Behind the Breonna Taylor vigil: student response, administration

Some students expressed concern about the administration’s response to the Breonna Taylor Vigil held on Thursday, Sept. 24, outside of the Henderson Campus Center. 

“We are not about to act like this is not happening — like this is not going on in the world,” Rosslin Watson, ’22, said. “(Allegheny) tries to get their diversity number up by getting students of color here; now let’s not silence their voices once they are here. Let’s not stop acknowledging what they are going through once they are here. You have to create a space for all of that if you want students of color to be on this campus.”

Watson is the Co-founder of A Lady’s Place, Secretary of the Men of Color Advancement Association, Secretary of the Pi Phi chapter of Zeta Phi Beta and a member of Black Girl Magic. She is also an Intercultural Advocate.

Watson was unable to attend the vigil but acknowledged that there were issues with the manner in which Link addressed the vigil in the follow-up email. She also acknowledged that these are not new issues at Allegheny. 

“One of the biggest things for me within my classes that I did not appreciate was that in all of my classes, especially when the situation happened with Breonna Taylor, it did not sit well with me that we did not take the space out to acknowledge that this woman’s life was taken away and that there were no repercussions to the individuals that took her life away,” Watson said. “It just showed me what was more important in the academic setting here.”

According to the New York Times and The Louisville Courier Journal, Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician, had been in bed with her partner, Kenneth Walker, 27. After midnight on Mar. 13, police began banging at the door of Taylor’s apartment. While the police account is highly contested, according to Walker, both he and Taylor called out, but police smashed through the door, and Walker fired once in self-defense, shooting Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly. In response, the police on scene opened fire on the pair — five or six of the bullets  struck and killed Taylor. Taylor did not receive any medical attention for more than 20 minutes after being shot, and Walker called 911 himself. 

While the officers were given initial permission for a “no-knock” entry to Taylor’s residence, the permission status changed to “knock and announce” prior to the raid. Officers claim they announced, but Walker said otherwise, a detail which the police contested. While the warrant was issued under the suspicion that Taylor had a connection to a former partner involved in selling illicit substances, no evidence was found in the apartment.

On June 11, the City of Louisville banned “no-knock” warrants, and later that month former Detective Brett Hankison was fired from the department after investigations discovered he had blindly shot 10 rounds into Taylor’s home on the scene. In late September, a grand jury was set to investigate the indictment of Hankison; they declined the indictment. Neither Hankison nor the other two officers who fired shots on scene will face charges for Taylor’s death. In response to the grand jury’s decision, the Mayor of Louisville expected “civil unrest” from Black Lives Matter demonstrators protesting the lack of accountability for Taylor’s death. 

As a result of the grand jury’s ruling, students at the college hosted a vigil for the campus community.

“It is not about administration,” Amya Ruiz, ’20, said. “It is not about going against what they want. (The vigil) was not a protest — it was solely just to make a space for the students.”

Ruiz was one of the student organizers for the vigil and said that the vigil provided an opportunity for students to grieve for Taylor after the release of the grand jury’s decision.

“We did not organize much,” Ruiz said. “We just made space. (The vigil) was literally done in less than three hours. We just showed up and made space.”

After the vigil, two organizations who helped spread the word of the event were contacted by Dean for Institutional Diversity Kristin Dukes and Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students April Thompson in an email that requested the vigil organizers meet with administration on Friday, Sept. 25 to address policy concerns. 

“We fully support your activism and want to support ways to amplify BIPOC voices across campus; that said, we must balance that support with adherence to College policy,” a line in the email read. 

The email to the organizers included the college’s policies on advertising and posting, peaceful assembly Policy and community standards that were also seen in the campus-wide email sent by President Hilary Link on Sept. 28, addressing student involvement in the vigil. 

“I am reaching out to the campus community to provide information about ways in which our community can sincerely and wholeheartedly support Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color (BIPOC),” Link wrote. “I deeply appreciate and thank the students who gathered in solidarity (on Sept. 24) at a Candlelight Vigil for Breonna Taylor held outside the Campus Center. Allegheny College also honors and remembers the life of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in March during a raid on her apartment. Last week it was announced that no one will be charged for Ms. Taylor’s murder. This decision does not represent true justice for Breonna Taylor.”

Some signs and messages were removed from the campus for not abiding by Campus Center guidelines for postings. The college did photograph all messages and signs for the college’s archives. Community members also had an opportunity to retrieve their posters and signs from the Student Life Office, Link clarified.  

 “We recognize that many in the Allegheny community, in particular our BIPOC community members, are deeply impacted by the lack of indictment in the Breonna Taylor case, specifically, and the ongoing racial injustices in our society, overall,” Link added. “We understand that many of you are exhausted, angry, and saddened. College leadership wants to support you and stand alongside you at this important time … We hear your voices and are looking for ways to constructively amplify them. As is evident from the signs and chalking left from (the Sept. 24) vigil, voices need to be heard and understood clearly.”

The college hosted several open forums where students were able to voice concerns about the campus community and response to recent events. The forums were held on Oct. 7 from 6–7 p.m., Oct. 8 from 10–11 a.m. and Friday, Oct. 9, from 4–5 p.m.

“I understand that our country is at a critical juncture and that the ability to advocate for what we  believe in is essential,” Link wrote. “Allegheny College is committed to the principles of freedom of speech and inquiry, while at the same time fostering responsibility and accountability in the exercise of these freedoms. Allegheny College has policies in place to support activism, advocacy, and expression.”

Link encouraged students to review aforementioned policies as well as the policy against discriminatory and sexual harassment before hosting another event akin to the Breonna Taylor Vigil. This email upset some members of the campus community. 

“(Link) knew she had to do her job and send out an email,” Watson said. “What I did not appreciate is that within her email the first thing that she mentioned is that this is how you are supposed to handle things like this on campus instead of ‘I know what is going on in the world and this is bigger than you just trying to receive an education — this is real life stuff.’ There were no resources. Instead it was just ‘we stand with you, now here is how you are supposed to hold a vigil, here is how you are supposed to hold a protest, here is how you are supposed to hang up flyers. It was just like, ‘oh, ok’.”

Dukes mentioned that the email aligned with the college’s inclusion efforts.

“I co-wrote the email with (Thompson and Link),” Dukes said. “I approved the email and stand behind the message that we wrote. … The email aligns with the college’s inclusivity efforts in that it expresses gratitude to the students on this campus that work tirelessly to support one another and make Allegheny a more inclusive and welcoming environment.”

Dukes mentioned that the email expresses support for BIPOC community members, acknowledges and raises awareness about ongoing racial injustice in this country as well as provides additional information about the college’s policies in place for activism, advocacy and expression.

Many of the vigil organizers decided not to be identified or quoted in publication.

“Other organizers do not want to be identified because we did not do the work to be recognized, we did it to heal,” Ruiz explained. 

On Saturday, Sept. 26, Dukes was invited to the CILC Leadership Retreat. Student leaders talked with Dukes for over an hour and a half. While students expressed concerns, Ruiz compiled notes of the common sentiments and created a list of demands that she summarized at the end. 

“It was very frustrating and disheartening, honestly,” Aaliyah Coleman, ’21, said of the CILC leadership conversation. “It was student after student just talking about how hurt they were by the administration.”

Coleman is Co-president of Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students, Co-founder of A Lady’s Place, and Program Coordinator for Young Born Leaders and serves as Senior Intern at the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Social Justice Center.

Ruiz listed seven demands, of which the administration has met five. The college moved the student posters from the vigil to a more permanent space, acknowledged racial violence as a response to the vigil, acknowledged the life and death of Breonna Taylor, sent the “activsim email” and apologized for using the term “Blacks” to describe Black individuals. 

“We left that meeting with a list of demands, so they did not send that email on their own,” Ruiz said. 

The college has not, to the knowledge of Ruiz, had a discussion with faculty specifically for their acknowledgement of current racial violence with their students. Nor has the administration acknowledged the accusations of forced hysterectomies in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention centers. 

“I feel like we have been having the same conversations with the same people, and there has yet to be real, palpable change,” Manuel Soares, ’21, said. 

Soares is the president of the Association for the Advancement of Black Culture, and has been involved in campus organizing and activism since his first year. On behalf of ABC, Soares sent out the vigil details to advertise for the gathering. Soares was also in attendance at the CILC Leadership Retreat. 

“Because tenisons were heightened, Dukes was invited to the meeting,” Soares said. “It was a good 1.5 hours of saying ‘we need more and desire more, you have to do more’ … We are continuously seeing a trend of ‘we want this, we need this’ and they are listening, but not actually acting, and then students graduate. … Since freshman year, I still do not see any actual palpable change.” 

Watson agreed that the college needs to do more to create a safe and healthy environment for their students.

“Depending on who you ask there will always be more that could be done,” Watson said. “I completely understand that it is hard to please and accommodate everyone but also at the same time, when we all decided to come here and give our money to Allegheny, Allegheny told us they would try to make this the safest place as possible while we lived here. It is not a lot for students to ask them to live up to that expectation.” 

Mental health should always be a priority, especially right now, Watson added. 

“One of the biggest things that this school needs to focus on is making sure that they are providing resources that students can use to check on their mental health,” Watson said. “There is (COVID-19) and then people of color, more specifically Black people, are living another pandemic. … We can all sit here and act like everything is okay, but we know it really is not.”

Watson, Coleman and Soares agreed that a space needs to be created on campus to have these conversations with one another or at least acknowledge the injustices that are occuring within the classroom.

“For me, I feel like there is a true lack of empathy from administration in general,” Coleman said. “They know that they have students on this campus who are Black people, and they do not take the time to ensure that their mental health is steady.” 

Soares suggested that classes be created focused on inclusion and professors be evaluated on empathy.

“One, requiring more classes on identity, inclusivity and making sure professors have some sense of empathy and knowledge on students backgrounds,” Soares said. “Something we wanted to put in place … a space where all the CILC (organizations), leaders and students can say what they want to say, issues they want to be addressed. CILC (organizations then) take those comments to (administration).”  

Soares also suggested more efforts could be made to build relationships between public safety officers and students of color specifically.  

“Not that I’m saying I won’t do the work with administration,” Soares added. “I’m exhausted. What I want to see before having more conversations is for them to actually put in policies.” 

Sydney Francis, ’21, is a double major in Community Justice and International Studies, a Bonner senior intern and has served on the board for ABC and Black Girl Magic.

“(The administration’s email was) … very tone-deaf,” Francis stated. “You should not have to explain to multiple students why hearing that verdict was detrimental. Anything you have done now after the fact as a response, does not feel genuine.” 

Soares cancelled the general body meeting and left it open as a space for students to bring their grievances, or even to have a conversation about the verdict, Francis added.

 “In the midst of all of the police brutality and killings … it was just sort of like, we did not get anything,” Francis said. “We had to basically cause a stir for (Link) to send an email.” 

Francis also made a comparison to administration and academic departments’ response to the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18. The college collectively mourned her passing and provided a space for those who wanted to mourn. 

“I felt appreciated and noticed because our CILC leaders are just honestly amazing at the fact that they put something together so quickly and comfortably,” Coleman said of the vigil. “They truly wanted it to be a place where we could come and relax, and that is exactly how I felt.” 

Coleman also mentioned that she actively shared the AC Students for Change survey that found many students expressed a need for more transparent communication between them and administration. 

“I know that it is not a quick fix,” Coleman said. “I know this will not change before I graduate.”

Coleman acknowledged efforts already being made on campus for racial healing beyond administration. 

“(Administration) cannot always rely on CILC leaders to create space for white people to learn about us,” Coleman adds, “We can take on some of that (because) we love our culture and love to teach people about us.” 

Dukes mentioned several changes to the college, including the addition of an anonymous Campus Culture and Climate Feedback form posted on the Dean for Institutional Diversity website.

“Senior leadership wants to connect with students authentically, listen deeply to their experiences, and work collaboratively to improve our campus climate and culture,” Dukes said. “We recently held three open forums on campus climate and culture. We were able to hear directly from students about their experiences on campus and we are using that information to make recommendations to the appropriate offices and individuals that oversee areas of concern that were identified in these forums.” 

Dukes added that the college would like to hold more sessions similar to the open forums and collaborate with ASG to regularly host listening circles.

“We see creating opportunities for students to talk with senior leadership directly as a way of amplifying students’ voices,” Dukes said. “We hear BIPOC students when they express that they do not see themselves represented in the conversations happening across campus and that our campus community should be engaging in meaningful conversations about racism. The Office of Institutional Diversity is launching a weekly dialogue on current events and social justice with the goal of raising awareness about systemic racism and racial injustice and encouraging our campus community to reflect and act.”

Coleman suggested that students applying to the college could write an essay on racial injustices, or curriculum could have a class that is mandatory on racial healing as well.

“Every year that I have been at Allegheny, there has been usage of the n-word by a white student,” Coleman stated. “Within the school, what are you doing that could be a part of the admission process to check the knowledge of their racial understanding?”