the powerful protests that went on night after night in the wake of that murder, and the vicious repression by the police and the system’s refusal to indict the cop who killed Mike Brown. “To be honest, when I transferred to Mizzou this semester, I thought I was going to be getting away from all that.” We’d been talking about Carl Dix’s statement, especially the need for revolution, and I said to him, “I regret that this is true, but there is nowhere in this country that you will be able to escape white supremacy.” I paraphrased Bob Avakian’s point a talk he gave back in 2003 (Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About) where he said every Black person lives under an active death sentence, it may or may not be carried out, but it always could be and the police or the racist vigilantes who do it will almost always walk free. This is one of the major reasons we need to make a revolution. His eyes fell to the ground and then he nodded, “I know what you are saying is true. I guess I kind of knew it, but I never fully admitted it before.” I had invited him to come and hear Carl Dix when he is on campus Thursday and he said he would if he had time, now I posed it more directly, “What could be more important than this? Carl Dix is part of a party that has a strategy and a vision for an actual revolution, to get rid of this oppression at long last and to do so as part of emancipating all of humanity from all the other forms of oppression here and all over the world. You are being given the chance to learn about this, to connect with this, and to be part of making this real—what, seriously, could be more important?” He nodded again and said he was glad I had posed it that way, he would change his schedule and he had an idea for a professor he could talk to as well who might be interested in meeting with Dix. He took a stack of the statements from Carl Dix to get out to his friends and classmates, and then he stuck around longer as we got deeper into the kind of struggle that is needed now and going forward.

Obviously, these are just a few snippets of the many, many exchanges we had with students throughout the day, but they give a sense of the deep changes and openness that has been generated by the courageous actions of the Black students who stood up in protest. All this must be plunged into, united with, learned from, and taken much further—advancing the immediate struggle to put an end to the racist outrages on campus and the epidemic of police murder and terror, and doing this in a way that prepares the ground, prepares the people, and prepares the vanguard for the time when millions can be led to go all in the revolutionary struggle for power with a real chance to win.


1. ConcernedStudent1950, named for the year the University of Missouri began admitting Black students, has been at the heart of the protests on the Mizzou campus. [back]


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