In the days following George Floyd’s death, as Los Angeles residents began protesting, students at local universities followed suit. On June 1, Saeed Yusuf, a senior at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), and two other students created the Instagram account @norhridgeblm and used it to urge students to gather on campus. The next day, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff marched peacefully through the college grounds for hours, hoisting signs in the 90-degree heat.
Yusuf has attended Black Lives Matter protests before, but only as a participant. He fell into the role of organizer after he and his friends noticed a lack of protests in their area and took it upon themselves to create a space for peaceful demonstration. “There were things in L.A., but there was really nothing going on in the Valley,” Yusuf says, his voice still strained from days of chanting. CSUN President Dianne Farrison praised the protest in a school-wide email writing, “Earlier today, a peaceful protest took place on campus and the surrounding neighborhood, showing the determination of the Northridge community to participate in change.”
On another L.A. campus 20-plus miles to the southeast, students say they and the administration aren’t nearly as in sync. In the five days following Floyd’s death on May 25, USC had yet to release a statement on the incident or the national unrest that followed. Enraged by the university’s silence, student Jephtha Prempeh started a petition demanding university president Carol Folt speak on anti-Blackness throughout the nation, and especially at the university.
“USC does a poor job altogether at fostering a positive and representative environment for Black talent and intelligence. So the institution, like almost every other in high education, is inherently complicit in the system of anti-Blackness that disenfranchises Americans across the country,” Prempeh wrote. The following day, Folt released a statement that failed to alleviate Prempeh’s and the petition’s 7,000 signees’ misgivings. Long before Floyd’s death, the Black student population had pleaded with the administration to address anti-Blackness, complaining that the USC Department of Public Safety disproportionately polices Black students and community members, and pointing to the school’s initial refusal to rename the Rufus von KleinSmid Center, a library named after a known eugenicist and former university president. The school finally removed von KleinSmid’s name and bust from the building last week, after years of complaints.
Folt drew further criticism for not attending USC’s Black Lives Matter protest on June 7, where approximately 1,000 protesters called for both nation- and school-wide reform. Daily Trojan editorial board members, disclaiming their lack of Black members, compared this time to the 1992 riots, asserting that the majority of the USC community prioritized the looting of possessions from their “gentrified apartments” over the physical and emotional devastation felt by L.A.’s Black community. “Now, as protests draw near campus again nearly three decades later, history must not repeat itself,” they wrote.
Students at cross-town rival UCLA report having a similarly strained relationship with university leadership. Alexandria Davis, chairperson of UCLA’s Afrikan Student Union, says the university has irresponsibly handled its response to Floyd’s murder and the outcry that’s ensued, noting the LAPD’s use of the Jackie Robinson stadium as a temporary processing area for arrested protesters, which she sees as blatantly disrespectful. According to a June 4 statement released by Chancellor Gene Block and the rest of the school’s top brass, the stadium was used without their permission, calling it a “clear violation.”
The statement goes on to say, “We must do more to ensure that our commitment to equity, diversity, respect ,and justice are front and center across all of our campus policies and practices. To that end, we will soon establish a task force on structural racism, which will include students, faculty, staff and members of the broader community. This task force will pay special attention to policing issues and make concrete, actionable recommendations.”
But some students say there’s a disconnect on when Black lives matter. Trisden Shaw, head of UCLA’s Black Graduate Student Association, believes Chancellor Block’s vociferous support for the Floyd movement differs greatly from his participation with the Black community in times of relative normalcy.
Shaw and Davis, representing their respective organizations, partnered to lead a protest on June 4, at which they called for the arrest and conviction of Floyd’s abusers, allocation of funds from the LAPD to education and increased support from Block. Although Shaw said the administration and UCPD were helpful in setting up a safe, peaceful protest, he still feels that Black students don’t receive enough support outside times of crisis, calling Block’s statement regarding the stadium incident a performative apology.
“Actions speak louder than words. And it’s just been a lot of words for me,” Davis said.