Photo by Kelly Baker
“A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?”
Upon hearing this quote, without knowing its source, one might think that it was uttered at some point over the last week, given the fact that there have been numerous protests and riots taking place in each of the 50 United States.
This quote, however, was not spoken at the beginning of June 2020; it was spoken by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in September of 1966 while addressing the abhorrent and disturbing racism that was tearing the United States apart from the inside. This statement is still frighteningly relevant almost 54 years later.
On May 25, 2020, the Minneapolis Police were recorded arresting a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd who was accused by a local deli employee of paying with a counterfeit bill. Though Floyd was completely compliant and entirely nonviolent, the officer who arrested him proceeded to throw him to the ground and kneel on his neck for a total of eight minutes and 46 seconds, ignoring his pleas for mercy, until he was dead.
In case it needs to be spelled out, this is murder. It is murder at the hands of four people whose job it is to protect citizens.
In response, Americans across the country have taken to the streets in order to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and protest the insensate and racist killings of Black Americans at the hands of the police.
The overwhelming response from everyday citizens in every single state across the country should be enough to open even the most willfully ignorant eyes to what has been going on for decades and create some sort of change.
And yet, we are seeing the government and police respond to protests against brutality with even more brutality. As a matter of fact, in places as close to West Chester as Philadelphia, we have seen examples of violence and tactics being used that are profoundly fascist and anti-black.
Some have been quick to defend officers and condemn protests by labeling them all as violent rioters and looters. This is not even close to the truth; but at this point, protesters owe no one any explanation or complacency.
People have been peaceful. They’ve been gentle and civil and patient and calm, and still, no one listens. Colin Kaepernick took a silent knee, potentially the calmest form of activism, and some Americans still complained. So, for obvious reasons, people feel compelled to no longer stay seated.
The administration here at West Chester University has stated that they fully support the message of the Black Lives Matter protests taking place in Philadelphia and around the country. In a statement emailed to the WCU community on Friday, May 29, President Christopher Fiorentino encouraged students, faculty, alumni, staff, and friends to “build bridges of cultural competence, empathy, and understanding in all corners of our communities.”
Fiorentino also reflected on the recent catalysts for the protests and said, “Our thoughts today are with the victims and families of all those affected by such horrific acts of hate, racism, and intolerance” as the death of George Floyd.
This is why we were stunned to learn, on Wednesday, June 3, that the Pennsylvania National Guard was to be housed on the university’s campus.
In an email sent on behalf of Dr. John Villella, Vice President for University Affairs, at 7:32 p.m. that day, the WCU community was informed that the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency contacted PASSHE “requesting temporary housing for National Guard troops at one of the State System’s public campuses near Philadelphia” (it is worth noting that the email “notification” was sent after most of the university had already found out that the National Guard was present on campus). According to Villella’s statement, PASSHE contacted WCU, and the University complied with the request, planning to house the National Guard troops for approximately seven days (per an email sent by President Fiorentino late Thursday evening, the National Guard have since departed the University).
The response from the WCU community was a swift deluge of concentrated fury. Petitions were started online. Comments were posted on WCU’s Instagram and Facebook posts. The backlash prompted a statement from Fiorentino, also sent via email, that insisted that the university was “informed of the plan to house” the National Guard on campus, and that “as a state agency that serves the directives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the university was not in a position to refuse.”
Interviewed by us, Fiorentino reiterated this point, saying that the University is “owned by the state” and that “the Governor has the power vested in his position to make a determination like that.”
Pennsylvania law seems to support this claim: in Pennsylvania’s Constitution, within Title 35, Chapter 73, it is stated that the emergency powers of the Governor include the ability to “commandeer or utilize any private, public or quasi-public property if necessary to cope with the disaster emergency.”
Was a declaration of emergency necessary? West Chester’s campus was commandeered to house National Guard troops on their way to Philadelphia to reinforce the police, but several instances of gratuitous police violence against peaceful protesters in the city suggested the protesters had more need for protection from the police than anyone or anything else had need for protection from them.
Resistance to the National Guard’s presence on campus could be found elsewhere: while West Chester University’s administration may have been hesitant to refuse the government’s request to house National Guard troops, other members of the West Chester community were less reluctant.
Beginning on the morning of June 3, both students and faculty in the West Chester area began to notice the presence of National Guard vehicles and personnel in various places around the university, including South Campus and the Recreation Center.
From that point on, there was an immediate instinct for most that something had to be done. Aiding and abetting a historically violent and racist institution does not align with the values WCU claims to hold, nor is it in sync with the beliefs of the faculty and student body.
One particular graduate student, Amber Howard, currently in the final year of her Master of Social Work program via the West Chester University Philadelphia Campus, spoke out the very second that she received the email informing the WCU community of the military presence that was already in place.
While sitting in an online class with Dr. Casey Bohrman, Howard read the email from Dr. Zebulun Davenport on behalf of Dr. Villella, stating not only that the National Guard would be housed on our main campus for approximately seven days, but that they were already there. Immediately, she recalls stating to her professor and classmates, “We need to do something about this,” many of whom completely supported joining Howard in her efforts to make their voices heard.
The faculty and student movement expanded rapidly from that point forward, with people from several groups and organizations in the West Chester University community organizing themselves in various threads online in order to share information and plan what actions they would take next.
Benjamin Keubrich, head of the Journalism department at West Chester University, used his knowledge of the situation to create an online petition that night. After creating a draft of the petition, the text was then added to by faculty and graduate students, such as Howard, who knew that the National Guard had been called in to aid an institution that perpetuates violence against minoritized communities, a sentiment which she wanted explicitly stated within the petition.
Once published, the petition was backed and shared by countless members of the community and ultimately grossed an incredible 3,000 signatures by the very next morning, with over 5,000 signatures added overall.
By that next evening, a physical protest on South Campus was being carried out by those same faculty organizers as well as the Party for Socialism and Liberation, in addition to other plans of action including flooding the phone lines of President Fiorentino, PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein, and Governor Tom Wolf, which would include the Student Government Association.
However, none of those following plans were necessary. During that protest on Thursday evening, a West Chester Police Department officer approached several faculty members and explained that the National Guard was going to be leaving that night at 11:00 p.m. This signified to everyone who had been working so diligently and tirelessly for roughly the previous 24 hours that their efforts had been recognized and that they had succeeded in making their voices heard.
“Although I do not believe that there was ever a direct order for the National Guard to be housed specifically on West Chester’s campus, nor do I believe that there wasn’t a choice in the matter, I am grateful that the university’s administration heard the concerns of the West Chester community and responded appropriately by having the National Guard leave campus,” Howard stated. “While, as far as I’m aware, they’re still around in the city, I’m grateful that West Chester did not have a hand in aiding them in their terrorization of Black folks in Philadelphia and accomplices in the struggle for racial and social equity and justice in the city any longer than they needed to.”
In addition to making sure that our school had no part in serving an institution sent out to escalate violence against the Black community simply exercising their rights, other students have made sure that the actual Black Lives Matter movement was present at West Chester University.
Nyara Sparks, a 4th-year criminal justice major at West Chester, used her role as a student to create and organize a Black Lives Matter protest for our campus, specifically.
Originally scheduled for Friday, June 5, then rescheduled for Saturday, June 6 due to rain, the event was advertised as a “peaceful semi-silent protest,” which “students, staff, alumni and friends,” were encouraged to attend. Taking place on Church Street, just across from the Public Safety building, countless members of the university community gathered to take a knee and show up and demonstrate that we will not let the conversation of racial injustice and violence be silenced at our school.
So where does all this leave us? In our opinion, the institutions that govern our lives are more obviously broken than ever before.
It’s true that, legally, West Chester University’s administration had no recourse to refuse housing National Guard troops. But in the success of the faculty and student resistance is revealed a weakness of the law: activism. Dr. Fiorentino had the opportunity to throw the full weight of his position behind that activism before National Guard troops were ever housed on our campus. He did not.
At the state level, Governor Tom Wolf’s deployment of the National Guard explicitly to reinforce Philadelphia law enforcement constitutes a truly fascistic contempt for the human and Constitutional rights of protesters and is symptomatic of the larger institutional issue of the powerful replying to justified unrest with violence, rather than attentiveness.
But while we experience resistance to morality here at West Chester University, in our state government and across the country, there is still hope. The shining lights of Nyara Sparks, Amber Howard, Ben Kuebrich, and every single other member of West Chester’s community that refused to sit by and allow institutional violence to continue unchecked show us that we have the opportunity to transcend the institutions that are either apathetic or wholly antagonistic toward necessary progress. We don’t need help from these institutions, and should stop looking for it; we can and should circumvent them completely, or even challenge them directly, in our pursuit of justice.
Black lives matter, and when we protest to ensure that notion becomes action and are met with brutal police violence and institutional indifference, remember what Malcolm X said: “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”
The office of PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein refused to provide a comment. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Ali Kochik is a third-year English writings major with minors in journalism and women’s and gender studies.
Kyle Gombosi is a fourth-year music: elective studies major with a minor in journalism.
One thought on “#BlackLivesMatter: West Chester University, the National Guard, and Institutional Power in the Face of a Movement”
Jesus this hurt my head to read. We weren’t there to oppress you, a lot of those signatures were probably from us cause we didn’t wanna be there anymore then you wanted us to be there. I was literally laying in bed with my Fiancé at 10pm June 1st and then I got a call saying I had to be ready to go to Philadelphia that next morning. Also that protest was a waste of everyone’s time because we weren’t literally just about to leave when we found out about it like we were in our vehicles about to leave, but we actually had to stay longer because of that protest. Also I want you to keep that same energy towards us next time there’s a natural disaster and y’all need our help.