After standing silently among speakers in front of the East Lansing’s City Hall, marching down Abbot Road on to Michigan State University’s campus with fellow protestors, and arriving on the lawn at Cowles House – the official residence of MSU’s president – Tory Conway finally spoke up.
Conway told the audience how he’d received his undergraduate degree from MSU and wanted to return for his MBA, but that while he worked to get financial aid and other items sorted out, MSU sat on his application.
He ended up going to Davenport University in Lansing, when he got a LinkedIn message from MSU full of information about their MBA program, trying to recruit him after it had failed to open the door. As Conway’s voice steadily rose, he told how he paid his tuition, worked on-campus jobs as a student, even with the MSU Police Department.
He’s now in six figures of debt, left feeling victimized by a place he’d given so much.
“Racism will not live on this campus,” Conway declared, reaching the crescendo of his speech. The audience applauded for the first time all day.
That was the main message at “The March Against Fear” on Wednesday in a protest that literally connected East Lansing and MSU: Michigan State University needs to do its share of work regarding local racism, reforming the campus police department, and playing a part in the local community at large.
Following a string of events on and off campus — notably the Wharton Center giftshop display of famous black figures hung by their necks, a toilet-paper noose taped to an African-American student’s door, and what the State News described as a campus “research survey containing racist, xenophobic and homophobic language” – the organizers decided it was time to put pressure on the university to play an active role.
“I pay my taxes here, I pay my tuition,” said graduate student Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn, who took the original photo of the Wharton Center display circulated on social media. “I should feel safe.”
Chuck Grigsby, an East Lansing resident and a member of the City’s Human Relations Commission, helped organize Wednesday’s march.
He recalled several meetings with City Manager George Lahanas and now-Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez to discuss problems with MSU in relation to the city about his desire to hold MSU’s feet to the fire. Mostly, Grigsby said, there needs to be more communication between the two entities.
If any council member or the Mayor wants to call up the MSU president and have a conversation, Grigsby said, they should be able to do that. And right now, it’s not necessarily the case.
Grigsby said he was thrilled to see a crowd of predominantly young people at the march on Wednesday.
In total, a crowd of about 50 people joined, almost all wearing masks. Organizers noted the recent COVID-19 outbreak tied to Harper’s likely kept attendance down.
Grigsby addressed the crowd twice, once at the beginning and again at the end, and emphatically reminded those in attendance that protesting and being engaged was a good step, but that there needs to be real change.
His suggestions included having social workers as a potential form of “police” response instead of armed officers, on campus and off; better diversion programming; and repairing the MSU complaint system regarding bias and sexual assault so as to not revictimized people and actually get results.
Grigsby also told marchers to demand more of their institutions, even of him specifically. He told them to call the Human Relations Commission and demand what they want. People in power don’t want the truth, he said.
“Bring the truth to them,” Grigsby urged those present.
Along with Grigsby and Conway, Davis-Dunn, who is studying to become a social worker, spoke to the experiences she had on campus, saying that her educational experience had been devalued. Before she walked into Wharton Center and saw that display, she had just been speaking to a professor about the microaggressions and other little slights she deals with.
Davis-Dunn compared the isolation during the COVID-19 lockdown to the lonesome nature of being a Black student on campus. But, she reminded, that was three months for some versus entire lives for others.
“I shouldn’t have to fight for a voice in my classroom,” Davis-Dunn said, addressing the crowd. “I shouldn’t have to fight for representation in my studies. I am in the school of social work and we are training people to go out and heal and to solve these issues, these ills of society. But we don’t talk about what those are.”
Marchers also came to call for police demilitarization.
Edmund Rushton, one of the organizers, spoke about how during protests on May 31, MSU police were on scene with armored vehicles, including one outfitted with a round top hatch, and wore tactical gear while armed with large rifles. Protestors, he said, were unarmed.
On Wednesday, in front of MSU President Sam Stanley’s residence, Rushton called for demilitarization of the MSU police department as soon as possible, saying “we hope you’ve got a receipt for these tanks.”
He continued, saying that MSU should take notice now because while this was a “knock on their door,” Rushton said. With thousands of students back in the fall, they plan to keep going.
“Momentum is a powerful thing,” Grigsby told the crowd.
East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission is set to meet on July 1. It will be the first time the group convenes since the shutdown started in March, and the draft agenda is packed with items related to ongoing discussions in East Lansing about reform of policing.