Interview with an Organizer of the Student Protest vs. DeVos at Bethune-Cookman University: “It was amazing!”

May 15, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution had an opportunity to speak with Dominik Whitehead, a graduate of Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) class of 2010, and one of the main organizers of the protest by this year’s graduating class of the appearance of the Trump/Pence regime’s education secretary Betsy DeVos at the campus. DeVos had been invited to receive an honorary doctoral degree and give the commencement address. B-CU is one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Dominik Whitehead posted a petition online opposing her appearance, which said in part:

In February, DeVos made an unsettling statement inferring that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), of which Bethune-Cookman is one, are the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”

Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand that HBCUs were created in response to the exclusion of African Americans from mainstream institutions. Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs.

Revolution: Describe what took place on graduation day at B-CU:

The protest began outside before the graduation ceremony. People were there from the NAACP, the Dream Defenders, the local Democratic Executive Committee, alumni, and other progressive organizations, holding anti-DeVos signs.

Inside, it was absolutely amazing! She came to the podium twice. First to receive an honorary degree; people booed until she sat down. When she came up the second time, and began her talk, it was absolutely amazing! The students booing and turning their backs when she spoke. Myself and others who supported the students from the audience, we chanted, we yelled, we cheered for them. We held our fists up in the air! All the way through, until she finished that speech.

It was also amazing how the students acted collectively, as a class. I was in the balcony, directly behind them. Most of the audience was not standing, but they did participate with chants, like:

“I love my HBCU, I love my B-CU.”

“Protect the legacy!”

You could hear the shouts from the audience. “She doesn’t care about education!” And someone else yelled, “Why privatize education?”

There was a point where she compared her work in education to the work of Mary McLeod Bethune. There was a huge “boo” from the crowd. [Mary McLeod Bethune, whose parents were former slaves, has been described as a prominent educator, political leader, and social visionary who fought for Black women and for civil rights. She founded one of the schools that merged to become Bethune-Cookman University.—Revolution]

What DeVos did was everything I thought. It was more monologue, not dialogue. Mary McLeod Bethune’s last will and testament to the school talked about the struggle against social injustices, racial injustice, things happening in today’s society.

The Trump administration over the last 100 days—people are not stupid; the students are not stupid, they’re very smart, they’re intelligent. They know the things she’s done, what this administration has done. And they felt it was just a tone-deaf monologue. She was referencing things she was not doing. But graduation is not the place for that. It’s not time or place for that... She should go on a tour, not tell us what she was going to do. She should have listened to the students, and the administration.

Revolution: How did you first find out she was invited; and what did you do?

How did we first find out? There was a rumor. I said this can’t be true. Other sources confirmed it. Once it was leaked to the press, the first thing I did was write a petition. [The petition went up on the internet and eventually had more than 50,000 signatures.—Revolution] On Monday, a week before graduation, the administration put out a press release confirming she would be speaking. I started the petition, but at this point I knew we had to do more than a petition. So I started reaching out to organizations; to classmates. We had to have a movement. But I never thought it would reach this level.

I went to Daytona and onto the campus after talking to two other alumni who were already there on the ground. Local and state democrats got involved. The state NAACP chapter was hands on, working to get out the story. The Florida Teachers Union got involved, and they got us more resources, both state and local media. [There was also a provocative hashtag: #BackstoBetsy.—Revolution]

No B-CU student organizations were involved. They were afraid; they didn’t want to get expelled. There were verbal threats. So there were no student organizations, no Greek organizations. But the members of the organizations and other students, including the graduating seniors, took it up.

Revolution: What did people think of the University administration’s decision to invite her?

It was absolutely ridiculous. It shows how disconnected from students they are. When the university president came out of that meeting with President Trump it just looked like a photo op. [At the end of February Trump met with the heads of most of the HBCUs.—Revolution] It was a slap in the face of Black people, of our history, of the students. On this day, graduation day, the day that you’ll remember for the rest of your life—what were they thinking?

Revolution: How do you see the Trump administration?

She is part of everything the Trump administration has shown since coming into office. They believe in charter schools and private schools. I’m a product of the public school system. Look at what the charter schools have done to public education—the privatization of public education. The charter schools are taking money out of public schools. These charters make money for three or four years, and then they close. What it means is that somewhere public schools are not being funded. Inviting her to the graduation was insulting. DeVos has shown she is disconnected from the experience and everyday reality of the HBCUs.

With the Trump administration it’s been like every week, before and after the election, he’s disrespected one group after another. I was at the Women’s March, the Science March. I went to the Women’s March in Key West with about 700-800 others. There have been protests with African Americans, immigrants, women. The actions they do, how they go about this; it is unprecedented. There have never been protests like this. Every week. And this has everything to do with the current administration.



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