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Students, Community Come Together for Kent State Black Lives Matter Protest

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Students, Community Come Together for Kent State Black Lives Matter Protest

Photos by Becca Sagaris

KENT, Ohio — If you happened to be on campus on the muggy afternoon of Sept. 10, you would have seen hundreds of people of all different shapes, sizes, colors and ages gathered together on the K in front of the Student Center dressed in all black and clenching signs of all sizes with messages in support of the Black community, such as “We are in this together,” “Enough is enough  #Blacklivesmatter,” “Say their name” and more.

Those that gathered were there in support of the Black community for the first day of the Black Lives Matter peaceful protest. This protest was started to address the injustices that the Black community has faced and continues to face, specifically regarding the multiple vandalizations of the Kent State rock on Front Campus.

Juniors Tory Wenson, integrated language arts major, Gabrielle Blake, paralegal studies major, and Kamalenn Gillespie, applied communications major, were at the forefront of this protest. They organized it due to the obvious need for change on campus. Other organizations joined them in the organization of the protest, including Black United Students (BUS) and Kappa Alpha Psi, the first all-Black fraternity at Kent State.

The last defacing of the rock happened on Sept. 7 when an unknown party painted the words “Blacks have no home here” on the rock, covering up the earlier message that said, “Hate has no home here.”

“This is just a chance for us to come together as a community,” Wenson said. “This protest is for everybody because racism is not just a Black issue, it’s a world issue. We all need to accept that because if you don’t, then it can never be fully combatted. We just want this to be a chance for us to come together and have our voices be heard so we can actually make real change on campus that will better help the Black community be able to feel comfortable.”

Students, faculty and other community members arrived at the K by 2 p.m. The protest kicked off with speeches from two of the key organizers, Wenson and Cameran Cunningham, senior finance major. Wenson spoke first, welcoming all who gathered and listed the demands set forth by BUS, which have already been accepted. Cunningham, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, listed his fraternity’s demands while also noting that the racial issues on campus go deeper than just the rock. 

“This situation is not the end-all, be-all of the racial inequity on this campus,” Cunningham said. “We all saw an opportunity to actually ask for something and that’s what anyone should do in any inequitable situation […] I don’t believe there is any person or any group who should speak on where someone doesn’t belong. If that were true, we all wouldn’t be standing on the K right now. If there was an option for us to go anywhere else, we still wouldn’t. There’s an opportunity for us to stand up and speak out and make a change, and we’re going to work relentlessly and endlessly to make sure we see the change that we desire.”

While BUS and Kappa Alpha Psi each listed separate demands, Cunningham made sure to note that both lists were on behalf of the entire Black community. 

“There is no separation of who we are; there is no separation of what we want,” Cunningham said. “Everything on each demand list should be identified, talked about, planned thoroughly and, at some point, met. I’m just here to see equitable change on this campus.”

As the opening speeches concluded, Renee Ruchotzke, a member of the local NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the Kent Environmental Council and a community minister with the Unitarian Universalist, led the group in a prayer before heading toward Oscar Ritchie Hall.

“Please join me in a moment of prayer and reflection,” Ruchotzke began. “Dear creator, we are blessed to be in so many colors and shapes and sizes and origins. The beauty of our diversity is your gift; if only your people didn’t understand that. Help us to be resilient in these times of hate and division. Let us answer with peace and love. Let us join with the Kent community who offers these flowers to you all to celebrate our diversity, to answer hate with love and fear with joy. May it be so. Amen.”

As the group marched toward Oscar Ritchie Hall, you could hear their stomps and their chants of popular BLM slogans echo down the hill. Participants shouted “Black lives matter,” “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud,” “No justice, no peace” and more until they were red in the face as they thrust their posters in the air. 

The chanting continued as the group reached Oscar Ritchie Hall, tapering off once the next speakers, Blake and Finney, junior entrepreneurship major, began speaking. Blake, the director of political affairs and grievances for BUS, started by explaining the history of Oscar Ritchie Hall.

Oscar Ritchie Hall is named after Kent State graduate and professor Oscar Ritchie. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology and starting his graduate study in 1946, he became a full-time professor in 1947, making him the first African American to serve on the faculty of any predominantly white university in Ohio.

Oscar Ritchie Hall itself was built on the efforts of Black students in the past. In the 1960s, Black students demanded through the BUS organization that “the university curriculum significantly reflect their historical and contemporary experience,” according to Kent State’s Oscar Ritchie Hall history webpage. The building was originally known as the Student Union upon its opening in 1949 and later renamed in honor of the late Oscar Ritchie on November 10, 1977. 

“Today is a great start,” Blake continued. “But I want to see more unity; that way we can get more changes. That way, when our predecessors come back here, they see what we built. Keep protesting and keep your voices loud.”

Finney, a transfer student this semester, shared her story and reaction to the hateful messages on the rock that “welcomed” her to her new school.

“It is only my third week here, and I already do not feel comfortable nor wanted on this campus,” Finney said. “Not only did they blatantly tell us that we do not have a home here, but they also wrote ‘#SilverMeadows.’”

Silver Meadows is an apartment complex in Kent. Finney explained that Silver Meadows is considered the “projects” of Kent.

“They were implying that not only do we not have a home here, but we belong in the ‘projects,’” Finney said. “We refuse to accept this and we demand change. Alice Paul once said, ‘We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.’ There are clear racial issues prevalent on this campus. Kent, it is time put forward effort to make a real change.”

Hear From The Protesters

Wrapping up at Oscar Ritchie Hall, the group resumed their chanting as they marched toward the rock on Front Campus.

The group gathered around the rock, which was painted at some point before their arrival with  hearts and “BLM” in black spray paint over a black and white background for the protest. Members of the Kent City Council spoke to the crowd including Gwen Rosenberg, Roger Sidoti and Robin G. Turner. After, the other organizers spoke, inviting any participants in the protest to come forward and speak if they wanted to.

Among those in the crowd who spoke included senior Kamille Pierce, sophomore Kalin Bennett and many more. These individuals shared their stories related to racial inequality.

The speeches were briefly interrupted when Cunningham asked the city council members if they felt educated at that point so they could address the racism and police reform in Kent. Other students joined in with their related concerns. 

After a few minutes of private discussion between the city council members and the protest organizers, the city council left the main group to further discuss the presented concerns with Cunningham and present members of BUS leadership privately. The individual speeches resumed.

Wenson concluded the evening by thanking everyone for coming out and reading the crowd a poem she wrote called “Black Girl Stand, Black Girl Move.”

“This is so important,” Wenson said. “Stay involved, get active. You heard all these orgs come up here today, these Black orgs, these Black fraternities. Talk to them, reach out to them and get involved because this moves so much further than this moment.”

Timeline of The Rock

August 24, 2020

Black Lives Matter (BLM) slogans painted on rock to show support for BLM and commemorate those lost due to police brutality.

The words “White Lives Matter” were painted on the rock, covering up the slogans painted on Aug. 24.

August 28
August 31

Rock was repainted to cover up the hateful message from Aug. 28. The new painting was a silhouette of a Black woman on a gold background with the word “U.N.I.T.Y.” placed below. In addition, there were numerous black, clenched fists, which is one of the BLM movement symbols.

Rock was defaced again. Covering up both the silhouette and the lettering below it were the words “White Lives Matter” and numerous “WLM.”

September 2
September 2

The rock was repainted again the same day. This time, a red and yellow heart with an arrow through it covered up the words “White Lives Matter” and “U.N.I.T.Y.” covered the “WLM” phrases. Red hearts on a blue and yellow background were also added on the rock.

The rock was repainted with the words “Hate has no home here” for the first time by students in support of the Black community.

Sometime September 2-7
September 7

The rock was defaced again, crossing out the word “Hate” in the previous message and replacing it with “Blacks” to make it read: “Blacks have no home here”.

The rock was repainted again today. At around 7:00 p.m., two students painted over “Blacks” from the previous message and replaced it with “Hate” so it would read: “Hate has no home here.”

September 7
September 7

The rock was repainted again today. At around 8:00 p.m., several students painted over the “Hate has no home here” message to instead paint a rainbow with a clenched fist inside of it and painted the words “Hate has no home here” below it.

The rock was again defaced. An unknown person or group of unknown people covered up the rainbow, fist and “Hate has no home here” message with white spray paint and painted “It’s ok to be white :)” in black spray paint.

September 8
September 9

The rock was repainted again. On it this time is “Say their names” with numerous names of Black victims in a variety of colors. Below the rock, it says “Hate has no home.”

The rock was repainted for the Black Lives Matter protest. On it this time is numerous “BLM” and hearts in black spray paint over a white background.

September 10

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