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Grinnell College releases racial justice plan, but some students are unconvinced
Photo of a Black Lives Matter protest on June 9. From

After sixteen days of mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Grinnell College released a plan for institutional support of racial justice, but some students remain frustrated by the limits of their response. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police Department custody sparked an outpouring of rage and sorrow that has lasted for weeks as protesters took to the streets in cities and towns across the world. *

In an email announcing the plan, the College said that it would donate $50,000 to the organization Black Lives Matter and set up a community matching fund in collaboration with the Claude W. and Dolly Ahrens Foundation. The fund will match donations up to $30,000. The email also outlines a number of initiatives and panels to address racial justice, which the College will arrange in the upcoming weeks.

Already, Chinyere Ukabiala, Ombudsperson and Leslie Bleichner ‘07, director of Education Professions Career Community led an event called “Processing Space for Black Grinnellians” on Tuesday, June 9.

“We acknowledge that Grinnell College has a lot of work to do around racial justice and that these messages came too late for too many,” wrote President Raynard Kington and Dean Anne Harris in an email announcing the plan.

These institutional commitments build on the messages Kington and Harris released earlier this month, both of which focused on the link between education and “changing the world.” Protesters nationwide have demanded concrete actions from powerful institutions to divest from the police and address systemic racism within their institutions. The College’s plan represents a step in that direction, albeit delayed.

However, some students remain critical of not only the delay in response but of the commitments the College has made.

Malcolm Davis ’21 said that while he was pleased to see that the College will be making donations to racial justice organizations, he “would like to see more use of that money within the institution and use of that effort to support Black and Brown students on an institutional level, rather than something that seems to be about saving face and exporting money.”

Previous to the release of this plan, the only official communication from the College on the topic of George Floyd and the protests were the aforementioned letters and a post by the Grinnell College Instagram account about a memorial for George Floyd outside of the Grinnell United Church of Christ that was organized by Dr. Kesho Scott, sociology and American studies. Scott did not host the event in affiliation with the College.

At the time of the Instagram post, students and alumni expressed their frustration about the College’s lack of commitment to anti-racist work in the comments. The photo was hashtagged “#changemakers, #GrinnellianVoices, #socialjustice” and expressed solidarity with victims of racial violence and injustice. Out of the 128 comments left on the post as of 4:17 p.m., June 10, the vast majority demanded that the College do more.

“The Office of Communication uses social media to call attention to the work and accomplishments of faculty, students and staff. The Instagram post of June 9 was consistent with that practice,” wrote Debra Lukehart, vice president of communications. “There were many responses to that post.”

“Your response to this revolution is the most disappointed I have ever been in this institution,” commented Tess Kerkhof, whose Instagram username is @theliberalfarts. “You make no mention of reparations, divestment from the prison-industrial complex you support, or what steps you’ll take to remove the police force from campus. Your silence speaks volumes about what you truly do and don’t care about.”

Kerkhof said that she mostly stands by her comment, even after today’s email. “Money is better than nothing, but I’d rather hear them say ‘defund the police’ and remove the police from campus,” she said.

The Grinnell Police Department (GPD) aids Campus Safety with emergency response procedures as determined by Campus Safety officers. Police officers are legally allowed to enter campus whenever they like. Private institutions are classified differently than private residences, and officers do not need a warrant to enter.

Davis and his cousin Jelani McCray ’21 are currently working on building what they describe as a less centralized student-based movement targeting the Grinnell Police Department’s connection to the College and the current form of campus safety. They say that the College must disaffiliate from GPD.

Davis said that in order to truly disaffiliate from the police, the College must change their policy of calling GPD when campus safety finds narcotics in a student’s room.

Grinnell College does not have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Grinnell Police Department. MOUs serve to codify the relationship between two organizations, which can be used to regulate involvement of local police departments within educational institutions.

The College’s 2019 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, which in part outlines Campus Safety policy, states that “Campus Safety Officers address, alone or in conjunction with local law enforcement personnel, violators of state law, federal law, and College policy. Violators of state or federal laws are reported to local law enforcement authorities.”

Davis’ demand aligns with that of protesters who are calling for cities to defund the police and allocate funding to emergency response or harm reduction personnel who, many argue, are better equipped to address issues of drug abuse and mental health.

The College has also sponsored various programs over the years which invite GPD officers to socialize with students in the campus Dining Hall and Spencer Grill. Davis said that these events have a detrimental effect on the safety, comfort and confidence of students of color on campus, particularly Black students.

“I would like the College to realize that those are valid reasons not to work with police as an institution, regardless of how comfortable and safe the presence of the police makes the administration of Grinnell,” said Davis.

Through a sustained series of actions, protesters have pushed the Minneapolis City Council to abolish and defund their police departments due to endemic violence towards Black communities across the country. Schools like University of Minnesota and Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts have cut ties with local police departments.

Addison Marsh ’22, in collaboration with Davis, wrote an email to President Kington asking that he enact anti-racist policies on campus and commit to ending police presence on the campus “in any shape or form.”

In his response to Marsh on June 5, which Marsh shared with The S&B, President Kington wrote that he refused to “demonize all police officers because some in their profession do bad things.” Kington wrote that this “type of thinking” was antithetical to Grinnell’s approach to the world.

Kington directed any students with negative experience with the GPD or the Office of Campus Safety to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion or the Ombuds Office.

Marsh said that he was disappointed in Kington’s response, and remains skeptical of the racial justice plan announced by the College. Kington did not respond to The S&B’s request for a comment.

Marsh said that the donations and plans were a step in the right direction and that positive change could be achieved if the administration listens to students. He added, however, that he doesn’t have much confidence in the administration’s ability to respond to student demands after witnessing their treatment of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers in the fall of 2019.

While Grinnell touts its institutional value of social justice in admissions material and on its website, in recent history, the College has opposed many student-activist movements, from the divestment from fossil fuels campaign of 2017-18, to the campaign to cut ties with the prison industry which Davis and McCray led in 2018.

“If Grinnell wants to say that they’re for inclusion, that they’re for justice, that they’re for equity, all the things that Grinnell wants to talk a lot about … they need to stop buying into a system that disenfranchises people like me, people like my Black and Latinx peers, that uses them in what is really just a new form of chattel slavery,” said Davis. “The idea that that’s not more obvious to the people that run Grinnell is kind of embarrassing.”

Davis said that his and McCray’s campaign, tentatively named “Liberate Grinnell,” will continue to focus on the fact that the College has historically maintained a contract with Iowa Prison Industries, a company which provides dorm furniture and renovations and employs prison labor.

In Iowa, racial disparities in arrests and incarcerations are some of the worst in the country.

According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2018 Black Iowans were arrested at a rate of 776 per 100,000 of the Black general population in Iowa. White Iowans were arrested at a rate of 107 per 100,000. The disparity is particularly prevalent in marijuana arrests: a Black person in Iowa is 7.3 times more likely to be arrested for possession than a white person, even though studies show there is little difference in rates of usage. That makes Iowa the fifth-worst state in the country for racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

Davis outlined the implications of this disparity.

“Black men, for minor possession of marijuana, would be sent to a mandatory prison sentence. This prison sentence they can serve at a large state prison in Iowa,” he said. “They can get a good job there making about 60 to 80 cents an hour for Iowa Prison Industries, and they can end up on Grinnell’s campus moving furniture or cleaning out dorm rooms.”

Davis said that he thinks many Grinnell students who attended the school looking to engage with activism in an environment which values social justice feel “swindled” due to the contrast between the College’s messaging and the administration’s stance on issues. He said this statement remains unchanged in light of the College’s current plans.

“That money is less than what one student will pay at Grinnell in their entire time there,” said Davis.

The yearly comprehensive fee for Grinnell College is $70,544.

Editors’ notes:

*Multiple autopsies have ruled Floyd’s death a homicide and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has charged MPD officer Derek Chauvin with second degree murder. Journalistic standards require that a killing not be attributed to any person(s) until they have been convicted in a court of law.

Earlier this week, The S&B reached out to Vice President for Communications Debra Lukehart for comment on student and alumni frustration with the College’s lack of commitment to institutional anti-racist work. Lukehart responded to our questions after the College released their “Racial Justice Response and Donations” plan.

The S&B also reached out to Dean of Students Sarah Moschenross on this issue. Moschenross replied to our request after the College released their plan, indicating that the email constituted her response.

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