Student Assembly’s weekly meeting in Blow Hall was packed with students Tuesday, Feb. 12. Every chair and occupiable space of floor was used to fit students and community members that came to discuss the The Higher Standard Resolution, which requests that the College of William and Mary’s Board of Visitors condemn Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam because of his racist actions involving blackface. The resolution also urges the BOV to revoke Northam’s honorary degree, which was awarded to him at 2018’s Charter Day celebration.
In addition, the resolution asks for the firing of Virginia state senator and adjunct professor at the College Thomas Norment. The Resolution also suggests the creation of an ad hoc committee on race relations. While the resolution explicitly addresses Northam’s and Norment’s behavior, it does not comment on the use of blackface worn by Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring, nor does it discuss the sexual assault allegations made against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
Thirteen students who are not in SA shared their thoughts on the resolution during public comment, and many more showed up to stand in support of the resolution.
Secretary of Student Life Samyuktha Mahadevan ’19 was the first to speak. She highlighted that as a state university, the College has intrinsic ties to the governor, who selects the members on the BOV, and stated that she not only supported the resignation of Northam, but also the resignation of Fairfax and Herring.
“I don’t think anyone in here should be subject to decisions being made by people we do not approve of,” Mahadevan said. “We like to say that Virginia has a ‘complicated’ history with race, when we really mean that it has a bad history with race.”
Jarice Mason II ’20 emphasized the idea that the decision on how to vote on the resolution was primarily a question of morality.“Now you’re in a situation where you have a fear of losing the respect of those who elected you,” Mason said. “… Your biggest worry should be losing respect in yourselves … it’s kind of your job as a student assembly to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.”
Loni Wright ’21 shared a personal story about how the Ku Klux Klan was trying to recruit members by passing out pamphlets in her town just this past summer. She urged SA not to view Gov. Northam’s history of blackface as just an isolated, decades-old incident.
“This is still happening right now…the fact that we allow those ‘innocent’ instances of racism or blackface allows those more vicious components,” Wright said.
Will Sanbrook ’21 drew attention to Norment’s past racist behavior, who he called a “real threat” to the College community.
“He still works at this school, he gets paid by this school, he gets paid with our tuition dollars,” Sanbrook said. “The action that Student Assembly takes today is going to determine how we view you as a body. We’re not electing you to throw parties on the Sunken Garden or to make banners in the hallway … this is a real issue, and this is something we can actually change, and you will have lost the respect of most of this campus if you do not change the way that William and Mary has been addressing this issue.”
Class of 2021 President David DeMarco ’21 took an informal poll of the room to see who would support Gov. Northam’s resignation — and everyone in the room favored his resignation.
Sen. Anthony Joseph ’21 prepared a speech for the evening and asked if he could read it before the Senate voted on the Resolution. He first addressed his fellow colleagues about their committee meetings on Sunday regarding the resolution.
“For my colleagues who were at committees on Sunday, I will have to ask you to forgive my frustration towards the end of it or the latter half of the committees because I was having difficulty understanding the arguments being made and the reservations that were with this resolution,” Joseph said. “I was getting incredibly frustrated, but it wasn’t at individuals or a specific person but at a general vibe I felt during the committee meetings and I have felt before and it was complacency.”
Joseph went on to discuss why he felt the resolution was necessary as well as his thoughts on Northam and the governor’s use of blackface.
“Northam’s resignation in the resolution may seem to some of you detrimental to the effectiveness of the resolution and perhaps unnecessary, but I assure you this cannot be further from the truth,” Joseph said. “It is a test against the system that has continued to put down people who look like me and has stood the test of time so far in the history of this country … As I said earlier and as people have mentioned, Northam’s unwillingness to resign and bend of the truth preserves the powers of that system and is a clear indication that regardless of what his previous actions were and maybe some of his intentions were he does not truly understand what exactly he is doing.”
Joseph continued by explaining the effect such protections of the system can have on the black population.
“Those pictures and actions contribute to the stereotypes and derogatory assumptions that have imprisoned and killed African-Americans for centuries and for some of us who had slight sympathy for [Northam] and for what his life could be now, do you know whose life was over before Northam’s?” Joseph said. “Trayvon Martin’s. Do you know whose life was over before Northam’s? Michael Brown’s. Do you know whose life was over before Northam’s? The five black and Latino men who were convicted of an alleged rape of a woman in Manhattan who were later exonerated after someone confessed to the crime a decade later. These were the men that the now President of the United States wrote about and demanded their death penalty. Do you know whose life was over before Northam’s? Kalief Browder, who was accused of stealing a backpack at 16 years old and was held at Riker’s Island for three years without trial and two of them in solitary confinement, and due to the extreme mental torture and duress that he experienced in prison, he committed suicide once he was released because the pain was too much to bear. And do you know whose life is at risk of being ended at any time because of these stereotypes, false accusations, and racial profiling? Mine, hers, ours of color, and for some of you who are in the audience if you tanned a little bit or dressed a lit bit differently, probably you too. Student Assembly, my colleagues, what are we going to do?”
Following Joseph’s speech, the Higher Standard Resolution passed unanimously.
At the end of the meeting, once many of the visiting members of the public had left, some of the senators commented on what they believed was a difference between the ways that the resolution was discussed at their committee meetings on Sunday and then at the public Senate meeting on Tuesday.
Class of 2020 President Kelsey Vita ’20 said, “Obviously we’re happy it passed … but I think the conversations that happened in committees were definitely different than the conversations we’re willing to have in front of students, and I think that’s concerning because students deserve honesty from us … I think the conversation we would’ve had tonight would have been very different if no one showed up.”
Joseph agreed. “You were elected to say your opinion, and share your opinions, and Lord knows I have. I had to say stuff that put me in a very vulnerable position.”
Sen. Helen Tariku ’21 also noted the importance of senators speaking their minds.
“If you’re really concerned about saying the unpopular opinion and getting reelected, then you’re not here for the right reasons,” she said.
Vice President Samir Tawalare ’19 ended the meeting by urging senators to review the minutes in order to revisit the compelling points made by members of the student body.
Also at this week’s meeting:
- The Out of the Darkness Walk 2019 Act, which provides $495 from the SA Reserves for the annual suicide prevention walk, passed unanimously.
- SA granted $4,000 from its Activity and Event Funding budget to the Muslim Student Association for its annual Fast-a-Thon. The event will feature a dinner and a speech by former NBA player and activist Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. All proceeds will go to charity.
- SA President Brendan Boylan ’19 shared several important updates from his meetings with the BOV.
- The College now offers a new Data Science major.
- The College plans to implement a new Sophomore Year Experience, which will focus on nurturing and advising second-year students to help prevent the “sophomore slump.”
- Beginning with the Class of 2023, the College will now have a two-year on-campus residency requirement for all students.