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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Hundreds from UW-Madison community walk out of class, call for administrators to resign

Roughly 400 students walked out of class Thursday at 11:30 a.m. and marched around campus for about three hours to peacefully protest the UW-Madison Police Department’s arrest of student Denzel J. McDonald last week. No students were arrested.

McDonald was arrested last Thursday for 11 charges of vandalism, which featured messages condemning racism on campus. The protest started just outside of Bascom Hall, where students taped a list of five demands to the statue of Abraham Lincoln.

The demands included the dismissal of the case against McDonald, the immediate return of his belongings, assurance that he can graduate in May, the resignations of UW-Madison administrators and UWPD officers involved in the arrest and community control of UWPD.

Michael Davis is a UW-Madison graduate student studying Afro-American studies and educational policy studies who helped organize the event. He said now is the time for underrepresented students to have their voices heard.

“This is the right moment to organize student power and for the university to hear our demands,” Davis said. “I think it went amazing, I really love everyone who came out to support us. But again, it does not stop here. We are really pushing for an adequate university response to meet our demands.”

After the demands were read, hundreds of students continued down Bascom Hill holding a banner that read “Black Lives Matter” while chanting “no justice, no peace” and “no racist police.” Many protesters also held signs that had the same words McDonald spray painted on university buildings.

The demonstrators congregated at the front entrance of College Library, chanting their demand for community control of the police and saying “this is our library, fuck white supremacy.”

Occupying College Library

The demonstrators occupied the first floor of College Library in Helen C. White Hall for roughly an hour, chanting that they were disrupting students in the library because McDonald, also known as King Shabazz, had his education disrupted by his arrest.

“I think it’s awesome that the community is coming together. I think it’s really important and I think they made a good point about what happened with the arrest,” said UW-Madison senior Irina Shavlik, a student who was in College LIbrary when the protesters entered. “I love the idea of taking time away from our education because [UWPD] took time away from [McDonald’s] education.”

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The disruption of a university class by UWPD was a focal point of chants and speakers throughout the protest. Cynthia Burnson, a UW-Madison graduate student who is studying human development and family studies, said she joined the movement today because of her perspective as a teaching assistant.

“What we know is that our working conditions are our students' learning conditions and vice versa. Making sure that this campus is someplace that truly welcomes and supports all students no matter what is critical, not just us as members of the campus community, but also specifically as teaching assistants and graduate students is really, really important to us.”

Calling for resignations

While in College Library, several professors—including Rachelle Winkle-Wagner and M. Bruce King—condemned how the university was handling the recent incidents of hate and bias on campus this semester, such as when a student was spat on in Sellery Hall or when another student received a clearly threatening letter that included racial epithets.

Last week, more than 500 professors, graduate students and teaching assistants signed a letter calling for more action from university administration.

Professor King read a prepared statement from professor John Diamond. In the statement, Diamond said the university is not upholding its stated mission and that the university is more concerned with its image than the mental and physical health of its students.

While still in College Library, the protesters specified names of the administration members they wanted to resign. They chanted for Chancellor Rebecca Blank, Dean of Students Lori Berquam and UWPD Police Chief Susan Riseling to be fired.

Another organizer of the event, Alix Shabazz, who shares no relation to King Shabazz, said she wanted to keep the pressure on university administration after the protest.

“We were here to not only raise awareness around police violence on campus and racism on campus but also to put pressure on those in power,” Alix Shabazz said. “We want the chancellor, we want UWPD, and we want the judge that is now over King’s case to understand that King has community support. We will continue until he gets justice.”

Blocking traffic

The demonstrators left College Library at around 12:45 p.m. and marched toward University Avenue. As the protest continued around campus, the demonstrators shut down several intersections to raise awareness of the current campus climate for students of color at UW-Madison.

UWPD helped block traffic for the roughly 250 students who were participating in the protest at this point, according to one UWPD officer.

The protest blocked the intersection of University Avenue and Park Street for about 30 minutes before continuing down the street toward the West Johnson Street and Park Street intersection, which they also blocked.

The protesters continued around campus, marching down East Campus Mall and eventually to the Mosse Humanities Building, where McDonald was pulled out of class and arrested last week. Outside of the Humanities Building, the protesters chanted “King couldn’t learn because of y’all, y’all ain’t gonna learn because of me” and “black bodies over buildings.”

The protest ended with speeches by two graduate students from the UW-Madison School of Education and the School of Human Ecology, and a chant of love and support.

After the protest, demonstrators were encouraged to write on the ground of Library Mall with chalk to condemn racism on campus and help reclaim the space.

“We have received the demands from the students and we are in the process of evaluating those. I do expect us to have more to say later today about that,” said UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone. “What I can say immediately is that obviously everybody on campus is very concerned about the issues that are affecting the climate for students of color.”

Chancellor Blank responds to demands

Last Friday, Blank issued a statement saying she was upset with how UWPD entered a classroom and Riseling apologized in a statement to the students and professor who were disrupted.

Blank issued a statement regarding the demands Thursday at about 4:30 p.m. She labelled the semester “difficult and exhausting” for UW-Madison community members of color and their allies. She said she was frustrated she could not help enact change more quickly, but said she would not answer all of the demands presented today.

“Embedded in the student demands are requests for actions that I do not believe are reasonable, or even lawful, for me to take,” Blank said in the statement. “In fact, several of the demands seek to apply authority that the university does not have under state law or UW System policies and procedures.”

Blank did not specifically address the call for university administrators’ resignations. She again said that it is “imperative” to continue this dialogue on campus.

UWPD Public Information Officer Marc Lovicott said the appropriate steps have been taken and the department has apologized for entering a classroom, but the demand of resignations will not be met.

“We stand by the arrest and no one from our police department is resigning,” Lovicott said.

Several student organizations helped lead the protest, including BlackOut, BlindSide, Black Liberation Action Coalition and Freedom Inc. Davis stressed this was just a beginning for the movement, and that they had several more events planned in the coming weeks.

“I want to tell students that you have the power. Don’t feel isolated, don’t feel disempowered,” Davis said. “We are here to organize that collective student power.”

Miller Jozwiak, Jake Skubish and Lilly Price contributed to the reporting of this story.

UPDATE April 21 6:04 p.m.: This story has been updated to include responses from university officials. 

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