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OU Evans Hall sit-in: Demonstrator motivation remains high on second night of protest

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BERT Leaders

Leaders of BERT make an announcement following a meeting with interim OU President Joseph Harroz, Dean of Students David Surratt and Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Belinda Higgs Hyppolite in Evans Hall Feb. 27.

Over 36 hours after OU students first occupied Evans Hall, each of the building’s floors still echoed with the voices of students seeking change.

For some students, the last two days served as an outlet for frustration accumulated from as far back as 2015, when a video was released of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members singing a racist song on a bus. 

Following the string of public racist incidents beginning in January 2019 — and with two different professors using racial slurs in class in the past two weeks — black students at OU felt increasingly frustrated. Black Emergency Response Team co-director Miles Francisco said students are “tired of promises with no action” at a Feb. 25 press conference.

After two days of a protest unprecedented in OU’s 120-year history, the lobby of Evans Hall has been buried in water bottles, snacks, pillows and blankets brought to students, indicating the scale of the watch held outside the provost’s office, manned at times by over 100 students. 

More voices from across OU and throughout the country reached out to the activists in Evans Hall throughout the day with a single message — “you are not alone.”

The University of Texas Black Student Association, former Oklahoma State Senator Anastasia Pittman and the NAACP and New York Times bestselling author Angie Thomas made up only a few of those who reached out in support of the students occupying Evans Hall on Thursday. 

The OU Faculty Senate released a statement the same day recommending teachers to “consider alternative and accessible” teaching methods to accommodate students who were part of the protest.

Kalenda Eaton, associate professor of African and African American Studies at OU, was one faculty member who helped answer that call.

In the midst of the sit-in, Eaton held a book discussion with several students. The novel in question was “Jazz” by Toni Morrison, the renowned African American novelist and Nobel Prize winner, whose writings often involved the struggles and realities of black Americans.

Like the titular genre of Morrison’s work — which includes a variety of styles, often encouraging improvisation to set one’s performance apart — the range of students who have taken to protest was evident to the attendees.

Protesters from the Muslim Student Association sat in support. Conversations in Spanish could occasionally be heard. White students lined hallways alongside international students who joined the chorus of protesters, a group which also included Student Government Association officials, including SGA President Justin Norris. 

The band of backgrounds showing their support has helped some students confirm that OU’s issues with race are important to more than just the school’s black students.

“It shows me that our actions weren’t in vain,” said chemistry sophomore Jasmine Omoile. “I feel like (Provost Kyle Harper)’s going to have more pressure now. So many different people are watching.”

The crescendos marked by the announcements of negotiation progress from OU’s Black Emergency Response Team leadership at times felt chaotic as students scrambled down the stairs and from other rooms to gather in the lobby. But as more information was shared with protesters the situation became clear — the sit-in will continue, despite progress made.

While the OU administration has released statements indicating that some of BERT’s demands will be met by pre-existing aspects of the university’s strategic framework and diversity plan, interim OU President Joseph Harroz made it clear Harper would not be removed, adding that he “could not engage” with the demand and that no decisions would be made based on “ultimatums.”

Women's and gender studies junior BreAnn Redcross said she is unsure she would be satisfied with Harper remaining as provost based on records previously leaked by OU Unheard, which stated university officials had concerns about Harper’s dedication to diversity issues before he was selected as provost.

“I think it was telling seeing the documents leaked on his hiring consideration as provost,” Redcross said. “I’m not sure the university can stand by the need for equity and diversity if he stays here.”

Anthropology sophomore Toliver Houston said the protest could still be considered a success if Harper remains as provost, depending on the extent of additional institutional changes that may be made in response to BERT’s demands.

“I think what will really make or break it for me will be what these new requirements are to make a better and safer place for the students at OU,” Houston said.

BERT officer Destinee Dickson responded to the university statement, announcing to protesters that while the resignation had not been secured, BERT would make six additional demands Friday, and the protest would continue until the new demands were agreed to — sparking applause and cheers that rolled up the Evans Hall stairwells.

Dickson said the new demands will aim to create checks and balances between the offices of the president and provost.

When this final announcement was made, followed shortly by Harroz and other OU administrators leaving Evans Hall, the students that remained once again settled into genuine laughter — the music, dances and card games interspersed with students FaceTiming friends and relatives, excitedly sharing the most recent news.

Bringing about lasting change is always an uphill battle, Redcross said, but she hopes the students involved will be looked to as examples by OU’s future student body.

Redcross and Houston both confirmed they — along with approximately 30 other students — were prepared to stay overnight at Evans Hall. While a majority of the sit-ins supporters left Evans Hall around an hour after Dickson’s final announcement, this small contingent group said they will stay to guarantee only a temporary lull in the ongoing demonstration. 

“I think in terms of any social justice you’re basically going to face two steps forward and one step back,” Redcross said. “What’s been happening here is a good thing and I hope that BERT will be remembered for all that they have done — and one day be on the walls (of Evans Hall) with all of these other pictures.”

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