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Students and alumni of color call for anti-racist action

Sophie Smith


On June 12, Willamette University Alumni of Color released an open letter addressed to the Willamette community and its leaders, calling for the University to dismantle its relationship with the Salem Police Department and to “assert an anti-racist agenda to protect Black people and other POC on campus.” With the statement, the group also published a petition. Those who sign the petition endorse the group’s demands. The Collegian’s executive team has signed this petition. Find the petition here.

Another group, Black Students and Alum, published a statement of its own, which also calls on the University to confront police violence and Willamette’s “complicity in white supremacist practices.” The full statement can be read here

Collegian executive members have published an editorial addressing the issues these statements raise and expressing support of Willamette’s Alumni of Color and Black Students and Alum. The editorial can be found here.

Found below is the full statement written by Willamette University Alumni of Color:

To the Willamette University Community, President Thorsett, Board of Trustees, and Administrators:

On May 27th, 2020, the University of Minnesota announced that it will reduce its ties and ultimately discontinue its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. In light of current events, we ask Willamette University to follow University of Minnesota’s footsteps to deliver the following message: police brutality against Black people must end. We, as Alum of Color, ask that Willamette take a proactive stance to demonstrate solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and to protect its students. We call for Willamette University to end its relationship with the city of Salem and state of Oregon’s Police Departments, and to ask that Salem PD respect the University property boundary. 

 In October 2019, armed state and local police officers were invited to train on Willamette’s campus facilitated by Campus Safety Associate Director, Rich Dennis, a former State Trooper. Alum and students were alarmed by this because of Willamette University’s zero tolerance policy regarding firearms, weapons, and simulated weapons on campus, which is “applicable to all members of the University community including visitors and guests” according to the Standards of Conduct. This double standard has and continues to raise alarms because it communicates (1) that the Standards of Conduct may not apply to law enforcement and (2) a disregard for the wellbeing and humanity of Black people and other people of color on campus. Because of this, we are justified in saying that Willamette University’s priorities in relation to its students and law enforcement need to be re-evaluated.

On October 16th, 2019 students were notified by Ross Stout, Director of Campus Safety, that the “cooperative and collaborative relationship with law enforcement is important to ensure the ongoing safety of the Willamette University community.” Yet, the police departments (city of Salem and Oregon State) the University is so invested in “collaborating” are characterized by violent histories of targeting marginalized Black and Indigenous people throughout the state of Oregon. For example, Salem PD has received national attention for collaborating with local Proud Boys, a far-right, neo-fascist organization that not only promotes anti-Blackness, but also actively works to harm Latinx and Indigenous people, as well as LGBTQ+ folks and womxn. Last year, independent researchers from Oregon Live found that Oregon police departments have routinely allowed officers who were fired for having records of violence and brutality to evade criminal charges and remain eligible for work. The alarm raised in response to the previously cited actions taken by the University in regard to its relationship with law enforcement has compelled us to ask: (1) Whose safety is law enforcement  ensuring? and (2) Why is it necessary to maintain a “collaborative” relationship with law enforcement? Motivated by promoting the safety and wellness of Black, Latinx and Indigenous people in Willamette’s community, we ask that the University act in accordance with their values to protect the dignity and worth of all current and future members of its community. It is absolutely necessary that Willamette specifically outlines detailed procedures of when and why Salem PD would need to be contacted, if at all. 

Ultimately, the University must make a firm commitment to using other forms of protection and de-escalation practices before resorting to these violent institutions. The presence of police on Willamette’s campuses threatens Black, Latinx and Indigenous students’ wellbeing because of law enforcement’s violent history and current behavior. Willamette’s current open campus policy allows officers to be on campus without advance notice or supervision. Given how the University’s values should be in congruence with addressing the threats imposed upon Black, Latinx and indigenous students’ wellness and safety, we ask that both state and local police no longer be considered “guests” of the campus and that their movement in our community be heavily monitored. While we acknowledge that there may be certain situations that are above campus safety’s capacity, we invite and encourage Willamette to make a proactive effort to divest from its reliance on police in order to actively keep everyone in our community safe before a member of this community is killed by police brutality.

As much as Willamette University seeks to distance itself from Oregon’s anti-Black history, it is unquestionable that Salem and other Sundown Towns laid foundations for racialized violence to be perpetuated, and that the University has played a role in that. In it’s 178-year history Willamette University has failed to protect students from political, social, and physical violence. While Willamette University has publicly condemned racism, neither past nor current actions from the University have supported their proclamations. As former students, we hold the scars of blatantly racist moments that distorted our college experience.

We remember the Indigenous children forced into manual labor in attempts to “educate and civilize” them by the Indian Manual Labor School—now Willamette University.

We remember that Willamette is on stolen land, which was forcibly taken from the Indigenous groups of the Kalapuya Yamhill, Santiam, and Ahantchuyuk.

We remember the 1942 forced removal of  10 Japanese-American Students from Willamette’s Campus to internment camps. 

We remember your attempts to defund and eradicate Willamette Academy and their students from our campus.

We remember the hesitant and untimely response to the need for a Native Americans Program and full-time Program Director.

We remember the trauma caused by the Anthropology department displaying the bones of Indigenous people on campus claiming them as “historical artifacts”. 

We remember the dismantling of the American Ethnic Studies Major and the incredible faculty and staff of color who left never feeling at place at Willamette University. 

We remember the student activism to reclaim the E&E from a “gathering space for all” to a gathering space for students of color and the labor of love put into this effort by students.

We remember the STEAM (Students for Transparency Equity Accountability and Mobilization) Collective, their ten demands, and the unsatisfactory response from Willamette’s Administration.

We could never forget the hostility students faced when we protested the murder of Mike Brown and the acquittal of then police officer, Darren Wilson.

Willamette University, publicly condemning racism is the bare minimum. It is not enough to share empty words if they are not followed by meaningful action. The University must actively take steps to protect not only the general student body and students of color, but very specifically Black students, faculty, and staff in the Willamette and Salem Community. President Thorsett, in a recent letter you stated that “a nation in crisis doesn’t need more words from white men like me”-then stop talking, take charge, and make a change.

Alumni of Color in Solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and members of the Black Community at Willamette University.

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