Howard University Students win demands through #BlackburnTakeover

On October 12 — in the wake of a town hall regarding student life conditions hosted by the Howard University Student Association that university administrators elected not to attend — approximately 150 Howard students began occupying the Armour J. Blackburn University Center. Sleeping bags and air mattresses filled the building’s lobby, tents were erected outside of the entrance and students locked arms in the face of threats by the university.

The students remained at Blackburn for 34 days, drawing the support of alumni, faculty and fellow students, as well as national political figures such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, who advocated for the students in conversation with Howard President Wayne Frederick. On November 15, the Howard administration agreed to meet many of the students’ demands, officially bringing an end to the takeover and demonstrating how to effectively leverage direct action for socialists in the DMV and beyond.

From the start, the demands of the #BlackburnTakeover centered on housing conditions and availability. In the early weeks of the takeover, Howard students told Today that “Mold, mice, flooding and other subpar living conditions riddle the residential buildings on campus … and it’s an issue they've been protesting for decades.” Students also called for a town hall with President Frederick; the reinstatement of student, faculty and alumni affiliate trustee positions to the Howard Board of Trustees; an administrative meeting with students to outline a housing plan for incoming freshmen; required COVID-19 testing on campus; transparency regarding the allocation of university funds; and more.

The occupation faced aggressive opposition from the university. On night one, a fire alarm was pulled, protestors were threatened with suspension and expulsion, and ordered to disband to let the fire department into the building. After students declined, the alarm was silenced; no smoke, no fire. Several weeks later, Frederick published an open letter denouncing the occupation as a threat to public health and safety — although he didn’t name specific health and safety concerns. In early November, the university Twitter account blamed the occupation for staff layoffs and seemed to issue a veiled warning, writing: “We’re sad to report the occupation of Blackburn has led to an unintended consequence for the HU community. Due to the café being closed, some Sodexo workers have been laid off. We are committed to working with our students to avoid more repercussions like this one.” (The contracted multinational company that laid off those workers, Sodexo, is worth $14 billion.)

Students refused to back down. Alongside widespread solidarity in the greater Howard community — alumni and non-tenure track Howard faculty members joined the takeover, officially pitching their tents in front of Blackburn on November 7 — protesters received digital support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and were joined by Rev. Jackson, who visited students in person. DCist reported  that Rapper Gucci Mane and other performers on his record label, who were expected to perform at the university’s homecoming celebration, pulled out to show support for the students’ demands.” Local lawmakers including Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau also expressed support for protesters.

It appears that the pressure paid off. On Monday, November 15, the end of the takeover was announced in a social media video featuring a group of eight Howard students who, though legally prohibited from discussing details, indicated satisfaction with the resolution. As reported by Ashleigh Fields in The Hilltop:

“‘We can’t disclose what exactly is in the agreement, however what we can say is that we achieved our goal of better conditions for students, heightened transparency of Howard’s administration, heightened scrutiny of the administration and the condition of students,’ said Erica England, President of Howard’s Young Democratic Socialists of America Chapter. ‘We have also been able to increase student power in regards to accountability holding Howard accountable to their main stakeholders, the students.’”

Regarding fears of potential retaliation for the takeover — including suspension or expulsion — England added: “I expect to graduate in the spring of 2022 and I think the other students can expect to graduate at their expected graduation dates.”

In looking back on the takeover, several important themes emerge. One: the importance of solidarity. Howard students built a broad and powerful coalition that included local organizations like Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, university-affiliated groups like Howard Alumni United, Howard parents, members of the faculty, independent journalists including DC mainstay Chuck Modi, and a number of DMV-area socialists. The wide array of voices provided a broad base of support which frustrated the university’s attempts to dilute the protest.

That solidarity was boosted by the takeover’s use of consistent messaging and media attention. From the get-go, students documented proof of the sub-par living conditions provided to them, and connected their struggle to those of past Howard students in interviews with local and national journalists. As a result, Howard leadership was on the back foot immediately —rebuttals and requests for conversation had already been nullified by the very real evidence of urgent need; their desire to avoid bad PR thwarted from the jump.

“Administration has had it in their power the entire time to come to the negotiation table with us and to resolve this … we were waiting for that to happen and it just took a long time,” England said in The Hilltop. “I think the media scrutiny helped tremendously because we were telling our truth, we were showing the pictures, we were showing the videos of what had been going on on campus.”

Finally, the takeover illustrates the potential direct action can have in bringing about material change. As written on the Howard University YDSA Instagram (quoting Frederick Douglass), power concedes nothing without demand. In the wake of the disastrous COP26 international climate-change conference and the steady dissolution of the Build Back Better infrastructure bill, the totalizing nature of the status quo can feel devastating. Socialists everywhere would do well to remember that we can — and, when it makes sense, should — take the fight to the powers that be and demand what is ours. 

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