Protesters chanted “Say her name! Breonna Taylor,” “Defund the police,” “No justice, no peace” and “Mayor, cops, court, jails, racist systems go to hell” as they walked the perimeter of University Park Saturday demanding justice for the Black people killed at the hands of law enforcement.
About 1,000 students, community members and faculty protested in the USC Black Lives Matter March, which was spearheaded by recent graduate Kabwasa Green in partnership with the Black Student Assembly. With masks donned and signs that read “There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” “Black Lives Matter” and “My skin color is not a crime,” protesters marched for three miles from the corner of McClintock Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard, traversing the Row, Exposition Boulevard and Figueroa Street.
“We should not have to die for our lives to matter,” former BSA co-director Mae Gates said to the protesters. “We all matter before we die and become a hashtag.”
Shops in USC Village, such as Il Giardino and Dulce, allowed employees time off due to the march, while the latter provided pastries and water to attendees. Members of the surrounding community cheered and several cars honked in support of the march. Meanwhile, students on the Row videotaped the protest and looked on as 28th Street was overfilled with marchers. At its peak attendance, the march crowd spanned four blocks on Figueroa Street, culminating in a series of speakers addressing the demonstrators at the intersection of Hoover Street and Jefferson Boulevard. Department of Public Safety officers rode on bicycles alongside the protesters and blocked off a path for the march.
“For me, it’s chilling being here,” BSA’s Creative Experience co-director Jephtha Prempeh told the crowd. “It’s chilling to walk down the Row — the same street that made me feel unwelcome at this school. It’s chilling to march with DPS, an organization that is supposed to protect us and has made me feel the most vulnerable and the least safe on these grounds of USC.”
For Kabwasa, who initially expected around 50 attendees, some of the goals of the countywide protests are to defund the Los Angeles Police Department and garner the resignation of LAPD Chief Michael Moore. For Prempeh, who launched the petition calling on USC to address its anti-Black racism, University-specific demands include instating the Black House on the Row that was once approved but abandoned when its student leaders graduated, hiring more Black therapists at the Engemann Student Health Center and renaming Von KleinSmid Center, which is named after USC’s fifth president, a known eugenicist.
Along with Prempeh, other students, recent graduates and community members spoke about USC’s role in gentrifying surrounding South Central neighborhoods, racial profiling and police brutality by DPS and the lack of institutional support for the Black community as evidence that the University has not done enough to change campus culture.
Prempeh said they are currently in the process of meeting with President Carol Folt to discuss creating more spaces for Black students. However, Folt was not seen at the protest, drawing criticism from many speakers and attendees. A University spokesperson said Folt did not attend for health reasons concerning the pandemic and “was very supportive of the march.”
Quincy Nkwonta, a 2019 graduate, asked marginalized students in the crowd if they had ever felt mistreated by DPS. Nkwonta led chants of “Where y’all at?” to call upon DPS Chief John Thomas and Folt to speak in person on how they plan to address anti-Black racism on campus.
Thomas, who said he was at the protest from its commencement although speakers said they did not see him, told the crowd he felt the issue was institutionalized racism rather than law enforcement and contradicted student calls for defunding DPS and LAPD. Thomas was met with voices of disagreement, as attendees said they did not hear actionable solutions toward eliminating police violence and racial profiling and recounted numerous racist incidents that occurred on the Row and on campus.
Alumni and students pointed out when 70 LAPD officers in riot gear raided a Black party in 2013 and white students shouted slurs at Black students following the 2016 presidential election where they felt Thomas, whose tenure began in 2006, did not properly address the needs of Black students.
Students pressed Thomas regarding whether or not he would hold DPS officers who racially profiled students accountable, including docking their pay or firing them. Thomas responded that he will handle incidents of racial profiling and police misconduct personally. Speakers also relayed that Black students have been fighting for change for years, and it is up to DPS to implement student suggestions without relying on the labor of Black students to do so.
Former Undergraduate Student Government Sen. Meagan Lane said she was unable to reach Thomas to talk about overpolicing and anti-Black racism on campus after BSA and other cultural organizations’ tickets to a USG-sponsored event with conservative commentator Ben Shapiro in 2018 were canceled. Lane grew increasingly impassioned as she recounted in a pained voice the multiple instances she felt she could not rely on DPS to keep her safe.
“I need you to look me in my eyes right now, as a Black woman, being a Black man and convince me that you have been doing your best,” Lane said. “Tell me you’ve been doing your best. You can’t say that. You can’t tell me that, and if you can’t tell me that, you should be ashamed.”
Lane expanded on her experience as a former senator, stating that it was her hardest year at USC as she said she had to constantly prove herself to her peers who saw her as an “angry Black woman.” Lane said she and the Black community were rarely given the opportunity to discuss racist incidents at the administrative level.
Thomas said he would ensure his availability to more students.
“I welcomed [the protest], it was good. I enjoyed it. And perhaps uncomfortable but accountability is supposed to be uncomfortable,” Thomas said in an interview. “I appreciate the passion and the energy, the anger and the expressions of disappointment. All those things I will use to move forward [with] the initiatives that I’ve been working with the University on.”
Lami Friebe, a 2020 Thornton School of Music graduate, recognized the predominantly non-Black crowd and told attendees that they needed to be active beyond protesting or posting on social media.
“I know it’s cool that we come out and protest but at the end of the day most of y’all can put your signs down when you come home, and most of y’all can take the shirts off, and it’s cool and you can go back to normal life, but a lot of people like us can’t,” Friebe told protesters.
Speakers stressed the importance of continual allyship and educating oneself on how generations of racism impacts society, including the persistence of Black cultural appropriation and lack of Black representation at USC.
Standing outside the campus gates, Prempeh called out students who engaged in performative activism by posting on social media in solidarity with Black Lives Matter but were actively complicit in racist aggressions on campus.
“It’s chilling to walk with faces, with peers who have said things to me I can’t even repeat to y’all,” Prempeh told the crowd. “To hear from the mouths of students who have touched my hair, sneer at me, question my intelligence, pulled at my durag, for fucking whites for y’all to come out here and say Black Lives Matter. To post your black squares and say Black Lives Matter, it’s fucking chilling.”
Prempeh’s words were met with whistles and chimes of agreement from the crowd that stood before them, which filled most of the crosswalk in front of USC Village. They reiterated that these actions, faced by Black students daily, are part of the larger issue of USC as a predominantly white and white-serving institution.
Kaufman School of Dance associate professor of practice d. Sabela Grimes echoed this sentiment as a faculty member, recalling incidents where he was profiled as an athlete.
“There’s a spectrum of violence that happens in these classrooms,” Grimes said, referencing the invisible labor Black students and professors have to undertake to be heard and accepted in predominantly white spaces.
Former BSA co-director Nia Warren commemorated the death of Victor McElhaney, a Thornton student who, although not killed by law enforcement, was killed during a robbery attempt near campus last year. He was a beacon of hope among his peers and well-versed in the same social issues as those the speakers discussed at the march, and he represented the community the student protesters were fighting for, she said.
“When you are here, at USC, and when you are in communities like this, you fight,” said Warren, a 2020 School of Cinematic Arts graduate, to the protesters. “You fight because this is what happens when you fight. And this is what happens when we have strong leaders in this community.”
Gates, a rising senior majoring in public policy, said change needs to be achieved outside of the political system. Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union sued local officials and law enforcement for countywide curfews, calling them an infringement on their right to free speech, and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has been heavily criticized for not firing LAPD Chief Michael Moore who conflated the blame of the killing of George Floyd to protesters in addition to the police officers involved. Gates said true change would come with abolition rather than reform, as the systemic racism in law enforcement resists progressive efforts.
“I am very grateful that [Thomas] was here with us today. I am grateful that he was a … Black man who stood up there and he heard the demands and heard the cries,” Gates said. “However, he hasn’t done anything yet and no action has been taken. And so I can’t say definitively if these actions will change until he shows us himself.”
Along with Gates, Ashley Estés, a rising senior majoring in popular music performance, said it was vital to remember the Black women who were killed in conversations surrounding police brutality, such as Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her home in March after Louisville Police shot her eight times. Estés said Taylor’s case is just one of many of those of Black women who were killed by law enforcement, such as Atatiana Jefferson, who was similarly killed by police in her own home; Yvette Smith, whose killer, a former Texas officer, was acquitted of murder charges and Sandra Bland, whose death in police custody has resulted in calls to reopen her case.
Speakers also spoke on Black pride and the intersectionality of Black identity among gender expression, sexuality and class. Prempeh, who is non-binary, urged protesters to stand for all Black lives and resist the binary narratives that dominate the movement. Gates shared these sentiments, emphasizing her message to Black members of the crowd to love themselves.
“We have been conditioned to hate our being. We have been conditioned to hate our hair, to hate our skin, to hate our bodies, to hate our lips, our nose,” Gates said. “We are beautiful. And especially to my Black brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community. I call on everybody in this crowd that is cisgender, that is straight, to advocate for queer lives.”
While DPS was enlisted to hand out water and snacks during the event, according to Kabwasa and BSA’s Instagram, speakers admonished DPS officers, who were standing nearby, for not engaging with protesters as they said they would.
Campus gates, typically open in the summer, including the McCarthy and Downey entrances, were closed to protesters. Some shops in USC Village, such as Trejos Tacos, Target and SoulCycle, were boarded up.
“[USC Real Estate has] been in regular contact with the business owners at USC Village and together they decided to take preventative measures along some exterior locations in an abundance of caution,” a University spokesperson said.
Kabwasa said he wanted to organize the protest for himself, his friends and people in the community who wanted to protest but were afraid of facing violence at the hands of LAPD officers and National Guard.
“We’ve been seeing what was going on for a while, and we wanted to participate in a march and be vocal, but a few of my friends I’ve been talking to said that they felt bad because they really wanted to go and be a part of change, but we’re just concerned about going and facing LAPD and facing these like rubber bullets and tear gas because it’s scary,” Kabwasa said.
Kabwasa, along with many of the speakers at the march, said the march was just the beginning for transforming campus culture and eliminating anti-Black racism at all institutional levels, including USC.
“I just want it to be known that we’re not going to quiet down, and USC students are standing with Black Lives Matter, and we won’t go out like stop protesting until we see real change — not just this fake change that’s trying to silence us and get us to stop protesting — but real change, and we won’t stop until we get that,” Kabwasa said.
Lauren Mattice and Shaylee Navarro contributed to this report.