Students and administrators at Ohio University are expressing concern about growing racial tensions on campus after a Black Lives Matter post on the school’s "graffiti wall" was defaced last Wednesday (December 9).
The original graffiti was posted on December 4 by the school’s Black Student Union to affirm Black students' presence and solidarity on campus. The decision to create the post was made after a bulletin board highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement was destroyed in a residence hall before students left for Thanksgiving break.
"In response to a #BlackLivesMatter bulletin board being torn down in a residence hall on November 21, the Black Student Union (BSU) was called to action," read a press release issued by the Black Student Union President Morgan Peterson. "BSU decided to come together on December 4 and paint one of the graffiti walls on campus with the black power fist and with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter."
Five days later, the group learned that their post had been defaced with the phrases, “Wake up you neo-progressive f---s," "We’re more alike than we are different," "Everyone goes through their own s---," "Life is hard," "It transcends race and gender," "Being a person is hard" and "Seriously f--- you." The word "Black" in Black Lives Matter was also crossed out and replaced with the word "All."
The school’s graffiti walls are designated by the university as a free space for students to express themselves. The OU Police Department stated that the activity “does not meet the elements of a crime."
“The graffiti wall operates as an unregulated public forum,” said OU spokesperson Dan Pittman in an official statement. "Unless a display violates the law — for example, if a message were to mention a specific threat of physical harm — content is not regulated.”
University President Dr. Roderick McDavis stated his concerns about the incident in an email to students Wednesday, saying, "While this wall is a place for free speech and expression, this public denouncement of the Black Lives Matter is another example of the intensity with which our community is grappling with racism and the social movements of our time — movements that are intended to educate and not divide us."
The struggle for equality at OU echoes the same concerns of student protests on campuses across the nation, including last month's protests at the University of Missouri which led to the resignation of President Tim Wolfe. Student activists have used the power of social media and peaceful protest to demand that administrators take initiative to make sure that campuses are safe spaces for all minority students.
According to fall semester 2014 statistics, 4.8 percent of OU students identified as “Black or African-American,” compared with 81.2 percent who identified as “white.”
"I have seen several incidents and acts of racism where students hide anonymously behind the walls of social media," said OU student Daniel Stitt. "I've seen the ignorance and the confusion that non-Blacks have towards issues that concern us. What happened to our #BlackLivesMatter message is just a manifestation of the tensions that sit below the surface of our otherwise beautiful college."
This is not the first example of passive-aggressive racism that occurred on a major college campus this year. University of Missouri students had a swastika painted in feces on a residence hall wall, which brought national attention to past incidents including the student body president being called racist and homophobic slurs and cotton balls being littered in front of the Black Culture Center.
Stitt compared the incident to Missouri's infamous cotton ball incident, calling it "a seemingly harmless prank" that "has sparked a sense of unwelcomeness on the college campus."
"The difference, however, is in the way that the administration handles these types of situations," said Stitt. "The Ohio University’s administration has been receptive to our issues over the years."
Students and administrators both appear optimistic that the OU community will learn from the graffiti wall episode. "BSU believes that this unfortunate event helped to shed light on bigger issues and racial tensions on campus," said Peterson. "In turn, we are truly grateful for the outpouring of support we have received from President Roderick McDavis, Dean of Students & Interim Vice-President of Student Affairs, Jenny Hall-Jones as well as other administration."
"Today we fight a different form of racism, one that doesn't always physically present itself," said Stitt. "It is not usually the administration that is the problem but the students that we attend school with every day. The administration at times can only do so much, that is why it’s important for students to actively engage with one another and educate one another on social tolerance."
(Photo: Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images))