Billed as both a protest over debt and, conversely, a violent escalation of seething racial tensions, a shadowy student demonstration planned for May 2 at SIU could become one or both of those things — or, in the end, neither of them.
Just days ahead of a planned “strike” propagated anonymously through social media, university administrators are preparing for activities ranging from peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins to an implied riot and brazen racial violence.
At the same time, the faceless group that has done the most to promote the day’s protest activities, the May 2 Strike Committee, has seen the ground shift beneath its feet in just a week’s time, its message suddenly corrupted by uninhibited hate speech, threats of violence and its own admitted tactical failures.
With those developments, the group — whose members have repeatedly declined to identify themselves to the Times and other entities — says it will disband, but still hopes to see vigorous student activity May 2.
The group shared many of its perspectives with the Times over the past week via a flurry of emails and tweets.
“We hadn’t specifically imagined that we’d be trolled so severely, but it comes with the territory of anonymity,” the group wrote the Times Monday. “The more severe issue is that by creating an anonymous group, we sucked the attention on to us, diverting it from the issues around the strike. This was the opposite of what we wanted.”
What they want
The May 2 Strike Committee burst publicly onto the scene last week with a blog and Twitter account calling for the student strike — an occasion, the group said, to opt out of classes, demonstrate across campus, march, blockade buildings and generally obstruct the university’s operations for a full day. While the group has pushed a decentralized approach, urging students to protest independently in the ways they find the most appealing, the group itself quickly became a central player.
Its published list of grievances is long and all encompassing, focusing on myriad elements of the campus’ social and political wellbeing. At the top of the list, unsurprisingly, is the ongoing state budget impasse, which has crippled SIU and other state universities, as well as the sharply rising cost of tuition and size of the administration.
The group also has called for the end of the university’s reliance on coal power and research into fossil fuels, in addition to demanding SIU leaders come face to face honestly with “a rising climate of racism among the student population” and dissatisfaction with how victims of sexual assaults have been treated.
Among other grievances, the group says police harass students, already burdened by ballooning debt, with unnecessary fees and fines, and that the university cuts programs but builds new administrative buildings “where the electronic chains of debt are forged.”
The group also has demanded that the SIU administration reinstate the hiring process for a professor of African American and Africana philosophy, the creation of task forces to confront campus racism and sexism, and a capping of administrative salaries at the median income of faculty and staff combined.
The group has encouraged students to demonstrate for those causes or others in their own creative ways, scheduling its only formal gathering for 10 a.m. Monday, May 2 at the fountain in front of Faner Hall.
“We hope that faculty, graduate assistants, and staff will join us in stopping the functioning of the University for one day, in order to call attention to the destruction of higher education in Illinois that is currently being carried out,” the group’s call to action reads. “Since the future of southern Illinois depends on the fate of the University, we also call on community members throughout the area to join us on campus for a day of protest, conversation, and education about the conditions we are all facing. Since many of these conditions are felt throughout the state of Illinois, we invite students on other campuses in Illinois to organize strikes or other actions of their own on May 2. Let’s make it a day that changes the conversation.”
The conversation changes
Interestingly, the group’s formal call to action was issued just a day after unknown suspects vandalized Faner Hall with graffiti that included “Debt rules everything around me, monthly, monthly bills y’all, May 2nd” and “Riot Proof … We’ll See” — a clear allusion to Faner Hall’s supposed riot-proof design and construction in the aftermath of the 1970 student riots that seized the campus.
The May 2 Strike Committee disavowed any involvement in the graffiti.
“We want to be very clear that we don’t know who did that graffiti,” the group told the Times in response to a question on Twitter. “There have been meetings about the strike for a long time now, and we encouraged hundreds of individuals to make promotional materials on their own. We didn’t quite expect what showed up the other day, and it raised a lot of hard questions for us.”
The group said it created its web presence “after the graffiti drew the public eye to us, as it seemed necessary at that point,” conceding that a detective was asking questions about the May 2 Strike Committee out of a concern for possible violence on campus. As the week progressed, a video also was posted to YouTube splicing parts of the film “A Bug’s Life” and images of someone in a Guy Fawkes mask with new audio focused on student debt.
As hard as the group ran away from the graffiti, however, it was just as quick to run toward it to declare a perceived victory. On Friday, following Illinois lawmakers’ approval of a stopgap spending measure that will provide SIU with its first trickle of state funding since the budget standoff began last year, the group encouraged readers in a blog post to thank the graffiti writers for scaring leaders into finally taking action.
“… Friday morning, when we learned that the state passed a bill to fund higher education, it dawned on us that the threat of a riot, because it scared people, was exactly what was needed to get the politicians moving,” the group wrote. “If you’re thankful for the budget passing, then the graffiti writers are the people you should thank … They caused $3000 in damage, and it resulted in $600 million dollars of school funding – $57 million for SIU. The risk they took caused harm to no one yet benefits us all.”
On Monday, the group conceded in an email to the Times that its point was “overstated.”
“There were many people working very hard for many months to make that happen, and it was stupid that we gave the impression that all the credit should go to the graffiti writers,” the group wrote in an email to the Times. “Here’s the point we stand by: nothing lights a fire under the butt of the powerful like the threat of a situation getting out of control. We find it very hard to believe that, given the climate throughout Illinois, the riot graffiti combined with the mysterious threat of a strike, didn’t help add a sense of urgency to the situation. But we might be wrong, and the tone of the article didn’t allow for that. So basically, we count that as one of a few serious mistakes we made.”
A far more shocking change
The committee didn’t anticipate the graffiti or the backlash over its eventual embrace of the graffiti writers’ tactics. Nor did it anticipate what happened next, when another faceless group — equally anonymous but far more hateful in tone — hijacked the committee’s work to spread a far different message.
Around the same time as the May 2 Strike Committee’s post praising the graffiti writers’ actions, another group posted a video to YouTube — using the same “A Bug’s Life” and Guy Fawkes footage as the committee had used in its own video — but with different audio repeatedly using racial slurs and urging the lynching of black students May 2. The group, apparently falsely, associated the video with a campus fraternity.
The video has proved to be a meteor on campus, stoking fear among students and quick action from the administration. SIU leaders managed to get YouTube to remove the video Monday afternoon and held a press conference to detail what it plans to do in the video’s aftermath.
Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell urged the campus to “stay calm,” saying that administrators are staying on top of the situation and that he wants all students on campus to feel safe. He vehemently denounced the video and its message.
“There are some much deeper seated issues than just the video,” Colwell said. “The video was very offensive. The video was horrific. Let me go on record by saying that. I cannot say how reprehensible that video was. I’m sickened by it.”
At the press conference, discussion of the racist video was nearly inseparable from discussion of the May 2 Strike Committee — perhaps because of the date chosen, perhaps because of the growing unrest all across campus. Colwell said he thought everything was growing from the same set of root causes.
“The video and the graffiti and the different things — they’re just a symptom of something else we need to be addressing on campus,” Colwell said. “We do have some issues we need to deal with on campus, and that’s going to require some dialog. Not just dialog, but there needs to be some action taken as well. We can’t do one without the other, and I get that.”
Colwell, adding that he doesn’t want to see “SIU turn on itself,” said the university plans to hold a series of forums to address racism on campus. He also said police are leaving no stone unturned in their search for who produced the second video. While administrators said the second video was not necessarily connected with those on the May 2 Strike Committee, common themes and images are present all around.
“We see things building off of each other,” said Rae Goldsmith, the university’s chief communications officer. “It may not be that this group is connected with this group, but they’re watching each other and building off of it. We can’t say today who’s doing this and who’s doing that, but clearly they are playing off of each other.”
What happens next?
On Monday, telling the Times in an email that its anonymity “has become a[n] obstacle to the process of actually organizing,” the May 2 Strike Committee announced in a separate blog post that it is disbanding. However, it noted, activities are still planned for May 2.
The committee also responded to Colwell’s press conference, saying he chose to deploy a “cynical strategy.”
“We were shocked that rather than specifically focus on the racist video’s use of hate speech and call for lynching, Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell instead painted with a brush broad enough to implicate us as well,” the blog post reads. “His announcement focused not on racism, but on anonymity and calls for disruption – as if there is an equivalence between writing anonymously to call for disruption against the many issues destroying higher education and those who would use anonymity to call for white supremacist violence.”
In the meantime, it remains anyone’s guess as to what, exactly, the second day of May will hold on SIU’s campus. As the hunt continues for the graffiti artists and the producers of the racist video, administrators are preparing for any possible outcome.
“We have every reason to believe that it will be a safe protest if it does occur and that we’re putting measures in place to be responsive to anything that may get out of hand,” said Kevin Bame, the university’s vice chancellor for administration and finance.
As for the committee itself, even if it has disbanded following a short life, it expects the campus community to follow through on its work.
"For us, we’ve decided its time to come clean," the group wrote Monday in a blog post vehemently denouncing the racist video. "Not about our identities, which are only important to the cops. But about just what this May 2 Strike Committee monster is or was. So today we’ll be finishing up an anonymous interview, after which the Committee will no longer exist. What happens on May 2 will be up to each of us and all of you, not a committee. See you Monday at 10 a.m. at the fountain in front of Faner Hall."
Pictured at top: Interim SIUC Chancellor Brad Colwell addresses the media Monday at Anthony Hall.