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ETSU president, student government call for action, unity amid nationwide unrest

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Jun 2, 2020 at 8:58 PM

As protests sparked by the death of George Floyd continued locally, East Tennessee State University’s student government leaders put out a statement “publicly deploring the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless black men, women and children in our country.”

“We acknowledge the constant battle faced by the Black community, not only in our country but also on our very own campus,” said the statement, signed by SGA President Shivam Patel, Vice President Seth Manning and Vice President of Finance and Administration Josie Ward. “Over the years, there have been racially charged incidents against our own students, from the defacing of property to scare tactics used against Black Lives Matter protesters; we condemn these racial injustices and stand alongside the Black community against the systemic racism that plagues our country.”

The statement also said that “while our hope is always that protests can remain peaceful, we understand and sympathize with the frustration of so many Americans,” and that “it is well past time for fundamental reform in our society that encompasses policing and acknowledges the dark, complicated history of race in America.” 

“Our country is not facing a simple political crisis, we are facing a moral one that threatens the very fabric of our humanity,” the statement read. “What is the value of life? And do different standards of criminal justice exist simply on the basis of one’s skin color? If the current answer to those questions are as disappointing to you as they are to us, we call on the student body and the administration to join our campus community and the country in solidarity towards the common goals of liberty and justice.”

ETSU President Brian Noland also made an address on Monday, asking how the university can “turn together to help us understand the past so that we can put together a better vision and a better future for ourselves and our children.” 

Noland began his address by reading the names of the first five black students to attend the university in 1956 and 1958, calling them “trailblazers” and saying they “saw the power of this institution to serve as a shining example for the region, the state and the nation as a whole to drive forward a path in which all individuals, irrespective of their race, color, creed or background, had the opportunity to attend college.”

He then read off six other names: Christian Cooper, Ahmaud Arbery, Aiyana Jones, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and George Floyd.

“Those names tell a different story, a story of oppression, a story of violence, a story of unconscionable pain,” Noland said. “Those names evoke emotion, not only across society, but (in) us (as) individuals as we wrestle with: ‘How can one person act with such hatred against another?’

Noland said in the days since Floyd was killed, he’s “wrestled with anger, sympathy, pain, empathy and other words that I’ll not express” because he “can’t imagine what it would be like for my son to be in that position.” Later in his address he said he’s “looked at the events of the past weeks, months and, in many respects, the past couple years as a call action.” 

“How can this institution come together and focus on a vision — how can we take the vision that was shared by the five individuals who we celebrate in Borchuck Plaza?” Noland asked. “Because those visions lead to dreams, dreams lead to plans, plans lead to action and action helps us create a better future.”

“We need wisdom now more than ever, and this region needs East Tennessee State University now more than ever,” Noland said.

ETSU Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Keith Johnson said the university needed leadership to “step up,” and “listen to what people are saying,” while commending Noland’s response as “on point.”

“Everyone is not OK, and I think what you see across the country is the result of people collectively saying enough is enough,” Johnson said. “For me, when I saw what happened to George Floyd I instantly thought about myself as an African-American man and I also thought about my son because it could’ve happened to us.”

In an email sent to students, faculty and staff on Monday, Noland said more information will be shared “in the coming days” about a series of virtual support and dialogue opportunities for the community hosted by the Multicultural Center.