On February 20, 2020 Shikera Chamndany, an African immigrant alumna of University of California, Irvine (UCI), was accosted by university staff and employees in uniform carrying lethal weapons. They tackled and threw Shikera to the ground in the lobby of Aldrich Hall, the administration building, when she was on campus to get her academic transcript. Her subsequent arrest and detention and the fines and fees associated with the arrest have caused ripple effects, including sleepless nights by her friends waiting for her at jail, therapy visits, community meetings, petitions and the tears of Black immigrant and Black undocumented students wondering at how easily it could have been them. Black staffers were warned against speaking about it. Black faculty and staff wondered how we could convince our students of their value when the university, writ large, minimizes what they deal with great frequency.
Students from the Black Student Union and the United Students Against Sweatshops created a petition that demanded that the police be removed from campus. For the people horrified by Shikera’s treatment, the campus needed to be met with more than careful words, what Debra Meyerson (2001) warned about as “tempered radicalism.” UCI’s leadership, like others, has a history of minimizing such acts of violence by calling them “rare incidents.” This silences the collective injury, and disappears the individual injury. This approach reaffirms the notion that when bad things happen to Black people, they are not worthy of mention or apology. In such a context even strongly worded letters of condemnation from university leaders ring hollow. The structures in place that are organized around making things particularly precarious for Black people don’t get the kind of strict scrutiny to interrupt the culture that advances anti-Black violence.
Such flashpoints are rarely incidental. Instead, they are common and contribute to the overall sense of dis-ease, discomfort, and self-censorship widespread on university campuses. What is incidental is that sometimes we capture the force of intentional expressions of violence on record, or in this case, with nearly 50 witnesses, both those inside the building, and those outside of it, standing on the administration building steps. These witnesses saw the police officer grab Shikera and throw her to the ground. In fact there was a labor-solidarity protest outside.
Shikera, who wasn’t part of the protest outside, bore the physical brunt of the retaliatory force of the campus police department. Officers enraged at having to deal with students refusing to be cowed into silence found the closest Black person handy and threw her to the ground. Though she was not part of the protest, very few Black people on campus were surprised by the police officer’s treatment of her because we (along with Black students hovering at just around 2% of undergraduates—our largest constituency) are viewed as strangers, at best.
Much of the work that I do as a Black Faculty Member at a public research university is invisible but necessary advocacy and activism. Insisting that Shikera’s story be remembered and that the unresolved and private discussion between her formal legal representatives and the campus police and administrators become part of the public record reflects such work. Shikera’s story also reflects the fact that we have not dealt with the institutionalized forms of violence that operate alongside and through policing to evict Black people from campuses. When the police tackled her, it revealed a fundamental contradiction about our multicultural campus that requires far more rigorous commitment to political transformation.
Just a few days later, on the last Sunday of Black History Month, the Black Scholars Residence Hall hosted the third annual Black Hair Care and Wellness event, a therapeutic space for sharing tips on how best to regard ourselves as beautiful and valued in a place where we are what psychologist Rachelle Winkle Wagner (2009) called the “unchosen” -Black womxn bodies on predominantly white campuses. 200 attendees heard from community scholars and alumnae on public health concerns, health disparities, and urged students to use available mental health services. These cultural remittances of donated time and talent remind Black students that they are part of a long tradition of desegregating higher education and the fight for fair wages on campuses. We seldom get time to breathe freely because we are hyper-minoritized and rarely believed as credible witnesses to our own experiences. The attendees could not have known in advance that an event about Black Hair would be creating a space for care, gentleness, and challenge against the brutalization of one of our own. That it did is a reminder of our value in the face of overwhelming silence, and intense institutionalized violence. Moisturizers and balms and care for the body restore us, affirm us, and remind us of our traditions of imagining our way into new possibilities. However healing that experience might have been, they are not the same thing as institutional change, advocacy, and genuine concern that is expressed alongside committed and transformative political action that we can feel and see.
People around the country should know what is actually happening on predominantly white university campuses, and how precarious our conditions can be – that Black students get throttled inside the administration building, and protesting graduate student employees get fired for legally protected activities. That in response to the beatings of Black students, university campuses go into deep denial and hollow condemnation. More than ever, we need more anti-racism training on campuses. These trainings, however, have to be about the business of undoing old school racism, bias and hatred. The fist, baton, billy club, and gun along with the threat of lost employment are still being used to intimidate, frighten and silence.
Dr. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard (African American Studies, University of California, Irvine) is Vice President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, and author of Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability (2015). The Detroiter is also a poet and a Black internationalist lesbian feminist who survived.