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Posted under: News

#MizzouHungerStrike is what happens when universities disregard black lives

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This past Monday morning was the start of a hunger strike for Jonathan Butler, an activist and graduate student at the University of Missouri. But it was not the beginning of his protests against administration. Butler, also a member of the MU Faculty Council's race relations committee, sent a letter to the UM System Board of Curators at 8:29 a.m. on Monday, which he later tweeted out to the public. Within the letter, the activist vows to quit consuming food (or anything except for water) despite its impending detriment to his health, until the University President Tim Wolfe is removed from his position or until "my internal organs fail and my life is lost." So what sparks this level of protest, where a student is willing to sacrifice his life? Butler states in the letter above:
"...students are not able to achieve their full academic potential because of the inequalities and obstacles they face. In each of these scenarios, Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of Mizzou in a positive direction but in each scenario he failed to do so."
Many incidents are outlined in his letter, including black students being called racial slurs on campus (including the student-body president and the Legion of Black Collegians Royalty Court members during homecoming), the university cancelling Planned Parenthood contracts, graduate student health insurance subsidies being removed earlier this semester, and even an incident last week that involved a swastika drawn with human feces found in a residence hall on campus. But this isn't Butler's first protest by any means. Just last month he and the others involved in the student group Concerned Student 1950 (1950 was the year MU admitted its first black student) protested during the annual homecoming parade by standing in front of President Tim Wolfe's car, chanting, sharing history about the university's treatment of black people and making speeches to the crowd. Although there were some supporters in the parade crowd, other onlookers instead shouted the University's "MIZ-ZOU" chant to drown out the protest group. Concerned Student 1950 released a list of demands and later met with Tim Wolfe to discuss them, but the group says he didn't agree with any terms. In a statement they released after the meeting they said:
“Wolfe verbally acknowledged that he cared for Black students at the University of Missouri, however he also reported he was ‘not completely’ aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus, not understanding these systems of oppression therefore renders him incapable of effectively performing his core duties.”
Students on campus have also called out the University Chancellor because he, too, has a say in how campus relations are handled, but Butler has acknowledged that the chancellor is "more willing to understand how systems of oppression, how racism and all these things work." He doesn't see that same willingness to learn from Wolfe. On Monday evening, Tim Wolfe released the following statement by email, essentially defending himself and saying he hopes that Butler will protest in a different manner:
“It is extremely concerning when any of our students puts their health and safety in harm’s way. I sincerely hope that Mr. Butler will consider a different method of advocating for this cause. I respect his right to protest and admire the courage it takes to speak up.
“I believe that the best course of action is an ongoing dialogue about the racial climate on our four UM System campuses. Immediately after my initial meeting with the ConcernedStudent1950 group on October 26th, I invited Jonathan to meet again so we can build a deeper relationship and open a frank conversation about the group’s frustrations and experiences. I remain hopeful that they will accept my invitation.
“This meeting with the ConcernedStudent1950 group is one example of our engagement at the UM System level on this complex, societal issue. I have met with our chancellors, campus diversity officers, students and faculty about the scope of the problem, so that collectively we may address these issues that are pervasive and systemic in our society. We must always continue our efforts to affect change at our UM System campuses.”
Butler plans to continue going to class, work and even hosting study halls focusing on systems of oppression (racism, sexism, etc.) this week during his hunger strike. Students and faculty alike are standing in solidarity with him, as seen demonstrated in the hashtag #MizzouHungerStrike. This morning, Butler tweeted his intentions to remain committed to his hunger strike until Wolfe is removed.

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