Just as the campus community was leaving its offices and classrooms to go out into the midday rain, a group of community members calling itself the Purdue Social Justice Coalition was preparing to interrupt those midday activities.
Emerging from the Purdue Union, several group members walked to nearby State Street and splayed themselves across the busy thoroughfare, forcing campus police to divert traffic.
Others held signs with slogans like “respect existence or expect resistance” and “black lives matter.” Still others began to chant "Purdue can't breathe" as the group, a few dozen strong, started to wend its way through campus.
That chant is a direct reference to a cell phone video of a man in an altercation with New York police. In the video, as officers restrain him, Eric Garner is heard to repeatedly say “I can’t breathe.” He died shortly after being arrested, but a grand jury in Staten Island last week declined to indict the police officer involved. That set off a second round of protests similar to those that took place after a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury declined to pursue charges against the police officer who shot and killed a black teenager, Michael Brown.
By the time the group reached the Purdue administration building, the rain had picked up and the throng was thinned by the weather, but a couple dozen protesters marched to the president’s office on the second floor, where University Vice President for Public Affairs Julie Griffith heard their concerns.
“Are we perfect? No. Do we try to get better? Yes," Griffith told the group. "We’ll continue to try to do that. It’s important to do that in all of our lives. Again, these are new to me, they are new to the president. We acknowledge them. We’ll work on them.”
That answer, though, didn’t seem to please some of the protestors, some of whom became more vociferous in their arguments and began to raise their voices.
“Racism is a big concern for us in our community here," says Jubin Rahatzad, a Ph.D. student in Curriculum Studies. "And the reason we feel this way is that institutional waffling or silence is complicit in supporting racism. Many of us feel – I feel the same way – we’re very passionate. We’ve had enough.”
Ryesha Jackson, who’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in health and kinesiology, chided the administration for what she sees as a lack of oversight.
“The fact that you don’t know if there’s an issue in Lafayette, and you don’t know if there’s an issue on campus, until today – until we made it an issue – that makes that very, incredibly unsafe for us,” she says.
But then Purdue Vice Provost for Diversity Christine Taylor stepped out of the crowd that had assembled inside and outside of the president’s office.
“In my role, I don’t want you to think that we are numb to it – I personally can’t be numb to it – I have nephews, I have brothers, I have great-nephews and I have all of you," Taylor said. "We’re not numb to this issue and are beginning to work on this. I applaud you for getting involved in the conversation, because we began this at the very beginning of the semester because, not knowing how it was going to go, but recognizing it was a justice issue that wasn’t just about [Michael Brown], but it was a justice issue about everybody in the United States.”
As the conversation progressed, the protestors began to give ever more detailed examples of the racism they feel isn’t addressed. The group’s leader, Anthony Ramos, says it’s not uncommon to have epithets – or worse -- flung from passing vehicles.
“It is known that you have to prep your friends to get used to being screamed at from cars, to get used to get thrown at you. I had a banana thrown at me once," Ramos says. "I don’t know how many times I’ve been cursed at. That’s just from the car; that’s what they do when they’re driving by in the car.”
“Those situations, whether they be in West Lafayette or anywhere in this country, are definitely intolerable,” West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis says. He says the city convenes a Human Relations Commission to deal with issues of discrimination of any sort. But he says it’s not a group that fields many complaints.
“To be completely honest, we really haven’t had that high volume of complaints. We’ve had in my tenure here, and I’m about ready to start my eighth year, we’ve only had about a handful of complaints.”
At more than one moment during Monday’s conversation in the president’s office, it felt like the simmering feelings might boil over. But Vice Provost Taylor worked to align herself with the protestors – themselves a multi-racial mixture of members of the community – and to show them she wasn’t immune to the same sorts of behaviors.
“I’m a member of this community as well. I have felt those things. Let’s don’t get it twisted," Taylor said. "Just because I work in Hovde [Hall], that means nothing. Because in Lafayette and West Lafayette, I’m black.”
Purdue President Mitch Daniels was on campus, but not in his office when the protestors arrived. Griffith and Taylor did promise to bring the marchers’ complaints to him.