After a heated exchange on Martin Luther King Day between protesters supporting “reclaimMLK” and Harris-Stowe State University students, the university and protesters are working to turn confrontation into conversation. On Tuesday student representatives and administrators met with a Ferguson activist to start a dialogue and “hopefully move forward as a community.”
The movement toward more discussion stems from a Martin Luther King Day event marked with both celebration and protest. A small group of demonstrators disrupted an afternoon program at Harris-Stowe. After briefly taking the stage and the microphone, they were escorted out.
Johnetta Elzie, a field organizer for Amnesty International who has been active in protests in Ferguson, says demonstrators interrupted the program because, even though the event was in the name of Martin Luther King, it wasn't necessarily in his spirit.
“So a program, while that’s nice and it’s nice to have speeches and sermons ... at the same time, there is literally a youth-led demonstration outside this program,” Elzie said. “And the elders, which most of the people in the audience were, who say these young people need leadership, decide to stay inside and call the police on the youth.”
Once demonstrators were removed from the auditorium, a heated exchange took place between Harris Stowe students and protesters.
Elzie said some students were yelling at protesters that they didn’t want their campus "tear gassed."
“It was interesting to me to hear them say that when so many young college-age people are part of this movement and have been actively involved,” she said. “So we go to the only historically black university in St. Louis and the students are telling us that they don’t want to be tear gassed on their campus. That let me know that there is a disconnect somewhere.”
Harris-Stowe senior and sometimes protester Jazminique Holley drove to campus when she heard about the dispute. She says she thinks many students were taken aback by the protesters' presence.
“From what I have seen and heard talking to my peers, they felt like if this is a race issue that we are dealing with, why come to a place that is working in the best interest of people of our race?”she said. “They felt like this is an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities). This university was created to help us excell educationally. A lot of people were concerned about why they would come here.”
Holley, who serves as president of the Harris-Stowe chapter of the NAACP, says she understands demonstrators came to Harris-Stowe to protest the event, not confront the university. So she, along with Elzie, set up a meeting with Harris-Stowe administrators and students.
“More than anything I wanted to bridge that gap between both sides, because at the end of the day we both want the same things as African-American youth in this community,” Holley said.
The meeting included administrators from the student affairs office, Elzie and several students including Holley.
A statement about the meeting from the university said that “both parties discussed their concerns and concluded with a mutual understanding.”
Elzie says they have scheduled a program for next month.
“It will include a conversation with protesters so we can have a dialogue and students can ask questions and we can have clarity and move forward together,” she said.
Elzie says she’s glad the dispute resulted in talk.
“Confrontation births conversation,” she said. “I really do believe that just because we had confrontation doesn't mean that we cannot work through it and it also doesn't mean that we cannot build and grow together.”