Activists look back — and ahead — in continued calls to end anti-Black racism

Months after “Black Lives Matter” chants rang out at a march near the University Park Campus, experts say the movement has lasting momentum at USC.

April 08, 2021 Gustavo Solis

Months after hundreds chanted “Black Lives Matter” while marching at USC’s University Park Campus last year, student activists, faculty and staff continue to fight for equality and build on last summer’s momentum to make USC a safer and more welcoming place for Black students.

“We want to create longstanding change,” said Jasmine Blevins, a senior at the USC School of Dramatic Arts and member of the Black Student Assembly, or BSA.

This latest wave of activism started in June, when the world learned about the disturbing death of George Floyd in police custody and marched in the name of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black people tragically killed. BSA’s leaders were inundated with calls and emails from students who wanted to join the global demonstrations and administrators who sought to engage with USC’s Black students.

“BSA got flooded with questions,” Blevins said. “People were asking, ‘How are we going to protest? How are we going to be a part of this movement?’”

USC students’ calls to confront systemic, anti-Black racism

It marked a pivotal moment for the BSA. The organization is the funding board that oversees all of USC’s recognized Black student organizations as part of the Undergraduate Student Government.

The students galvanized. They quickly organized a march and facilitated open forums where students could share their experiences about being Black at USC. They also surveyed students to gather issues to present to deans at schools across USC. In part, they were inspired by the United Black Student-Athletes Association, which was formed by Black USC student-athletes in response to Floyd’s killing.

Among other recommendations, the student-athletes association has asked that USC Athletics diversify its staff and consider Black candidates for open positions, including medical staff and sports psychologists. It also pushed for implicit bias training among student-athletes and athletics staff, as well as a monthlong Black History Month celebration. That resulted in the ongoing USC Black History Month program that encompasses more than 30 events across USC. In addition, USC Athletics started the Black Lives Matter Action Team to address social injustices, embrace the meaning of Black Lives Matter and stand with Black student-athletes.

Contextualizing the anti-Black racism movement at USC

USC Gould School of Law Professor Jody Armour thinks back to 1992. He remembers the protests and riots after the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating, which was caught on camera, were acquitted. That was a moment that brought about some change at the local level, but it didn’t turn into a movement.

This current wave of protests feels different, he said. Its momentum began in 2013 with a different high-profile acquittal: George Zimmerman. After the acquittal, three activists, including USC alumna Patrisse Cullors, co-founded Black Lives Matter.

The next year, when police officers in Ferguson, Mo., killed Michael Brown, the Black Lives Matter movement took off with waves of protests around the country, both in the streets and in academia, Armour said.

I saw a direct connection between Black Lives Matter in the street and rise of inclusion, diversity and equity initiatives on campuses.

Jody Armour

“I remember getting invitations from a number of universities around the country to speak about the racial justice issues everyone was focusing on because of the marches,” he said. “I saw a direct connection between Black Lives Matter in the street and rise of inclusion, diversity and equity initiatives on campuses.”

Since then, activists have organized and built coalitions. So, when the world witnessed George Floyd’s death, the movement was ready for generational upheaval.

Armour said the movement has produced real change both inside and outside USC. In Los Angeles, for example, activists helped get George Gascón elected as district attorney. He ran on a progressive platform against a law-and-order candidate. Additionally, voters in November passed Measure J, which sets aside 10% of the county’s budget for community programs and alternatives to incarceration, like health services.

“In my own unit, the law school, we have engaged in a lot of critical self-reflection,” Armour said. “And, like many other schools, we are taking steps to revise new policies that we hope will be more inclusive and promote equity. We are hiring an inclusion, diversity and equity specialist that will be part of our central administration in the role of a dean.”

Conversations, changes taking place across the university

USC students, faculty and staff have provided powerful testimony and offered ideas and opinions on how to change the university for the better. And administrators have acknowledged the need to address issues of racial bias and diversity.

Last summer, President Carol L. Folt jumpstarted the President’s and Provost’s Task Force on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and removed a controversial name from a campus building. For the first time, USC celebrated Juneteenth last year with a campuswide event. And USC’s four-month search to find the first universitywide vice president and chief inclusion and diversity officer culminated in the hiring of Christopher Manning, who started March 1.

On Thursday, the Task Force on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion released its final report, which includes a detailed list of short- and long-term recommendations. They aim to address recruitment and retention, program and curriculum, research and evaluation, the university’s culture and values, and support resources.

Other difficult conversations continue. One of the issues that came up in BSA students’ survey relates to USC’s Department of Public Safety. Students have described instances of racial profiling, such as being asked to show their ID on campus or being questioned when they’re unlocking their own bicycles from racks. Some USC faculty also have expressed concerns. Members of the BSA set up a meeting with DPS to discuss their findings and ask for changes related to campus security.

Junior Ezimaka Ogbuli and sophomore Tyler Trouillot, both BSA members, remember logging into that initial Zoom meeting and seeing a screen full of officers in uniform. Ogbuli described the discussion as “nerve-wracking” as students voiced pain over incidents they’ve heard about and experienced — and called for changes.

The students said they were pleasantly surprised as DPS officers actively heard their concerns. They didn’t talk down to students. Instead, they listened patiently and then came back to the activists with detailed responses.

As part of the call for change, President Folt assembled a group of faculty and staff members, neighborhood residents and students to serve on its Department of Public Safety Community Advisory Board. The group hosted a series of “co-design public safety sessions” on Zoom in February to gather input about DPS’ scope, how it interacts with the public, community engagement, race and identity profiling, and best practices for campus safety.

Public input received during those listening sessions will help frame how the Community Advisory Board proposes redesigning public safety going forward, according to Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro and Erroll Southers, two co-chairs of the Public Safety Community Advisory Board.

The board plans to deliver recommendations to Folt this spring, taking into account all that it has learned from USC’s constituent groups — from students and faculty to staff and neighbors.

Laying the groundwork for a better USC

DPS Chief John Thomas said conversations with students are “a great opportunity for dialogue, and so far, I’ve really gained from it.”

Chief John Thomas at the Black Lives Matter protest at USC
Chief John Thomas of the USC Department of Public Safety greets a marcher during the June 6, 2020, Black Lives Matter protest near USC. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

One of the biggest policy changes: a move aimed at reducing instances of racial profiling by giving dispatchers and officers more discretion when responding to calls, Thomas said.

Whenever dispatchers receive a call of a “suspicious” person walking on campus, they now ask follow-up questions to learn more before they send out an officer.

In the past, when callers to DPS described “a Black man carrying an expensive item on campus,” Thomas said, dispatch would assign the call to an officer and the officer would be obligated to respond.

“Now the dispatcher asks more questions: ‘What is suspicious about this person? How do you know the expensive item doesn’t belong to them?’” he said. Based on those answers, the dispatcher can decide whether to send an officer.

Thomas said he is grateful that BSA students and others are working with DPS to identify concerns and find solutions. He gave the students his personal cell phone number and told them to call any time.

“I think they know that I’m not going to go away, it’s not just lip service,” he said.

The department also is working with the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to come up with a better way to respond to disturbances related to people on campus with mental health issues, he added.

Students haven’t gotten everything they wanted, such as their recommendation to ban members of law enforcement from having guns from campus. But DPS was open to other recommendations, such as updating officer training to include implicit bias training, students said.

And additional changes may emerge from the recommendations of the DPS Community Advisory Board.

The students realize that systemic change takes time, and they’re proud to have a role in history and help create a better USC for future Trojans. The goal is for these conversations to continue even after current students have graduated.

“We won’t be at USC forever,” Trouillot said.

This collaborative approach between student activists and university administrators has its detractors among some students. Trouillot and Ogbuli say they’ve heard criticism from students who prefer a more confrontational approach.

But both students believe that open communication is the best way to bring about long-lasting change.

Said Ogbuli: “It’s really about learning to work with one another, learning to evaluate our relationships and hold each other accountable.”