WASHINGTON – Rev. Jesse Jackson headed to the Armour J. Blackburn Center at Howard University, where nearly 150 student protesters had occupied the building for three weeks and counting. The students gathered around Jackson as he recounted his role in the 1989 Howard student protests when then-Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater was appointed to the board of trustees. In the end, Atwater resigned, then Howard president James E. Cheek signed an agreement with students, and Jackson had a hand in it.
Jackson knows this isn’t the first student protest at Howard, and his role is nearly identical to the role he played in the 1989 student protests 32 years earlier. Jackson praised the protest leaders, took time to pray with them, and met with Howard president Wayne A.I. Frederick to negotiate amnesty for protesting students. In his Zoom town hall meeting with students, staff and alumni, Jackson called for Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard alumna, to join the students on campus and assured the 700 people on the call that issues students were facing were moral issues. He left the students with some encouragement: “Never surrender and keep hope alive.”
For students attending Howard, mold growing in showers, walls and air ducts, the appearance of mushrooms in dorms and rodents are the main reasons undergraduates decided to protest. Students’ concern for their health and safety and that of their classmates is the reason organizers say about 150 students took over Blackburn with their air mattresses, blankets, overnight bags and belongings sprawled on floors and along walls. Numerous tents occupy the sidewalk outside of the building where students who aren’t occupying the building sleep.
The Blackburn takeover is the third protest on Howard’s campus this year: The first two tackled the shortage of housing for upperclassmen, and the board of trustees’ removal of student, faculty and alumni-elected trustee positions. Unlike the first two protests, the Blackburn Takeover gained national attention because of social media apps TikTok, Twitter and Instagram using #BlackburnTakeover. Students posted their concerns about mold, food and other health issues. TikTok videos chronicling the student protest and dining halls have combined for nearly a million views. Protests that coincided with Howard’s biggest event of the year, homecoming, gathered more traction as the Washington community and alumni visiting campus for the festivities encouraged students and donated to their food pantry.
Besides support from Jackson, protesters have received generous support from rappers Gucci Mane, who opted out of performing for homecoming in solidarity with student protesters, Cordae, U.S. Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. On Tuesday morning, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren posted her support for students on Twitter.
Now, nearly a month in, with temperatures in the 40s with overcast skies, the tenor of the protests is very different from when students started protesting in mid-October.
Tale of two homecomings
The pageantry of Howard — the university is commonly referred to as The Mecca by students and alumni — was on full display as Howard’s Royal Court, adorned with white sashes, bright smiles and navy blue gowns, strutted across the William H. Greene Stadium football field, joining Howard’s Showtime band on Oct. 23. Howard’s social media account posted hundreds of students dancing in Burr Gymnasium and during the concert with Rae Sremmurd in Cramton Auditorium.
At the Blackburn Center, located on the university’s main campus, students weren’t made up for homecoming. Many were still wearing the same hoodies and sweatpants they had on when they started protesting the night of Oct. 12. When they wanted to freshen up, they washed up in bathroom sinks.
On the surface, it appeared students were throwing their own exclusive event, kicking back and relaxing. The microphone attached to the speaker used to make impassioned speeches that had gone viral on social media was now playing Mary J. Blige’s “My Life,” while students collected donations from alumni ranging from food, snacks, pillows and blankets.
Two freshman male students talked about their deliberate decision to live outside in tents because it was better than their living arrangement inside some dormitory rooms.
Signs with black lettering spelling “f— them kids” written across a picture of Frederick and a spinoff of the Michael Jordan crying meme were taped to trees, buildings and benches. During downtime, students gathered on the sidewalk to discuss their reasons for joining the movement. While their reasons may have differed, their sentiment was the same: Something has to be done.
Yards away from the protesters, other students enjoyed food trucks and Bison mascot-themed cornhole, disinterested in the noise and chants of “enough is enough” within earshot. When several were asked about the protests, they listed current issues facing them but finished the conversation with a shrug and the comment: “That’s just Howard.”
The stark contrast with homecoming had some alumni wondering how people could celebrate considering the issues students were facing.
“How can anyone come home if their home is damaged, destroyed and run amuck? How can anybody come home if it has mold, asbestos and different things that are uninhabitable? See, you can’t call something a homecoming if your home has been abandoned, destroyed or not in livable conditions,” said Elijah Dvine, a Howard alumnus who attended the university from 2014 to 2018, who said he experienced similar conditions during his college years. “So to say that we’re coming home, or we even appreciating homecoming, especially in today’s climate, is ridiculous, and it’s atrocious.”
A female freshman student who was not named because of fear of retaliation from the administration recalled how she put in a fix-it request to remove mold and mushrooms growing in her shower. The student said it took two weeks for maintenance to respond and their solution was simply to paint over the mold with white spray paint. Students said similar actions were representative of how the administration had responded to their issues, with no sense of urgency and ignoring problems.
“It makes me wonder how that’s been able to go on so long. I don’t understand the paradox of being known for being illustrious, known for being ‘The Mecca,’ known for being prominent and great, but not taking care of your students,” said a junior male student, who along with numerous students asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the university. “It’s like, how do you think you’re going to get away with it? How do you? We go here. We put on for Howard, why wouldn’t we challenge Howard to do the right thing?”
Student and university negotiations
Despite the breakdown in negotiations, the administration has made some progress toward the students’ goals.
In Frederick’s state of the university address on Nov. 5, which was postponed from homecoming, he addressed the student protesters.
“I don’t have any apprehension about meeting with them. The takeover at Blackburn was at the tail end of a series of smaller protests. My team engaged with the protesters during that period of time. I also don’t want to engage in a public back-and-forth with the protesters. I don’t want to create a counternarrative on social media. I would much rather sit down and have a conversation.”
In an email sent to students, faculty and alumni on Nov. 2, Howard announced two student representative positions to the committee level of the board of trustees.
In a statement on the Blackburn occupation sent by Frank Tramble, Howard’s vice president of communications and chief communications officer, to ThePowerBloc stated the university has had recent talks with protesters. At the urging of Frederick, the Live Movement has retained legal counsel to help facilitate a resolution for their expressed concerns and immunity for participating students.
“President Frederick and senior leadership have met with the student representatives from the protest multiple times since our first initial meeting on October 14,” said in a statement sent by Tramble. “On October 25, the provost and the university’s general counsel met with some student protesters and engaged in a discussion regarding their extended protest and a possible path forward.”
On the school’s official Twitter page last week, Howard administration posted that some Sodexo workers have been laid off.
“There are many unintended consequences caused by the occupation of the Blackburn Center. The cafeteria has been closed, and as a result, our campus partner Sodexo has been forced to begin laying off some employees,” Frederick said in an email. “People who work hard to serve our campus are hurting. Students have not been able to fully use their meal plans over the last three weeks and enjoy a space recently renovated for all our students. These issues should concern us all.”
A statement by a Sodexo spokesperson confirmed the layoffs of some staff members and the relocation of others.
“As a result [of student protests], we laid off some of our staff and moved others to other locations on campus, where possible,” said a Sodexo spokesperson. “Upon reopening of the center, all displaced employees will be able to return to work based on their seniority. We remain committed to providing exceptional service during these difficult times and we hope that both parties will soon come to a mutually beneficial resolution.”
With amnesty, a town hall meeting with students and administration officials, and a housing plan still left to be decided upon, students remain steadfast in continuing their occupation of Blackburn, refusing to settle on a fraction of their demands being met.
The power behind the protests is the Live Movement, named after the statement “We must live for those who have died,” which was founded in June 2020 by then-Howard sophomore Aniyah Vines in response to the police killing of George Floyd. It describes itself as a coalition of students advocating education reform and academic advancement for Black students. The movement was organized and is run by Vines, a senior political science and criminology major, and several of her senior classmates at Howard. “We’re staying. We will not move until our demands are met,” Vines said via a Zoom town hall meeting on Oct. 31. “We will not bend. We will not fold until we get what we deserve. We have the right to say no. We have the right to stay and occupy a building, which we pay for with our tuition. We have that right. Administration does not have the right to continuously use intimidation tactics against us.
“We are not leaving when one demand is met. Or when two demands or three are met. We need all four. With that being said, we will be here.”
Vines coordinates with alumni and donors to schedule days and times to drop off food to keep supporters fed. In the presence of security or school officials, students simply referred to one another as #BlackburnTakeover family or with a series of on-the-spot aliases to protect one another’s identities. The use of aliases instead of real names and their ability to sustain the encampment for three-plus weeks were evidence that they were not novices at organizing and occupying spaces.
Their current demands include a town hall meeting with Frederick and the administration, reinstatement of student, faculty and alumni-elected trustee positions on the board of trustees, revisiting current housing plans and immunity for protesters.
“What it comes down to [is] that we employ Howard. It’s like ordering something from a restaurant. You order a burger from a restaurant, and you want it well done, [but] you get a raw,” Vines said. “Do you still eat it? No, you send it back until they get it right. We’re just sending the platter back and saying get it right because we paid $40,000 for it. It would be a disservice to us as students to get less than what we deserve.”
The back-and-forth between the administration and students began less than a day into the occupation of Blackburn. An email sent Oct. 13 by Cynthia Evers, interim vice president for student affairs, threatened students with expulsion and warned them to peacefully vacate Blackburn by noon the following day. She also accused students of “distributing disinformation to encourage a public perception that the administration has not met with them.”
When organizers scheduled a Divine Nine step show for the #BlackburnTakeover students on Oct. 21, chapter leaders were sent an email by Jessica Watson, then-program assistant for the office of student life & activities, which stated:
“As individuals you are all welcome to support your student body in whatever way you see fit however, as an organization participating in unauthorized campus events does put your chapter at risk. Please be aware that the consequences of being identified participating in the protest could result in expulsion.
“The administration is actively addressing the concerns students have shared. While there have only been a small number of documented reports, we are actively seeking out any issues that may be in the dorms by going door to door to address each room. Cabinet members have personally visited our housing facilities this week to survey dorms in an attempt to address concerns. As of today, there have been 34 reports of concerns related to discoloration or suspected fungal growth across more than 5,050 beds. This represents 0.67 percent of the total on-campus beds.”
Students confirm officials have been sent to dorms to survey them and fresh air filters have been installed. A male student confirmed an official visited the building and jotted down a page of notes.
In a letter published Oct. 25, Frederick said he wanted the two-week occupation of a campus building, in protest of poor housing conditions and other issues, to end, citing additional safety risks due to protesting.
“The current occupation of the Armour J. Blackburn Center is a departure from past norms. There is a distinct difference between peaceful protest and freedom of expression and the occupation of a university building that impedes operations and access to essential services and creates health and safety risks.”
Housing problems aren’t exclusive to Howard University. Since Howard’s viral protests, other students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are also taking action. Students attending Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Spelman College and Morris Brown College, collectively known as the Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUC), stood in solidarity with Howard while also challenging their administration for immediate changes in their living conditions. AUC protesters are also using social media to highlight the issues and grievances with the hashtag #ASMTakeover.
Alivia Duncan, lead organizer for the Atlanta Student Movement Takeover, met Vines last summer in Atlanta while both were protesting against police brutality in response to police dragging two students from historically Black schools from a car. The two have kept in contact and were messaging one another, exchanging encouragement and ideas during their campus’ student protests. AUC students plan to travel to Howard in the coming days to support their efforts.
“HBCUs are a family. Like our Morehouse brother Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere,’ ” said Duncan, a senior at Clark Atlanta. “Now is the time for HBCU students to stand in solidarity with each other and demand change across the country. We are all we got. We have to have each other’s backs.”
The effectiveness of student protests at HBCUs can’t be ignored. At the end of the 2018 protest, Howard agreed to seven of the protesters’ nine demands. In Atlanta, the AUC institutions Spelman and Clark Atlanta have made headway in meeting with their school’s administration and wouldn’t have gotten this far without protesting.
“Protesting was needed. It caught [the] administration off guard. They are used to us just complaining or tweeting about our issues. They didn’t expect us to protest, sleep outside, [or] anything,” Duncan said. “Within days we had a meeting with our schools’ presidents and already got Clark Atlanta University to sign off on our demands. This shows that there is power in the voice of the students.”
Twenty-four days and counting since the beginning of the occupation, Howard students are still prepared to protest all school year if their demands aren’t met, but are hoping they could resolve their issues. Until then, it’s a waiting game.
“When there’s a lot of stuff going on, just be still. It’s crazy how being still and staying here is causing so much commotion. Staying in Blackburn is causing so much commotion not just on campus, but around the nation just by us staying still,” Vines said. “It’s very simple. It’s not a lot we have to do. We’re doing our own thing, but the foundation and most important things are to occupy the space and to stay still, until God moves in our favor.”