As sociologist William Bruce Cameron once wrote, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” His writings referred to the priceless value of life’s joys and pleasures, emphasizing that there shouldn’t be a price tag on humanity.
As anti-racism protesters and activists call on institutions to recognize the prevalence of systemic racism, they too are starting to feel as though human rights come in second to financial motives.
As students have notoriously been at the front of social justice efforts like the civil rights movement, the Vietnam antiwar movement, and the fight for increased gun control, universities and schools have had the enormous responsibility of managing student activists and protests on top of day-to-day operations.
Student organizers at one such institution, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), claim their university has done a poor job prioritizing the safety and first amendment rights of its students.
Senior Mekdes Charles, Chief of Staff of VCU’s student government, told The College Post that VCU’s statements of support for anti-racism protesters and free speech feel insincere when reviewing the university’s actions.
“I always tell people that VCU is a for-profit institution,” said Charles. “They consistently put property over student’s rights.”
On Saturday, July 25, chaos erupted in Richmond Virginia when demonstrators marched to the headquarters of Richmond’s Police Department, a short walk from VCU’s campus.
Shortly after arriving, they were met with less-lethal rounds of rubber bullets and an unidentified chemical weapon, such as tear gas. Protesters scattered as chaos ensued, and 17 demonstrators were arrested over the weekend, including at least four VCU students.
The next day, VCU’s Office of the President released a statement regarding damage done to the campus during an anti-racism protest the night before. The statement claims 80 windows on campus were broken, as well as extensive damage sustained to over a dozen buildings. The damage is still being assessed, but VCU estimated that the demonstration cost roughly $100,000.
The report also asserts that VCU supports free speech and peaceful protests for equality, but does not condone acts of violence or vandalism, regardless of the purported cause. Furthermore, the statement makes no mention of the violence VCU students suffered at the hands of Richmond’s police department.
As VCU President Michael Rao had the time to address violence done to campus buildings, some students feel as though the unintentional or willful neglect of violence done to students is further proof of a university that cares more about their property than the human rights of their students.
‘A Perceived Retaliation’
In a statement released on July 28, VCU’s Student Government Association expressed contempt for the trespassing charges students face after being in VCU’s Monroe Park after 10 pm. Monroe Park is a focal point of the university’s campus and students often meet and relax in the park past closing hours.
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VCU Police (VCUPD) has a dispatch station in the middle of Monroe Park, yet they have never attempted to enforce or specify the park’s closing time until after protests began occurring there.
Charles of VCU’s student government, who was arrested while leaving the park, said she has driven by the park late at night numerous times since her arrest and has witnessed students playing games, eating, and relaxing, with no officers in sight to arrest them.
Olivia Hunter, a senior business major, told The College Post that in her four years at VCU she has never been asked to leave the park after dark.
“It’s absolutely VCU police’s retaliation against protesters using their voices and demanding better for the Richmond community,” she said.
Charles felt as if VCU wanted students to leave the park, VCUPD should have spoken to protesters first, stated the park’s rules, and then told them that Richmond Police were going to be called if they didn’t leave.
Corey Byers, Public Information Officer for VCUPD, told The College Post that VCU assisted Richmond Police in the arrests made that night, but that the arrests were ordered by Richmond Police Department. Byers declined to comment on why the park’s closing time was enforced that particular night.
In a July 28 statement, VCU’s Student Government Association (SGA) claimed the administration’s response to the protests over the weekend makes it “clear that VCU prioritizes profit and image over the wellbeing of students.”
Michael Porter, the associate vice president for student affairs, declined to directly address SGA’s accusations, but reiterated to The College Post that “VCU does not condone criminal activity against people or property.”
‘Freedom of the Press’
Saturday night, July 27, Richmond police detained one VCU student journalist and one other Richmond area journalist at the park. Both reporters have consistently documented Richmond’s anti-racism protests and told officers that they were members of the press while being detained.
Here is video of my arrest. Which again, the police did not have probable cause to arrest. pic.twitter.com/Gx4aTlXC6R
— Goad Gatsby (@GoadGatsby) July 27, 2020
VCU student journalist Andrew Ringle tweeted that he had been trying to leave the park when he was detained. He told officers that he was at the park to work, not protest, and was exercising his First Amendment right of press freedom.
I was just detained by Richmond Police officers while trying to leave Monroe Park. Officers were clearing the area, but before I could get to the street I was grabbed and put in handcuffs. They released me on the grounds that I do not return to the park tonight. Last vid I took: pic.twitter.com/IjkQbsYaLa
— Andrew Ringle (@aeringle) July 27, 2020
Kristopher Goad, the Richmond journalist and VCU alum arrested Saturday, told The College Post that he was “upset with VCU’s participation in Richmond Police’s abuse towards protesters.”
The arrest of a VCU journalist was particularly troubling to students, who wonder why a university that claims to support free speech and social justice reform has not condemned the Richmond Police Department’s actions, even when the First Amendment rights of the free press are being disregarded.
Nicholas Da Silva, a VCU alum and candidate for Richmond’s City Council, told The College Post that he was “deeply disappointed” in VCU for not condemning violence against students.
“Seeing members of the press who I have come to trust and rely on for coverage attacked was horrifying,” he said. “I had hoped that [VCU President Rao] would say something.”
When asked about the poor treatment of a student journalist, VCU’s associate vice president for student affairs Porter said that the university is “committed to free speech and participation in peaceful protests.” He declined to comment on accusations of a blatant disregard of first amendment rights.
While these pledges and manifestos were made in good faith, some students, like Hunter, perceived them as insincere gestures when compared to VCU’s actions in regards to students’ First Amendment rights.
“VCU sells itself as an institution dedicated to diversity and inclusion,” said Hunter. “Upholding that dedication includes standing with the student body and the complex issues that come with our identities. VCU has shown that windows are more important than students.”