The #paintitblack movement emerges victorious, but only after a white-supremacist voice-message infiltrated dozens of student’s phones. The robocall preceded a forum dedicated precisely to the issue it surfaced—racism on Drake’s campus.
BY MARIE NALAN
A known white-supremacist organization dropped robotic voice messages on the phones of Drake students, which interrupted an already emotionally-charged #paintitblack forum between a hundred Drake students, faculty and administration yesterday night. Shedding tears and resisting panic, students in attendance comforted one another as discussions ensued about campus climate, and Drake President Marty Martin approved a student proposal to paint Painted Street black in support of students of color.
The discussion in the Reading Room of Cowles Library on Monday night was originally scheduled to discuss the #paintitblack movement. The tone of the room shifted when students received a hate-filled robocall—an automated message made by a text-to-speech software, usually used by groups that want to remain anonymous by voice—from Road to Power, an Idaho-based white-supremacist organization. What followed was an emotionally-charged meeting that discussed the #paintitblack movement, safety for students of color and future plans for students, faculty and administration to project unity and strength.
“They are using this information to divide us,” said Martin, in a statement to those gathered in the room.
“We could’ve let that basically terrorist-type incident stop our communication, our conversation,” said Erin Lain, Provost of Equity and Inclusion. “But we didn’t. It was a really good sharing of ideas. It was a sharing of emotion, which I think is so critical in times like these.”
The meeting was organized by the #paintitblack student activists on campus. #Paintitblack began after a first-year Drake student had a note slipped under his door that threatened racial violence last Thursday. This incident, combined with many alleged reported and unreported harassment and microaggressions against students of color led student activists to flood social media with #thisisdrake posts sharing their stories. A plan to sheathe Painted Street with black paint was proposed and unanimously adopted by the Drake student senate.
Activists hope to have a more pressing conversation about race on Drake’s campus. Student activists also emphasized that this is not only a response to the racist note, but to wider problems with Drake’s campus climate such as many incidents students felt were not taken as seriously by white students, faculty and administration.
The forum began at 7 p.m. Monday night in the Reading Room of Cowles Library. Students, faculty and more attended. Notable administrative figures in attendance included Martin, Provost Sue Mattison, Public Safety Director Scott Law, Lain, and Dean of Students Jerry Parker. Also in attendance was David Golder, the chair of the Board of Trustees. Allies among faculty were also well-represented.
The forum, largely mediated by Vice President of Student Life Bakari Caldwell, began and proceeded as expected for about ten minutes. People in the room were introduced, and a conversation began about campus climate. President Martin and some other administration left the room and returned with news of the robocall.
Drake Public Safety as well as Information Technology Services collaborated to trace the source of the robocall to the white supremacist group out of Idaho called The Road to Power. The organization made headlined in recent weeks with similarly racialized robocalls during the Mollie Tibbetts investigation, Law said after the meeting.
“They called dozens of phone numbers on campus and left a white supremacist, hateful message on those answering machines,” Law said. “My understanding is that the fact we were having this meeting tonight had made some national press, so we’re assuming the group saw that and decided it was some sort of opportunity to disrupt the meeting or disrupt the students who were involved in this meeting.”
At the time of president Martin’s statement during the meeting, the source of the call was still unknown, and administration was on high alert for student safety. Upon his announcement of the robocall’s release, tears were shed around the room, and students visibly held and supported each other through the rest of the meeting.
“When we got word that there was this robocall to campus with this horrible, hateful message, it was devastating, because the reason we were here tonight was to talk about how we could move forward, and this was just a blow,” said Provost Sue Mattison.
In response to this robocall, organizers spoke even more passionately. Activists and administration decided the meeting should go on now more than ever. Student Mariah Crawford spoke to those gathered.
“Don’t let ignorance take over your emotions,” Crawford said.
Crawford asked her fellow student activists to stay focused and see the robocall as only more of a reason for the university to appear united in the face of hate.
“We are so much bigger than this,” said Lain. “It is incredibly sad and painful, but our response is always to stand up.”
Activists in the room grappled with the news of the robocall as they continued their meeting. One of the key objectives was to ask administration about the proposal to paint over Painted Street with black paint. One key moment occurred when Maleigha Williams, senior and president of the Coalition of Black Students, asked the higher-ups in administration directly if students could take up their brushes. Martin stood up and agreed passionately which incited loud and enthusiastic applause around the room.
Martin spoke openly on his reservations about the proposal. He said Painted Street represents a space of unity between diverse student organizations, and that he originally feared that painting over it would look more like division than unity. But he said that he strongly supports painting over Painted Street to show solidarity with the oppressed and present a unified front against hate.
“I would ask that we get as many of our students as we can out there on Painted Street, armed with a paintbrush, to take their own opportunity to put black over that space,” Martin said. “It is not a statement of division. It is a statement of ‘we are all in this together.’ Every single one of us belong here. Every single one of you are valued members of this community and are essential to it.”
A few students in the room expressed thanks to administration for their listening ears during this time.
After the immediate issue of Painted Street resolved, a larger discussion could take place, including topics like the hiring of faculty of color and protocol with offensive behavior made by tenured faculty. Administration and faculty said they were interested in continuing this long-term discussion.
“I think the meeting was very productive, because in the beginning of our meeting, we had something that was definitely correlated to what happened,” Crawford said. “So a lot of emotions were in the room. It made it more vivid. It made it more realistic. A lot of people can see a note and say, ‘oh, it’s just a note,’ but when it’s actually happening in the room when we’re all organized together for the issue, it made it really powerful.”
“I am proud of the students for coming together,” Mattison said. “I can’t imagine the fright that they feel. We will do everything we can to help move forward.”
Lórien MacEnulty contributed to the reporting of this story.
HEADER IMAGE: Junior Ayana Anderson addresses President Martin directly during the #paintitblack forum between administration and students.