Lessons from the Campus Occupation

Against the Current No. 16, September-October 1988

Pierre Laliberté

THE FIVE-DAY TAKEOVER of the New Africa House (NAH) at University of Massachusetts in Amherst (UMass-Amherst) by 150 students of color last February was probably the most widely reported in a string of anti-racist protests on campuses in the United States.(1) The protest at UMass-Amherst highlights many contours of the university landscape in this country:

• the growing isolation of Black students on many campuses;

• the role the university plays in reproducing existing patterns of racism;

• the increase in cases of physical violence against students of color;

• the existing social, cultural and political segregation separating the different communities; and, finally

• the difficulties involved in trying to challenge these reinforcing patterns

Students and faculty bear a special responsibility not only in responding to incidents of racist violence, but in confronting the institutional racism that is perpetuated by the university system. Unless whites show their determination to challenge racism, the powerful force needed to oppose the racist nature of our schools will not be forged.

A number of incidents dramatizing the administration’s unwillingness to protect Black students from victimization occurred at UMass. The first occurred in the early 1980s, after a string of fires on campus prompted the university to call in the FBI to investigate possible arson. The Feds proceeded to build a “psychological portrait” of the arsonist. On the basis of this “scientific” evidence, they determined that the culprit had to be a Black female. Yvette Henry was singled out as the possible arsonist because she “fit” the portrait.

Black students on campus were outraged at the racist and sexist character of the investigation. In the end the university, incapable of proving its case, dropped the charges. In the words of Judge Frederick Hurst, who later wrote a report on subsequent racist incidents at UMass, “Black students understandably fear that they are more likely than white students to be accused and treated unfairly by campus police and administrators in Student Affairs.”(2)

In October 1986, on the last night of the World Series, several Black students were attacked by a mob of white students. The university, pretending as long as it could that racism did not have anything to do with the incident, treated the incident as a problem that arose from the consumption of alcohol. Even white progressives on campus, while sympathizing with the victims, did not find a way to challenge the administration’s analysis. It took a great deal of anger and protest from students of color before the matter became an “issue” for the rest of the campus community.

The administration appointed Judge F.A. Hurst from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to investigate the matter. His conclusions were clear: “The events … had been racially motivated. The baseball game and alcohol, rather than being the causes were merely the catalysts.” The report went on to predict that “future incidents of racial intolerance and the potentially deadly violence that attach to them are inevitable unless the problems … are solved.”(3)

The Occupation of New Africa House

On Feb. 6, 1988, two Black men and a white woman were physically attacked by six white men (both students and non-students). It seemed that the administration was going to downplay the racist incident once again. On February 12, five days after the incident, angered by the university’s lack of response, about two dozen Third World students-the name they chose to describe themselves-gathered at the New Africa House (NAH), a Black cultural center that was an acquisition of the 1960s movement. They decided to occupy it until the administration expelled the attackers and took steps to address the problem of racism on campus.

Issuing a statement, the Third World students pinpointed the racist attack as being “perpetuated and reinforced by institutionalized racism. Such racism has an adverse effect on the educational and social atmosphere on this campus. This is a violation of our human rights. At this present time, we are occupying and reclaiming the New Africa House. We anticipate that this action will be a positive step in our struggle against racism.”

This bold move was overwhelmingly supported by Black, Puerto Rican and Native American students, and the number of occupiers quickly swelled to 150. The NAH became the headquarters where demands were developed, strategy established and the negotiating committee elected. Given the lack of campus response to earlier incidents, Third World students did not con­ sider a strategy for reaching the overwhelmingly white student body and faculty except through the power of their own united action. Using that decision as a basis, they took the initiative. The protesters decided to limit entrance into the building to members of the Third World community on campus.

Institutional Racism

One cannot fully understand the nature of the present struggle outside of the context of the ongoing institutionalized racism in our universities. It is a system of “racism without racists,” that is, the rules of the game are such that discrimination is reproduced by the sheer dynamics of the institution. Discrimination appears natural.

For instance, people of color are not formally barred from the university system, but a host of difficulties–including severe financial problems-conspire to limit the number of students who make it into the system. Since the curriculum and environment are organized on the basis of Eurocentric assumptions, students are encouraged to accept and adapt to those narrow and racist assumptions.(4) Faced with the equating of success with becoming alien, the majority of Black undergraduates drop out.

Over the last ten years, most of the gains of the 1960s seem to have melted away. Total Black enrollment in higher education has actually declined from a peak of 9.4% in 1976 to 8.8% in 1984. While more Blacks graduate from high school, the proportion of high-school graduates entering college also declined, from 33.5% to 26%. Among Black undergraduates the drop-out rate is a dramatic 60%.

Key to the decline in Black enrollment have been the reduction and redirection of financial aid, cutbacks in federal funding for pre-college outreach and academic support programs, the rising costs of a college education and, at the same time, the erosion of earning power within the Black community.

Financial aid for Black students is crucial to their securing a college education. In 1981 alone, almost half of all college-bound Blacks came from families with incomes under $12,000. Only 10% of the white student population comes from similar family income. Clearly Black students have been the primary victims of conservative economic policy.(5)

Meanwhile, the ideological offensive of the New Right–with its emphasis on individualism and its attack on affirmative action programs as “reverse discrimination” against whites–has had a pernicious impact in legitimating attacks, both economic and physical, on Blacks and other people of color.

At UMass-Amherst, the enrollment of Black students, following the national trend, had been declining steadily. The administration claims that minority enrollment is 4% of a student enrollment of 22,000, but most believe that even that infinitesimal proportion is actually inflated.

Likewise, over the last ten years the percentage of Black and Hispanic faculty has barely kept up to the dismal level of the 1970s, respectively 3% and 2%, while Native American professors went from 1% to zero.

Disarray Amongst the White Folks

The takeover took the campus by surprise, white progressives included. Was it to be a Third World protest or did these students desire the participation of white supporters? The protesters inside NAH were involved in hammering out a strategy and white supporters on the outside had to figure out how they could express their political support to the action. Daily meetings attracted a number of students new to organized political action. These meetings regularly drew sixty people, including representatives of the campus progressive groups.

Two tactical lines took shape. Some of the most outspoken activists on campus went on automatic pilot, calling on white students to take over some building to put additional pressure on the administration. However, the majority felt that since students of color had taken the initiative and held the attention of the national media, taking over another building could appear to usurp their action.

Instead, students decided to organize vigils and rallies in support of the occupiers and their demands. However, the option of direct action was left open if the administration did not negotiate in good faith or forced the occupiers out of the NAH.


On the fifth day of the occupation, the NAH negotiating team met with the chancellor and brought back the administration’s response. Initially the majority of occupiers considered the response insufficient However after a few hours of debate, they accepted the administration proposal. Some of the occupiers claim that the decision, reached at 5 a.m., did not reflect general sentiment.

While the settlement was hailed by the negotiating committee as a major victory, it nonetheless left many students of color skeptical. These students argued that there was nothing essentially new in the administration’s response. The same general promises had been made for years and had been reiterated in the Hurst Report, but were never implemented.

They observed that the most significant student demands relating to student enrollment, changes in the curriculum and appointment of faculty had only been agreed upon “in principle.” No concrete timetable was established to secure their implementation. Essentially these students argued that the negotiators had been outmaneuvered by the chancellor, who managed to convince them that their dramatic action would lead to improvements. He called on them to help him lobby these through the Board of Regents.


The day before the settlement had been negotiated, the president of the Graduate Minority Students Association called on the Graduate Student Senate to declare a two-day moratorium on “business-as-usual,” turning the campus into workshops and teach-ins to discuss racism and sexism. The Senate’s unanimous vote in favor of the motion was a clear demonstration of support for the protest.

Unfortunately the same motion was beaten on the floor of the Undergraduate Senate, then firmly in the hands of the Young Republicans. Quite predictably these elements even denied the legitimacy of the occupation.

When first voted in, the moratorium was seen as a way to mobilize more white students and place direct pressure on the administration. Following the settlement and end of the occupation, initiators of the call and the majority of white students who had actively supported the takeover felt the need to continue organizing. They saw the moratorium as an opportunity for students to voice their concerns and as a way to continue the campaign of challenging campus complacency around racism. It was also necessary to build a climate that would isolate the minority of overtly racist students.

Organized on short notice, the moratorium mobilized grassroots energy on campus in an unprecedented way. In spite of the administration’s opposition, response from the faculty was very good. Although few cancelled their classes, many turned them into discussions on racism. In the two days of the moratorium, over 120 classes were transformed into workshops. The campus daily advertised a number of the sessions with titles such as “Strategies for Intervening Against Racism” and ”Racism and Control of Women’s Sexuality.” In fact, professors saw classroom attendance growing–dear proof that students do care when they can relate to what’s being taught.

Parallel to the faculty initiative, students organized teach-ins in various centers throughout the campus, invited speakers and, given the constraints, pulled together the logistics of the moratorium in a magisterial manner: there was indeed no business- as-usual. A number of the Third World students, fresh from their occupation, plunged into the moratorium activities. They spoke about their first-hand experience with racism on campus and challenged students to help change the campus climate.

But a segment of white progressives chose to “sit it out.” In their eyes the educational focus of the moratorium was too “soft,” as it did not embody a clear “direct action” component. In doing so, they missed, in my opinion, a golden opportunity to reach out to a new layer of activists, and to prepare the grounds for future action. This failure to relate to the largest grassroots self activity seen on campus in years reveals two of the worst traits of the campus left: impatience and an inflated sense of its own importance.

Aftermath of the Settlement

After the relative success of the moratorium, there were attempts by white students to keep some organizing efforts alive around the issue. However, when meetings were held, the overwhelmingly white attendance seemed to undercut the desire to build a multi-racial opposition to racism.

White students fell prey to a false dichotomy when they started equating taking an initiative on racism to imposing their agenda on Third World students. During the NAH takeover these students had their hands full organizing the demands and occupation. They were not going to take responsibility for educating and advising white students about how to organize support. They did not have much hope that white students would really support them.

Given the history of race relations on campus, to assume that a multiracial coalition could appear in the aftermath of the takeover was simply to assume too much. A first task was to demonstrate in action that white students and faculty would mobilize against racism. Since Third World students were such a small proportion of the campus, they also feared that their struggle would be swamped by whites. They could thus lose control over their own demands.

What was necessary in this context was a grassroots campaign to educate the campus community about the nature of racism and the history and culture of students of color and, as well, to establish organizational links between the Third World organizations and those who supported the demands. That would probably not have been a multiracial coalition but an alliance. Lacking such perspective, frustration quickly set in. With no clear-cut action to follow the momentum of the moratorium, people disbanded. “Business-as-usual” once again re­asserted itself.

Meanwhile, Third World students elected a monitoring committee to deal with the administration. However, the move from protest to lobby politics meant the disappearance of the most potent weapon of the takeover: mass organization.

The consequences of this two-fold demobilization could be seen when, a month later, the administration quietly absolved the white students involved in the racial brawl by putting them on probation for a year. Their presumed punishment was being forced to go through an alcoholic rehabilitation program.

In the face of such a cop-out, there was a great deal of outrage, but this couldn’t find a political expression. Later the University used the occasion to ban alcoholic consumption from outdoors events, reinforcing the myth that alcohol was the culprit. Once again attention was diverted away from the real source of the problem: institutional racism.

Some Provisional Conclusions

At least two positive things came out of those events. Students of color demonstrated their capacity for self-organization, and a significant segment of white students showed that they opposed racism. Yet the provisional conclusion of these events points to some weaknesses that need to be overcome if we are to see the emergence of a broad multiracial movement to deal with racism.

One of the most serious weaknesses of white progressives was a lack of understanding of the historical background, which led to the inability to forge a multiracial response. White students had no track record on protesting against racism.

A related mistake was identifying racism as an issue around which whites could not really take any real initiative. Once again, the question is not so much to act or not to act, but how one does so. Although it is true that on issues that affect students of color directly it would be racist on the part of whites to dictate the anti-racist agenda, there are nonetheless things that can be done and ways of doing them that respect students of color, contribute to building trust and fight racism within our midst.

Another lesson that can be derived from all this has to do with the concept of racism itself. Understanding racism as an attitudinal problem lays the groundwork for a quick co-optation of efforts to challenge racism. If racism boils down to a few bad guys beating up Blacks, Latinos and Asians what can you do other than prosecute them (whenever possible), and show symbolic support to the victimized communities on campus? This “personalization” of the issue can lead to an undue focus on superficial aspects of the problem such as the question of whether or not the chancellor really cares about racism.

We need to develop a new understanding of the nature of racism as a part of a system of oppression, but also of the place the university holds in that system. It is not surprising that the university should reproduce the very same inequalities and biases that exist in society as a whole.

One problem in setting up a strategy to confront racism has to do with the actual “division of power” within the university system. In his reply to the demands of the occupiers, Chancellor Duffey conveniently hid behind the different “seats” of power at UMass: Curriculum decisions as well as hiring and evaluating faculty of color are prerogatives of the various departments and committees, while increasing the financial resources is a decision that ultimately rests with the Board of Regents, state legislature and governor. By dispersing power it looks as if no one-least of all the chancellor-has the power to really change things.

To challenge institutional racism will clearly require a major commitment of resources. In a context of economic decline and budget cutbacks, one can only expect that the needs and desires of all students, and particularly Third World students, will take a low ranking in the priorities of the state budget. Students who want to fundamentally challenge institutional racism will have to be ready to play in the big leagues.

Some will no doubt try to present the problem as a zero-sum game, where more money for minorities is taken at the expense of whites. If progressive students do not want the university and the government to be able to play one against the other, we urgently need to develop a new perspective on racism and the role and place of the university in a racist, sexist and capitalist society. This makes the need for white progressive students to work actively to overcome the legacy of subtle racism all the more imperative, if we ever are to build unity in struggle.


  1. This article represents just one viewpoint on the events that took place at UMass. The emphasis of the article, as well as its conclusions, derive primarily from my direct experience organizing with white progressives, and is naturally affected by it.
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  2. Excerpt from the Hurst Report, Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Feb. 5, 1987.
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  3. Hurst Report.
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  4. On this issue of curriculum, see Alan Wald, “Student and Faculty Organize at Michigan,” ATC May-June 1988: 8-14.
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  5. Niara Sudarkasa, “Black Enrollment in Higher Education: The Unfulfilled Promise of Equality,” The State of Black America 1988, National Urban League Report (January 1988): 7-22.
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September-October 1988, ATC 16

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