In the wake of George Floyd’s death, College students mobilize, organize petitions

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Following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a banner declaring 'Black Lives Matter' was hung from the Crim Dell Bridge. COURTESY PHOTO / ETHAN BROWN

Amid nationwide uproar sparked by the death of George Floyd May 25, students at the College of William and Mary mobilized in person and online to protest ongoing racial discrimination in the United States’ criminal justice system, as well as to bring to the forefront the College’s role in racial injustice since its start in 1693.

Floyd, an unarmed black man, died in Minneapolis after being handcuffed and forcibly restrained by police officer Derek Chauvin, who bent his knee against Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds after handcuffing and restraining him to the ground. Despite being unresponsive and communicating to officers that he was unable to breathe, Floyd was pronounced dead approximately an hour after he was initially approached by Chauvin and three other Minneapolis police officers, who stood by while Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.

Protests decrying Floyd’s death have since intensified across the country and mirror previous protests against the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers. In addition to participating in in-person protests, many of the College’s students have urged President Katherine Rowe to vocally denounce Floyd’s murder in a formal press statement, as well as to demand that her administration endorse supplementary measures designed to ensure WMPD’s equitable treatment of black students and staff members on campus.

Salli Sanfo ’22 and Alton Coston III ’23 created a Change.org petition May 30 that sought to encourage Rowe’s administration to endorse these objectives. Within its first 24 hours, the petition had garnered more than 4,400 supporters, and the petition had reached approximately 7,400 signatories by June 2.

Sanfo said that the petition seeks to translate ongoing national dialogue about racial prejudice to a more local level at the College, which has a troubled history with racial discrimination and exclusion. Additionally, Sanfo encouraged Rowe to go beyond conciliatory platitudes in her official statement, preferring that the College administration prioritize policy development over broad messages of support.

“This press statement would be more than just a ‘Sad time. Tragic. Pls love each other,’” Sanfo said in an email. “It would call for active conversation and change not just nationally- but on the William and Mary campus also. We have asked for the administration to actively speak against this racism by calling it what it is, and to implement real policy change to support their statements.”

Shortly after Sanfo and Coston’s petition went live, Rowe issued a statement to students, faculty and staff May 31, where she commented on the roles she envisions the College playing in conversations surrounding discrimination and identity.

“African Americans in our communities are asking, in this moment, do you recognize my full humanity? We do. We will face this with you.”

“None of us can ignore the turmoil, the heartbreak, of the racial divisions in our country — a cascade of grief for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd has brought it to the fore,” Rowe said in her May 31 statement. “The racism and injustice we continue to witness bring grievous hurt to our communities. It comes to us at a moment when so many in this nation and the world are vulnerable, intensifying the loss and weariness of pandemic. We are facing again the legacy of our country’s founding, that did not recognize the full humanity of all peoples. African Americans in our communities are asking, in this moment, do you recognize my full humanity? We do. We will face this with you.”

Coston said that Rowe’s current statement is not enough to address the needs of the student body.

“I believe the fundamental thing lacking from President Rowe’s statement is direct action,” Coston said in an email. “We believe that this is a two-fold process, and we only received one half. We’re thoroughly appreciative of her support and the time she took to send out a statement, however, we believe that as students we need more than just a statement—we need structures implemented to increase relations among the student body and the William & Mary Police Department.”

Sanfo and Coston outlined three priorities for Rowe and her administration to adopt, all of which are designed to protect black students, staff and faculty at the College. First, they urge greater transparency within the WMPD by urging that all demographic statistics about all student-officer infractions become readily and publicly accessible.

“I believe that a demographic breakdown of their mandated Clery Act crime reports will not only allow people to see any trends in specific social groups that may arise, but it will initiate conversations among how we can better support social groups who may be subjected to one offense more than another,” Coston said.

Sanfo and Coston also call for enhanced student input on all strategies and tactics adopted by WMPD.

“I believe that it’s essential for students to have a direct line of communication to those who are meant to protect them,” Coston said. “This is yet another way to form a bond between the William & Mary Police Department and the students who attend the College. I believe the best way this can be achieved is by creating a program in which the William & Mary Police Department, Student Affairs, and maybe even a law organization combine to make this happen. The program or event would allow William & Mary Police Department to meet students and express any new tactics they may be implementing; in the same vein, it will allow any students to express any questions or concerns they may have.”

“I believe that a demographic breakdown of their mandated Clery Act crime reports will not only allow people to see any trends in specific social groups that may arise, but it will initiate conversations among how we can better support social groups who may be subjected to one offense more than another.”

The petition also requests the establishment of a meeting every semester between the acting Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth’s Attorney and students to discuss law and justice at the municipal level.

“I believe having the acting Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth Attorney come to campus would be something that students would appreciate,” Coston said. “Students would be able to meet an elected government official who could potentially have a say in a law or situation that could affect them. That said, having the Commonwealth Attorney will not take anything away, rather add even more opportunity for education and bond-strengthening between William & Mary students and a law force that they may encounter one day.”

Although Rowe’s statement did not specifically address these points, Coston remains optimistic about their implementation moving forward.

“These proposals are yet another way to make students feel safer and bridge any gaps or concerns that black students may hold,” Coston said. “I understand that there will be pushback and we may not get exactly what we request, however, I’m looking forward to working with the administration, different student organizations, and any other avenue that can help strengthen race relations on campus and the relationship between students and the William & Mary Police Department—and I believe that we’ve definitely created a start.”

As of June 2, Coston told The Flat Hat that he had begun to have meetings with SA, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the Office of Student Affairs and other College departments to discuss the most effective ways to implement initiatives that help build race relations within the campus community.