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Saturday, February 24, 2024

'Becky is going to listen to us today': BIPOC Coalition, TAA march for racial justice and a police-free campus

Some 150 University of Wisconsin-Madison students gathered Friday afternoon to march from Camp Randall to the UW Police Department headquarters and the chancellor’s mansion to demand racial justice and a police-free campus.

The group, organized by the UW-Madison BIPOC Coalition and the Teaching Assistants Association, carried signs reading, “Cops off campus” and “Can you hear us now?” as they shut down roads and intersections along their route, protected by a mobile wall of cars and bikes.

Students’ anger was wide-ranging. Demonstrators spoke about their frustrations with UWPD, with racism within and beyond the classroom, with the university’s relationship with its workers and refusal to remove the statue of Abraham Lincoln from Bascom Hill. But through every topic one theme was constant: the demand to be heard and taken seriously by UW administration.

“What’s taken so long?” one member of the TAA asked the crowd. “We don’t have time for this anymore. Becky is going to listen to us today.”

UW administrators Christina Olstad and Mick Miyamoto were present at the beginning of the event, watching as the crowd amassed and left Camp Randall. Olstad said that in her role as Dean of Students, she regularly speaks with campus activists to ensure “success in expressing their First Amendment rights.”

“I’m here to listen,” Olstad said. “They said administrators are not listening. I’m here to listen and I want to listen.”

Departing from the stone archway of Camp Randall, the demonstration's first stop was the UWPD headquarters on Monroe Street, where speakers voiced their demands that the police force be dissolved and removed from campus.

“UWPD has absolutely zero place in handling domestic violence, sexual assault and mental health crises,” one protester told the crowd. “Why do we have a police force, why are we paying them … all this money coming out of your tuition, when they’re supposed to protect us and they don’t?”

The march is not the only criticism of UWPD made by students in recent weeks. On Sept. 29, the Associated Students of Madison, UW’s student government body, passed a vote of no confidence in the department. ASM members cited campus cops’ assistance to Madison police in summer protests where demonstrators were tear gassed as well as their resistance to calls for reform.

ASM Chair Matthew Mitnick spoke about that vote at the rally. He criticized the department for redacting certain lines of its budget, which Mitnick believes are for tear gas and other crowd-control equipment.

“They already had their chance, and they failed time and time again,” Mitnick said. “ASM, as you probably know, has [in the past] been an extension of the administration … This year we’re trying to change that.”

The day of the no-confidence vote, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank said she was “disappointed” by it, citing the department’s “progressive” record and saying she had never heard specific stories of misconduct by its officers, a claim that multiple protesters called “irresponsible.” 

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From the UWPD building, the group marched to the Chancellor’s residence in the University Heights Neighborhood. Parked in the street before the century-old, red brick manor, students openly mocked it as ostentatious. The building, otherwise known as the Olin House, completed a privately-funded $2.4 million renovation in 2008.

It’s unclear when Olstad and Miyamoto left the march, but they could not be seen among the crowd when it reached the Chancellor’s house.

Nzinga Acosta, a representative of the Wisconsin Black Student Union, spoke about her organization’s recent interactions with the chancellor and university administration. After George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis at the end of May, Acosta said the WBSU released a statement with four demands of the UW: revisit the 13 demands of the 1969 Black Student Strike, most of which remain unfulfilled; remove the Lincoln statue from Bascom Hill; remove Chamberlain Rock, historically known as n*ggerhead rock, from campus; and for the chancellor to hold a town hall with Black students and community members and listen to their thoughts and frustrations.

“When we had that conversation, everything except [Chamberlain] rock was blatantly shot down,” Acosta said.

The chancellor has publicly called many of the UW BIPOC Coalition’s own list of 10 demands, including the removal of Lincoln and defunding UWPD, “nonstarters.” Blank has refused to meet with representatives of the BIPOC Coalition, instead directing them to meet with lower-level administrators. In his remarks at the Rally, Mitnick said that in a meeting, the chancellor had confused the coalition with other student orgs, falsely claiming that she had met with them.

Acosta was openly frustrated with the lack of response from administrators, which she saw as a pattern dating back more than half a century to the 1969 strike.

“In those 13 demands, they called for a well-rounded wellness for Black students on this campus. They called for Black students to have a place where they could feel safe. And to this day, that has not happened,” Acosta said. “We are still on the streets protesting, we are still having this conversation amongst ourselves about how this university does not care.”

Before they left the chancellor’s estate, protesters duct-taped banners across the house’s front steps and leaned a cardboard tome against them with the coalition’s demands written in sharpie. As the sun set, they marched back to Camp Randall, chanting and clanging their noisemakers through the dark neighborhood as other students recorded from balconies and looked up from their picnic dinners.

“The crazy thing is, my classmates down the street, they have midterms next week, and they will completely focus on that,” Acosta said. “None of this is in their scope, in their world. But we live this and breathe this every day.”

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