“It’s really hard for me to say I love USC or that I love being a Trojan because in reality, I don’t,” said Makiah Green, a graduate student in the master of professional writing program. “I don’t feel like my existence is valued.”
Green is just one of the many students at USC who feels underappreciated and misrepresented when walking around campus. In a recent survey conducted by the Undergraduate Student Government, 36 percent of 116 black students surveyed ranked “sense of belonging” as one of the lowest satisfying components of their USC experience.
For some students, the night of May 4, 2013, illustrates this lack of acceptance. A noise complaint at an off-campus, student-hosted party quickly escalated to become a racially charged incident in which at least 79 Los Angeles Police Department officers in riot gear were brought to shut down the party at the home of undergraduate Nate Howard, then a senior majoring in communication. Photos taken by several guests depicted the officers arresting students, shoving them against cop cars and creating a human blockade on the street to prevent attendees from getting to their cars. Guests believe the magnitude of the police’s reaction and the excessive use of force was due to racial bias, since most of the party’s attendees were either black or Latino. Potential bias was further exposed by the fact that across the street, another party of equal hype — this one attended primarily by white students — was allowed to continue uninterrupted.
“I had flashbacks to an era I wasn’t even alive to suffer through,” Green said on her personal blog in a post titled, “I’m A Scholar, Not A Criminal: The Plight of Black Students at USC.” “I was too scared to go outside, legitimately fearing that an officer would see me and arrest me for being black and inquisitive.”
Following the controversial events of May 4, many involved with the party gathered at Howard’s home to discuss their rights as students and citizens. What began as late night discussions among the party attendees rapidly evolved into a student-driven social media movement dubbed the #USChangeMovement. Students questioned why the university’s Dept. of Public Safety was not there to control the situation and why the administration made no move to protect its own students against the actions of the LAPD. To the party’s attendees, the university failed to ensure students felt equally respected.
“The problem here isn’t that our party got shut down,” Howard said. “The problem here is racial profiling; the issue is with the school’s Dept. of Public Safety and LAPD.”
The students behind the #USChangeMovement staged a sit-in at Tommy Trojan and organized an open forum, inviting students, alumni, faculty and community members to the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Ballroom to discuss the role of race in the arrest of the six students with the LAPD and DPS.
Though most of the party attendees have graduated, the #USChangeMovement’s legacy continues to inspire conversation and action. In February, Howard gave a TEDx Talk at San Diego State University on racial profiling, recalling the incident at his house party and explaining how the social injustice inspired him to create a program called “BE The Voice.” His newest project is a high school program aimed to help children find their voice in an environment where racial inequality is prevalent.
Azmera Hammouri-Davis, a junior majoring in social sciences, believes the movement has altered her outlook on social change.
“It got me to devote everything I do to social justice,” Hammouri-Davis said. “It’s what’s given me more heart to just continue to serve. Everything I do now ties back to #USChangeMovement.”
Most recently, USG Vice President Rini Sampath credited #USChangeMovement for playing a critical role in triggering open conversations on racial profiling and student comfort at USC. USG is currently working to pass a resolution to create a physical space that will serve as a cultural hub for the diverse group of black students on campus. Sampath believes the Black House project shares a common goal with #USChangeMovement in striving toward equal treatment for minority students.
“We’ve seen different incidents on campus where black students are singled out to some degree and that’s the reason and inspiration for this particular resolution,” Sampath said.
Though Green, Howard and many other students still feel undervalued in the community, it is evident that movements and resolutions have really been pushing for social justice within USC’s population. The most recently elected USG cabinet has already begun making strides toward the equal treatment of students, with projects like gender-neutral housing, which aims to provide students of all sexual orientation with comfortable and non-discriminatory housing.
Sampath said USC’s administration has also been very receptive. She said Vice Provost for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry, especially, has acted as a valued ally for the student body.
“I think we’re changing the game. We really made it a priority this year to make sure we’re the advocates of students,” Sampath said. “If we continue our persistence, we’ll be able to see some tangible changes on campus. I think that’s why this is a really pivotal moment in our university.”