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Saturday, June 15, 2024

UW-Madison BIPOC Coalition leads protests against the 'Smart Restart', racial inequality on campus

Amidst rising tensions between the UW-Madison student body and administration, the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Coalition held a demonstration on the Gordon Dining and Event Center lawn Saturday to protest racial inequality and the UW’s "Smart Restart" plan.

During the demonstration — which was referred to as “Gordon’s Graveyard” by organizers — a section of West Johnson Street was blocked off by vehicles belonging to protestors. Several dozen cardboard head stones inscribed with messages such as “RIP Justice” and “Our blood is on your hands” were placed on the lawn during the demonstration as well.

From approximately 4:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 12,  around 200 individuals gathered on Gordon Dining Hall’s north lawn to listen to speakers from the BIPOC Coalition, as well as several other student organizations such as the Black Student Union and the Teacher’s Assistant Association.  

Throughout the protest, speakers expressed their discontent with the UW-Madison administration's approach towards racial justice amid the "Smart Restart" plan, which speakers feel demonstrates a fundamental lack of concern for the wellbeing of students.

In an exclusive interview prior to the event, speaker Juliana Bennett explained that many BIPOC students feel unwelcome on campus. Bennett argued that current measures taken by UW officials fail to adequately address racial issues on campus.  

“Literally the first day on campus I experienced while moving into my dorm room. You walk in a space and you don't feel welcome… Most white people on campus aren't blatantly racist but a lot of it is subtle and it wears on you over time,” Bennett said. “I just want to be able to feel like a normal student here on campus and enjoy my school year.”  

The BIPOC Coalition has crafted a list of specific demands that will help to create a more hospitable environment for minority students on campus. The list includes the removal of the Abraham Lincoln statue  and of Chamberlain Rock.  

In the past year, both monuments have been increasingly criticized for potentially upholding a history of white supremacy on campus. Individuals have specifically pointed at Lincoln's inhumane treatment of Native Americans, including ordering the largest mass execution in American history of 38 Dakota men, and at the Chamberlain Rock’s former nickname — “n*ggerhead rock” — as reasons to have the monuments removed. 

“Abraham Lincoln needs to go, period,” Bennett added. “As BIPOC students, walking up Bascom Hill and seeing the statue of Abraham Lincoln, who actively participated in the genocide of Native Americans, serves as a daily reminder of the history of white supremacy on UW’s campus… I personally cringe every time I walk by it.”

During Gordon’s Graveyard, several other demands were discussed by speakers. These include the abolishment of the UW-Madison Police Department, financial support of BIPOC student orgs and a direct line of communication with high ranking university officials including Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

Several additional student organizations were in attendance but did not speak at the event — most noticeably, an organization known as the Socialist Alternative that distributed literature at the start of the protest.

“We’re here today because we want to build up more student and working class solidarity for these movements in order to more effectively pressure bodies like the UW administration and Madison’s city council to implement more progressive policies,” Socialist Alternative member Will Fitzgerald said of his organization’s presence at the event. “Getting on the ground and advocating for racial equality and demanding the removal of racist iconography is how change starts to really be instituted.”

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Additionally, speakers communicated their dissatisfaction with the UW administration’s "Smart Restart" plan, condemning it as a ploy intended to maximize profits at the expense of student wellness. This perspective was conveyed in the opening minutes of the protest, where speakers began to chant: “Hey, hey Becky Blank, how many kids did you kill today?”  

“This university is faced with an amazing opportunity to reimagine what a truly safe restart could be. A moral restart that can make our students and staff feel safe and secure. Our current strategy is not working and we clearly need a new plan of action to ensure the health of students,” said Vice President of the Black Student Union Nzinga Acosta in regard to this issue.

Speakers proceeded to encourage students to pressure the administration into drastically modifying the procedures of the "Smart Restart" plan in an effort to be more accommodating for students.  

“It is the people on this campus at the dining halls, in our dorms and in our classrooms who maintain this institution every day,” said a speaker from the Teacher’s Assistant Association. "They are the ones who have the power. I want to compel us to consider how we as a student body should get organized so that we can demand that the university takes us seriously and force them to come to the table with us.” 

The UW administration has yet to release a statement that responds to the demands addressed by Gordon’s Graveyard and related demonstrations.

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