As the cold, November night sky engulfed the daylight on Thursday, St. Cloud State University students congregated on the Atwood Mall in order to demonstrate and demand equality as well as representation.
As students gathered in below freezing temperatures, the crowd growing quickly, and conveyed their stories to each other.
“We reflected back on some things that our campus is lacking and those are some recommendations that people of color really like,” said Taha Khan, one of the primary organizers of the demonstration.
The demonstration was put on in response to the recent events that have taken place at the University of Missouri, as well as the recent fatal police shooting of Jamal Clark, an African-American male from Minneapolis. Demonstrators also reacted to recent remarks made by John Fillah, also known as St. Cloud Superman.
On his Facebook page, Fillah wrote:
I’m getting my conceal and carry permit. Already applied and been approved. Come and get some Isis and radical Islamists or any other domestic terrorist…When you see a concealed handgun strapped at my side when I’m on my corner with the Confederate flag, you will know why.
Director of Public Safety Kevin Whitlock said Public Safety and the university are working with the Campus Area Police Services (CAPS) and the St. Cloud Police Department to monitor the situation with Fillah.
“We don’t feel Fillah presents a direct threat to the community,” Whitlock said.
Solidarity is what organizers and demonstrators alike hoped to convey to the entire campus and to the rest of the nation, seeing as many universities wrote letters of solidarity to the University of Missouri.
As tensions heightened and the crowd’s anxieties became palpable, Isuru Herath signaled the group to move forward into the Atwood Memorial Center and up to the Cascade room, where the St. Cloud State Student Government meets weekly.
As the group moved through the halls of Atwood, they chanted in an organized fashion, allowing everyone within the vicinity to hear them. As the group of demonstrators reached the Cascade room, the group was met by the Student Government body.
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Members of Student Government, including President Summer Vogl, tried to calm the initial encounter down by talking to demonstrators and agreeing to hear what they had to say. Afterwards, members of the demonstration sat in the middle of the room as one by one members stood at the podium and voiced their concerns, frustrations and recommendations to Student Government, a student organization that the demonstrators felt does not represent them well enough.
“We face racism on this campus,”said Luz Lopez Rosas. “It stops now. I didn’t come to this campus to be discriminated against, I came to become educated.”
Jan Paylue came to the podium after Rosas. “I’m here because I’m angry,” Paylue said. “Racism happens everyday on this campus.” Directly after, affirmations came from those sitting on the floor surrounding the podium.
It can be increasingly difficult to focus on daily activities that students have to worry about, like classes and homework, with racism being present on campus, she explained.
“How can I do that if my Student Government doesn’t support me,” she said. “I’m an educated, college woman and I live that everyday.”
Luna Gebriel, sociology and women’s studies major, followed after Paylue. “I’m not a stereotype,” she said. “We deserve as much attention as your white students.”
“I need you guys to hear us,” she continued to say throughout her address to the body.
Gebriel went on to talk about how some diversity efforts on campus have made little difference in relation to the level of racism, specifically talking about diversity courses.
She explained that some students complain about taking the courses. She referenced President Potter’s letter sent out to university students Nov. 18, saying that it doesn’t help “when John Fillah is still out there.”
Gebriel ended her address to the body, allowing for another student to come to the podium.
Gabriel Johnson, business management and commercial real estate major, spoke next. He started by thanking Student Government for the opportunity to speak and apologized for any discomfort in the situation. Others in the group told Johnson not to apologize, but Johnson said he wanted to be respectful, while making it clear he had the right to speak.
“We’re the bottom of the bottom,” he said. “We see us in a bad light.”
“I understand there’s a way of doing things,” he continued, explaining that he feels something needs to change in a way that hasn’t been done before. “What matters is the end result and we’re the recipients.”
Johnson is grateful for being a part of such a diverse campus, he said, but told the Student Government body that “there’s a difference between diversity and integration.”
Outside of this room, he said there’s separation.
“What about unity?” he asked. “If we can’t come together…what makes us a diverse campus?”
As more members got ready to take the podium, so was Shamso Iman, a senior at SCSU and an active St. Cloud Somali community member. As she stood up and walked to the podium, the room fell silent. After a quiet introduction, one thing became clear, the introduction was the only part of her speech that was meant to be quiet.
“Throughout my whole life, I’ve faced racism which you don’t understand that racism has psychological effects on people,” said Shamso Iman to Student Government.
“When people are throwing your scarf, taking your scarf and pulling it out; people spitting on you, people calling ‘terrorist’; you can’t even walk down to the mall and shop peacefully with little kids because someone is going to yell that ‘you are a terrorist,’” said Iman.
Responding to Fillah’s Facebook post, she said, “That means they’re coming after me.”
“If he decides one day he’s going to go through with his threat, we’re done,” she said.
Iman also shared frustrations about the St. Cloud Police Department. She said in the past, others have threatened her. She called the police, she said, but she was told the incident was protected by free speech.
“I have called the St. Cloud Police so many times about the Somali community being threatened. You know what they told me? ‘It’s freedom of speech.’ Now let me go and say what those people have said to me, or go on my Facebook and watch what’s going to happen,” said Iman. “I’ll tell you what’s going to happen, I’m going to be arrested, and I’m going to be charged and I’m going to be labeled as a terrorist. So how come freedom of speech applies to somebody else, but it can’t apply to me?”
Senator Ladan Igale, in her first semester with Student Government, walked to the podium while Iman was still speaking. She wrapped her arms around Iman and hugged her and thanked Iman for speaking before returning to her seat with tears in her eyes. Iman ended her address shortly after.
Frustrations continued, as Bianca Williams, a freshman at SCSU, followed after Iman. After offering Iman her condolences, she stated that the freedom of speech that Iman is referring to is actually hate speech and technically bullying and said it was “ridiculous.” Afterwards, she recited a poem she wrote that she stated was for when “St. Cloud Superman was on campus and nothing was done about it.”
“N-i-g-g-e- are you aware of what’s going on in your community? White men waiving the confederate flag, yet we claim to be about unity…
…Words equal mental bruising reaming in the back of the mind so when a white man can waive an oppressive flag to my kind, permitted to his own space with a smile on his face, it is comfort that we cannot find. What type of B.S. is that, trying throw therapy in my lap because St. Cloud State is committed to fulfilling our mission, encouraging the free exchange of ideas and explorations of opinions, but at the end of our protest, just like this poem, all we’re left with is a clap.”
Isuru Herath, pursuing his master’s degree in Information Assurance and one of the lead organizers, came to the podium and was the last to speak. Getting to the podium, he stood silent for a time. Across the room, people waited, watching him.
When he broke the silence, he introduced himself. Formerly known as “Ish,” he said he’s reclaimed his name, Isuru. He went by Ish for 14 years, because his “white football coach” couldn’t pronounce his name.
Herath went onto say, “The only time I felt safe was when I was in a group like this.”
Having been on campus for eight years, he said to the body that it’s taken as long as he’s been on campus to build a community. He wants people to look within themselves to try to understand what it’s like for others who have had experiences with racism and marginalization, he said.
“We want you to look really deep in yourself,” he continued. “We wouldn’t be here if everything was okay…if there was nothing to fight for.”
Herath then went to state the group’s recommendations and requests for the university.
“They’re very simple,” he said.
There were only two requests. The first, he said they wanted a solidarity statement to the University of Missouri. The second, he said they want the cultural center on the main floor of Atwood expanded, so that students can gather and get away from their “reality.”
He said those requests were a start. But, there will be more and they will be back, Herath said. He stepped aside and began chanting, “We will be back.”
Again and again, he chanted the same words. They rang through the room and soon after others from the group sitting on the floor stood up and chanted with him, echoing the same phrase, “We will be back.”
After the group left, student government continued the meeting, but in a less traditional way. President Vogl said members sat in a circle and engaged in a conversation about the events that occurred that evening. In the conversation, they discussed what could be done moving forward.
“It was a learning experience,” Vogl said. Friday morning, President Vogl began drafting “a letter of support” to the University of Missouri Student Government, she said in a campus-wide email to St. Cloud State students.
In the beginning of the semester, Vogl said Student Government began working with Anne Buttke, executive director of the Atwood Memorial Center, to see what is possible for creating a more comfortable environment for students. With the group’s recommendations in mind, Vogl plans to continue working with Atwood administration to see if the budget allows for expanding the cultural center.
Adam Farhat and Alec Kasper-Olson contributed to this story.