Is This What Change Looks Like?
For the past four months, the United States has been facing monumental protests and civil unrest. The modern-day lynching of George Floyd prompted this rebellion, but of course, this is all too familiar: Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Botham Jean…the list goes on. American police murder more individuals than any other industrialized country, and often with impunity. Therefore, it is our duty to combat these systemic issues, and champion a renewed call for justice, in every arena.
In the midst of these events, Kent State sent out periodic emails reaffirming their role as an institution committed to social justice and change, one that had to reflect on the tragedy of May 4, 1970, when facing societal problems; that it was a progressive university ready, and willing, to listen to its students. However, at no point did the university offer any concrete actions to combat these systemic issues, nor did they address the demands put forth by the Student Left Coalition now seven months ago.
Similarly, it took a disastrous town hall and two marches for President Diacon to finally give students who feel threatened and hurt by recent events, the time of day and his physical presence. Their solution of forming an anti-racism taskforce, which includes an astounding fifteen subcommittees, perfectly exemplifies the extreme bureaucracy that runs rampant within our university and society as a whole. Rather than offering immediate measures on the ground, rather than listening directly to the students’ needs and demands, they offer a task force that will only prolong this issue. These are not student-led solutions that seek to help the students in any meaningful way; instead, they are a university-sanctioned and filtered method of shutting down those bringing these issues to light. It is an effort to make it appear as though they are combatting the issues at hand, when in reality, they are doing nothing to change the structures that created them.
The demands presented by Black United Students regarding the recent incident on the Rock are fundamental to securing the provision of enhanced BIPOC student protection. These demands intersect with those of the Student Left Coalition on a number of levels, and include the following: increased security and escort services, increased staff of diverse mental health professionals, updating the student code of conduct, and the cessation of uniformed officers responding to mental health crises. To this, the university responded with ten “actions”. Five actions are related to the Rock, and only three respond directly to BUS’s demands. The final few offer nothing more than the idea of “exploration,” or BUS assisting in student recruitment, which is not related to the demands or the current issues on campus. Here, the term “exploration” means nothing more than the path of an intangible and bureaucratic solution that provides no fix beyond empty words and gestures.
While the actions around improved student security are a great first step, the root of the issue is not policing the Rock. Policing the Rock does not help students who have felt threatened by the most recent iteration of hate, nor do these measures structurally alter the well-being of students. In fact, policing the Rock inhibits the right to anonymous freedom of self-expression and only attempts to hide the obvious fact that there are individuals who feel comfortable spreading messages of hate on this campus. The implementation of these policies could also bring potential censorship of any message the university deems harmful, such as anti-Aramark or pro-BDS messages. Both of these messages, one in raising awareness about the harmfulness of being associated with a corporation like Aramark, and the other promoting the boycott of goods associated with Israeli apartheid, are at risk. Instead of trying to conceal its pitfalls, the university should implement policies that materially benefit the students. The university should institute not only measures for improved safety but also policies and practices that would ensure the highest possibility for mental well-being and quality of life.
Moreover, if Kent State is genuinely committed to fighting this system of oppression, beyond just empty words and endless committees, they should immediately review their contract with the Aramark Corporation. Aramark currently serves as Kent State’s dining service provider, making it the largest employer of student workers on campus, and has guaranteed the university a 22 million dollar capital investment. In addition to this, Aramark reaps profits through the inhumane practice of mass incarceration. They are currently involved with more than 500 prisons, 31 of which are located locally in Ohio, and have been the subject of numerous lawsuits regarding their repeated labor and human rights violations. Aramark also has more than 100 contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, meaning it directly profits from the detention, deportation, and separation of children from their families at the border. Consequently, we will not allow the university to continue to claim they are taking action when such a contradiction lies untouched in the background. As long as Kent State is partnered with an entity engaged in such barbarism, there can be no meaningful path to equality or justice.
In short, the actions taken in response to recent student demands are extremely dissatisfactory and have lacked real, meaningful, material change. Instead of operating in good-faith, the university chooses to sweep details under-the-rug when convenient. This is demonstrated in their desire to initially remove the Rock, as opposed to addressing the culture that fostered such a message, and their avoidance of the Aramark issue. It is abundantly clear that they are aware of the hypocrisy at play here and would rather wait out the clock than take substantive steps towards real change.