Ari Saati & Whitney Bashaw, Managing Editor & Editor-in-Chief
On Tuesday October 18, students filled the Hunt Union Waterfront for the weekly Student Association (SA) meeting. There, they voiced their concerns about under-representation for students of color. Those at the meeting were prompted in part by a showing of the Blacklist documentary on its 19th anniversary. At the October 16 screening, a multitude of students had come forward with testimonies of racial profiling by police on and off-campus. This inspired the students to express their concerns to their representative body: the Student Association. “The courage it takes for students to speak to injustice is great,” said Dan Pneuman, a student manager at the Center for Multicultural Experience and representative of the Committee for Social Justice (CSJ).
Pneuman alongside other representatives from the CSJ, Orlando Williams, Patrice Bailey, Emily Hooper, Banjia Batista and Djinou Jean-Noel, presented the Senate with two major grievances as well as actions to be implemented in order to improve the social climate for students of color, and by extension all students, in Oneonta.
“There is a lot of frustration and anger and people are scared. We need to avoid a tragedy. We need to avoid people being afraid to walk down Main Street or walking to their dorms. This is an issue that covers a lot of different people,” said Africano-Latino studies professor Caridad Souza, one of several professors who attended.
The first grievance addressed was the students’ fear of police misconduct and the possibility of having nowhere to turn. “A mounting sense of disconnection among off campus students, given the crisis of safety, means they cannot find safety off campus nor are they safe on campus. The Committee for Social Justice calls for an investigation of local law enforcement’s conduct. We demand a review of how their actions affect students’ well-being in general and that of students of color in particular,” stated the CSJ proposal which was read before the student Senate.
Students in attendance echoed the insecurities expressed. The CSJ proposal outlined a plan of action which would create “a Student Taskforce on Law Enforcement with people who understand and experience these injustices to represent and protect students against UPD, OPD, the Sheriff’s Office, and the State Police,” as well as “a Students’ Rights Forum that promotes dialogue on student rights and responsibilities on and off campus.” The plan would also mandate that a legal advocate selected by the CSJ and at least one committee member be present at the forum.
The second grievance addressed was the fear of inadequate representation for student minorities. “Students feel that the current climate at SUNY College at Oneonta reflects racial inequality…the avenues provided by the institution or the city fail to redress experiences of racial discrimination, hostility, and contempt…Instead of seeking student perspectives about these problems, they are overlooked.” To remedy this, the CSJ suggested the SA create a Committee on Diversity, Inclusion & Equity as well as work with the student body to develop a Bill of Student Rights for both on and off-campus students.
The ire expressed during the meeting was directed not only at the city and campus police, but also at the SA and SUNY Oneonta administration. “The Student Association has failed to take a proactive advocacy stance on protecting colored students,” said one student in attendance. Another student, Senior Jana Hampton, said, “I don’t want to leave letting an issue like this escalate–we need to educate younger leaders.”
Zachary Silver, SA Director of Communications and Public Relations, agreed on the necessity that the issue doesn’t stop here. “We’re only students, which is why we will be involving professors so they can carry on what we start. We need continuation and fluidity so we’re not reinventing the wheel every year,” he said.
The rest of the executive board and senators were responsive but not without reservations. “This needs to be a two-way street,” said Senator Kevin Nelson.
Ultimately, Silver suggested the drafting of a bill that would begin to address the grievances brought forth. While nothing concrete was voted on, the evening served as an open forum for those who felt they had not yet been represented. “It opened a dialogue that needed to be opened on campus,” stated SA President Evan Englander. “We will be implementing some sort of plan like [the CSJ has] outlined…we want to help as much as we can but we are not miracle workers. So we ask for time and patience from the campus community as we address these issues.”
Pneuman said of the evening, “Tonight we stated our case at the SA and they have committed to being proactive and addressing all of our issues. The Committee will judge their commitment by its follow through.”