Evann Figueroa contributed to this article.
Free speech has been questioned as racially-motivated graffiti splatters across campus.
No student is a stranger to campus graffiti. From symbols meticulously spray painted across campus to inappropriate Sharpie markings on bathroom stalls, defacement is a facet of public spaces everywhere. But when “Justice 4 Ty’re King” was sprayed in large lettering early Monday morning on two sides of the Civil War monument on College Green, as well as on numerous academic halls and public grounds, university officials were quick to erase its stain.
“I’m against vandalism. I don’t think that’s right,” David Parkhill, president of Ohio University College Republicans, said. “I’m all for free speech, but especially on the Civil War memorial, that’s not okay. I don’t think it’s really a controversial case.”
Last Wednesday, 13-year-old Ty’re King was shot and killed by Columbus police who responded to a report of armed robbery. He was reported carrying a “BB gun that looked like a real firearm.” The controversial nature and circumstances surrounding King’s death reignited the social justice movement to equip police with body cameras. More than 100 demonstrators gathered at Columbus City Hall to call for an “independent investigation into the shooting and urge police to spend more on violence-prevention programs.”
“Vandalism is peanuts compared to a child’s life,” Athens community member Emma Goldman said. She participated in a demonstration on the steps of City Hall Wednesday morning to memorialize King’s life. “The police really wanted to remove this memorial, they said we were vandalizing. It’s just chalk. We looked at the laws, it’s not illegal. They just wanted to bully us.”
Minority students walled off
According to an emailed statement from the Communications and Marketing Department, paint may be able to cover offensive messages and reprehensible images, however, it will never conceal underlying societal problems. The graffiti wall near the Richland Avenue Bridge, in its words, will continue to teach the university community that words and images are powerful.
But that wall, which has been the site of controversial racial epithets repeatedly, was used for particularly sinister purposes early Wednesday morning. Jerod Black, a local artist, had painted a lush, colorful African mural featuring giraffes and elephants in coordination with Kids on Campus in July. With its black, messy revisions, it now featured a hanging stick figure and the words “You can’t cover this up” alongside a “Build the wall” scrawl.
“I wasn’t really upset, I wasn’t freaked out, but it’s gotten to the point where after three years I’m expecting this to get worse, I’m expecting people to say something,” Black Student Union (BSU) President Kymaia Gadsden said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t a surprise and that’s probably the worst part, that it was only a matter of time before something happened again.”
BSU called a meeting Thursday night to discuss its response to the graffiti wall’s newly painted racial epithets, and Porter 102 quickly filled with students, professors and community members of every background imaginable. Passionate observers packed the space, with a row of seated observers stretched out the door.
“First step of action is we need to support each other as a community. If I’m having an event, the same people who are in this room, I want you all at my event,” Sasha Estrella-Jones, a senior anthropology major, said. “That I feel fosters a community. Two, I think we actually need to do demonstrations. I think if we actually do sit-ins and we make it physically impossible for things at the university to get done, we’re gonna get some attention.”
Throughout the spirited discussion, which revolved around a series of goals, a general theme became clear: instituting a stricter mandate on hate speech into the student code of conduct, the faculty handbook and throughout the atmosphere of campus.
“There are not enough spaces on campus that visibly display the pain and the need to grieve and that express what black students are feeling,” OU graduate and community activist Ryant Taylor said. “We wanted to create a space like that and have that be there for students to congregate to, because not only do black students care, but white students, community members, many different people from the Athens community came and talked about how more people notice and care about violence that’s perpetrated against people of color.”
Mobilize, strategize, institutionalize
The University Program Council painted over the racist rhetoric, but left the depicted lynching and the “Build the wall” behind.
“I cannot get behind a message such as the ‘build the wall,’” Samantha Miller, president of Ohio University College Democrats, said. “Those really alienate certain groups of people and makes it so they feel unwelcome on this campus. People like to think that racism in this country is gone but it’s still very prevalent.”
For Gadsden, Athens has not been welcoming to her or other diversity students, and she believes the administration needs to be held accountable.
“That’s the thing about being a bystander, if you do nothing you are just as much of problem as the people committing things in the first place,” Gadsden said. “You’ll cover something up that comes from a place of deep sadness, deep hurt, but when somebody does something out of ignorance, with the intent of making people feel uncomfortable, it makes you look bad.”
Her next step is to mobilize, finalize a plan of action and reach out to other student organizations on campus to form a united front.
“So not just talking about these things, but showing up and demanding that you do this, demanding that these people be held accountable, protesting if we have to, doing whatever we have to do to make sure we feel safe on campus,” Gadsden said. “We do not feel welcome, we do not feel protected and we do not feel like anybody is going to look out for us. We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”