‘It is bigger than the rock’: Students call for change after racist messages

Protesters start to walk toward Oscar Richie Hall and then down to the rock during the Black Lives Matter protest on Sept. 10, 2020.

Owen MacMillan Sports editor

Correction: In a previous version of this story, a quote was incorrectly attributed to Kamalenn Gillespie. This quote has been removed.

Hundreds of Kent State students gathered in front of the Student Center Thursday wearing masks, holding signs and wearing almost exclusively black.

The students were part of a Black Lives Matter protest sparked by repeated writings of hateful, racist language on the rock that sits on Kent State’s front campus.

The most recent incident saw the rock read “Blacks have no home here.”

This was what sparked two students, juniors Tory Wenson and Kamalenn Gillespie, to organize the protest on their own.

“When I saw ‘Blacks have no home here’ it definitely made me feel a great indignation because for years, if you go back in history from slavery to civil rights they’re always trying to say we (African Americans) don’t have a place here,” Wenson said. “So for people to say that to me in the present day, at my where I paid my money, where I put in the time and work to earn a degree here so I can go on and make change, is unacceptable.”

The incident with the rock was a catalyst for the organization, and the march would end up there after a stop at Oscar Ritchie Hall, but the organizers and attendees made clear that the issues that drove them were much deeper than some graffiti written on a rock.

After the group had gathered, Wenson stood atop the Kent State fountain and said they were gathered to make sure all students knew they were welcome and had a home at Kent State.

She then read the demands that Black United Students had presented to the earlier this week, which have already been accepted, and handed the floor to Cameran Cunningham of Kappa Alpha Si, a Black fraternity.

Cunningham read his fraternity’s demands as well, and also stressed the idea that the protest was about addressing racial inequality more than about the rock.

“We’re here protesting racial inequality,” he said. “The rock situation, the hate speech painted on there, is a great platform for us to actually invoke real change, but it is not necessarily the product. I don’t think anyone here believes the solution to the issue at hand is to change the location of the rock.”

The group took off toward Oscar Ritchie Hall, chanting popular BLM slogans such as “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police,” “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter.”

As the group reached Oscar Ritchie, the chanting continued for several minutes and subsided as a new speaker took the center.

Junior Gabrielle Blake, the director of political affairs and grievances for Black United Students, stepped forward to share the history of Oscar Ritchie Hall, which was built thanks to the efforts of Black students in the past.

Blake helped Wenson and Gillespie organize their protest, and said BUS was there in support of students’ demands that Kent State be more proactive about addressing racial inequality on campus.

“There is still more the can do and should do; this is a first stepping stone,” Blake said before the march began. “Yes, they’ve supported these demands (BUS made), but going further I want more action. I want to see more things for the Black community. That is why we are here along with the community.”

After a few additional speakers and chants, the group turned left and began to make its way to its final destination: the rock.

Upon reaching the rock, which has again been painted over all white and covered in hearts and BLM in black spray paint, the organizers invited any student who wanted to speak to come forward. 

Speakers included sophomore basketball player Kalin Bennett, BUS president Tayjua Hines and over a dozen regular students.

They all told their own stories, some of them talking about growing up experiencing racism and now feeling so at home in these groups and others saying they wanted more solid commitments from the on addressing inequality.

Multiple speakers questioned why President Todd Diacon was not present to support them, and a chant of “Where’s Todd?” broke out for a short time.

The speeches were interrupted for several minutes when Kent City Council members Gwen Rosenberg, Roger Sidoti and Robin G. Turner arrived and voiced their support of the protest, but were pressed by several students, most of all Cunningham, to make specific commitments on addressing racism and police reform in their city.

One voice shouted “City Council votes on the budget, you can defund the police,” and received huge applause and cheers.

Eventually the council members left the main group to have a private conversation with Cunningham and members of BUS leadership who were present, and the conversation returned to students sharing their stories.

There were Black freshmen who expressed their gratitude to have such a huge group of support, and several white self-proclaimed “allies” talked about how they came to find themselves here in support and to ask how they could do more.

In one of the speeches, a student, who identified herself only as “Keke,” spoke about her visit to the George Floyd memorial in Minneapolis.

As she spoke about reading the long list of names of Black people killed by police, she and several members of the audience began to cry.

“Please, please. Please do not let your hearts start aching for every time this happens,” she said. “Please don’t let this (protest) be performative. Please don’t let this end here; please don’t think you did something here and pat yourself on the back and post an Instagram picture. Please realize that this is an everyday struggle.”

Another protest is planned for tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 11, at 2 p.m. starting on the K outside the Student Center.

Owen MacMillan is a sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].