Students take action to support Black lives

Rising senior Jephtha Prempeh’s updated petition, now with more than 7,000 signatures, called out USC’s ‘performative’ measures. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement and recent protests against police brutality, several student organizations have bolstered their advocacy for the Black community by sharing educational resources, collecting donations for Black nonprofits and providing opportunities for students to voice their concerns about USC’s racial injust against its Black community.

But increased advocacy efforts have also resulted from the lack of definitive actions from the administration to combat what students allege is unequal treatment from the Department of Public Safety and other University divisions.

Two weeks following the creation of their petition that has since amassed 2,000 more signatures to total more than 7,000 at the time of publication, rising senior Jephtha Prempeh updated the letter, calling out the University for its failure to “take a clear stand against antiblackness” and promote resources on social media involving the Black Lives Matter movement.

“USC can set an example for universities across the country in that no matter how wide the gap between administration and individual, the voices of the students must be heard,” the petition read. “WE ARE A COMMUNITY, NOT A BUSINESS!” 

In the wake of the petition and various other student advocacy efforts, President Carol Folt, in a letter to the community June 11, announced six preliminary anti-racism actions, including the renaming of the former Von KleinSmid Center. 

“This moment is our Call to Action, a call to confront anti-Blackness and systemic racism, and unite as a diverse, equal, and inclusive university,” the email read. “You have asked for actions, not rhetoric, and actions, now.”

The Undergraduate Student Government issued a statement praising the renaming of the interim Center for International and Public Affairs, previously called the Von KleinSmid Center after former USC president and known eugenicist Rufus von KleinSmid. USG has also compiled an online database of contact information for resources such as the Office of Equity and Diversity, bail funds and virtual therapy.

“USG has done a great job of really combining those resources, putting it all in one place, making sure people know where to go,” said USG Sen. Lennon Wesley III, a rising junior majoring in business administration and philosophy, politics and law.

Wesley worked with Sen. Trinity Moore to develop the USC Diversity and Equity Climate Survey, released by USG earlier this month. The questionnaire comprises 13 questions about the racial climate and diversity on campus and is open to both undergraduate and graduate students.

“We wanted the questions to unearth students’ feelings about areas for growth in terms of equity in the USC community,” said Moore, a rising junior majoring in business of cinematic arts. “Basically, all the questions are formulated to be a platform where uncomfortable conversations, topics and experiences surrounding race could be comfortably examined.”

The survey currently has no set end date and as of Tuesday had accrued more than 250 responses of its 500- to 600-response goal. USG senators will reference the results of the survey throughout the year when proposing and passing resolutions to better understand the diverse needs of the student body.

Several of the survey respondents identified a need to forge a better connection between DPS and the USC community, Wesley said. To that end, USG has begun working with DPS to plan events where students can converse with DPS officers.

“One thing we want to do with DPS is have them engage with us in some consistent, periodical forums in which students can interact with them, share their experiences, and DPS administration can interact with the students and share how they go about their jobs and their lives, and we can both be on the same page,” Wesley said.

The Black Student Assembly has also been working to improve the relationship between DPS and Black students, who BSA Assistant Director Justin Powell said are profiled by campus law enforcement. Powell said by strengthening the connection between the student body and DPS employees, BSA hopes to make USC a safer campus for Black students. 

However, other organizations have instead asked the University to decrease DPS funding and dissociate from local law enforcement agencies. 

Inspired by an open letter from UCLA students to its administration, the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation created a petition calling on USC administrators to sever the University’s relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department, to defund DPS and to reinvest funds in underserved communities on campus, particularly Black organizations. Since its launch June 8, the petition has garnered more than 1,800 signatures from students, faculty and community members.

“This marginalization of Black people persists violently in our own USC community,” the petition read. “USC plays a large role in the gentrification of the South Central region of Los Angeles. Its expansion rapidly consumes local property, hiking up the cost of living for the area which adversely forces its longtime Black and Brown residents to vacate.”

A SCALE representative did not respond in time for publication to elaborate on the petition.

The Latinx Student Assembly also supports cutting funding for DPS, citing in an open letter to the University administration an alleged pattern of misconduct by its officials.

“There are many testimonies of DPS officers using intimidation and violence to harass youth around campus,” read the letter, which LSA posted to its social media last week. “Increased levels of security have, in turn, increased the profiling of lower-income youth of color. Black USC students are continuously profiled and harassed by both DPS and the LAPD.”

LSA co-executive director Valeria Ortiz, a rising senior majoring in international relations, said that while the policing issues described in the organization’s statement are not exclusive to USC and DPS, she believes the University must take action to remedy them on campus through budget reallocation in order to show its support for its Black population.

“The organizers on the ground have made it very clear that the movement is very anti-capitalist and anti-police,” Ortiz said. “If the school wants to truly stand with its Black students, stand with its Black administrators, its Black service workers, etc., there needs to be a recognition that police presence on our campus has been in the past and will continue to be in the future a detriment to the students.”

Organizations such as the Pan African Student Association and IDEAS at USC have dedicated their time to providing resources — the former creating a split donation fundraiser in collaboration with USC Delta Phi Epsilon for Black organizations such as the Black Visions Collective and the NAACP. In a solidarity post to its social media account, IDEAS created a guide for undocumented protesters and called attention to the vulnerability of the Black immigrant experience.

The USC Care Collective, an effort founded in Spring 2020 to increase underserved students’ access to crucial resources and community support, has also advocated on behalf of the Black community. The Care Collective has added a “Create Change” page to its website encouraging students to sign petitions and contact legislators to voice their opinions about recent police killings, along with several books about race relations on the Care Collective’s radical reading list.

“In addition to all of our COVID resources, petitions, links to pro-Black movements, organizations, coalitions, fundraisers that are in dire need of support have also been added,” said Care Collective co-founder Alexia Sambrano, a rising junior majoring in neuroscience and cognitive science. “We’ve also continuously been adding more books, documentaries, movies, series or podcasts to our radical reading list.”

Since its founding, the Care Collective has offered financial assistance to students in need through the organization’s GoFundMe. Assistance recipients can now choose to divert the funds to a pro-Black or anti-police organization. The Care Collective has raised approximately $250 to date through this option, according to Sambrano.

“Obviously, we’re not requiring the students to donate them — the GoFundMe was created from marginalized communities that need these funds, especially amid COVID, so we completely understand if they choose not to donate,” Sambrano said. “But I think it speaks a lot and says a lot about how large the amount of people who have been able to donate or who have been willing to donate despite their circumstances.”

BSA has also expanded its efforts to advocate for the community outside USC and launched a fundraiser this week to amass resources for the surrounding South Central neighborhood. The organization also helped plan a Black Lives Matter protest, alongside recent graduate Kabwasa Green, which took place earlier this month and saw 1,000 students and community members demonstrate against police brutality.

During the Black Lives Matter demonstration, USC’s official social media highlighted the event but failed to appropriately credit the organizers of the protest, Powell said. However, BSA members have discussed ways to improve future media publicity with University staff.

“We think that how USC is going to handle protest coverage and coverage of the [Black Lives Matter] movement in general is going to be really good and progressive for Black students moving into the future,” Powell said.

Although most fall programming remains on hold as student organizations await official word from the University administration regarding social distancing protocol at events, BSA has proposed a campuswide discussion co-sponsored by USG focusing on allyship.

While the Care Collective has not penned a letter to the University administration enumerating specific demands for change, Sambrano said she hopes the University releases a more thorough and genuine response reiterating its support for the nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“I would really, really love to see the University or administration put out an official statement about the movement,” Sambrano said. “I know we had that email from President Folt not so long ago, but it kind of seemed very performative and lackluster.”

Prempeh, who has met with Folt twice, said they believe Folt has done well in listening to students and responding to their requests for change but sees room for growth with regard to the accessibility of USC’s administrators.

“I think a lot of people feel intimidated by reaching out to higher administration and I think it’s hard to know how we’re going to know we’re being supported,” Prempeh said. “I do think that in terms of having [Folt’s] attention, she has been and will continue to be a constructive resource for us.”

Ana Mata contributed to this report.