BLM march sparks conversation, conflict
Before the Viking Days Parade on Oct. 15, they knew what their group would do, but they had no idea how people would react.
On that day, senior Rahiwa Mussa and sophomore Luca Amayo, along with roughly 50 demonstrators, walked in the parade.
They wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts, chanted “Hands up! We gon’ be alright. Don’t shoot! We gon’ be alright,” and held signs with messages like “Stop killing us” and “Silence equals death.”
Mussa, a co-organizer along with Amayo, said they were overwhelmed with the support from the majority of the crowd, saying that for every one person who looked perturbed or yelled “All lives matter,” “five or 10 people cheered.”
Amayo was especially touched by “an old white man” who knelt and took off his cap to salute the demonstrators.
“We were watching the reactions of the people as we were going by,” Amayo said. “Of course, there were people who, you could see the outrage on them. On one level, I expected it, on the other side, I’m just so baffled by the fact that this is controversial.”
They were especially shocked by what they deemed racist behavior from some students, specifically, members of the Augustana Republicans.
“We didn’t see it coming,” Mussa said. “Maybe I was naive.”
Before the parade, the two groups were lined up next to each other. A political candidate who walked with the Republicans was accompanied by a person dressed as a dinosaur to attract attention.
A few Augustana Republican joked that “dinosaur lives matter,” to which the BLM group took great offense.
“There’s an obvious line that was crossed,” Mussa said. “How are you making a joke out of something that is absolutely serious? People are dying. Are we now starting to equate black lives to extinct creatures? Is that the narrative that we’re setting?”
Cara Beck, chairwoman of the Augustana Republicans, apologized for the members’ dinosaur remark, adding that she wasn’t aware that the demonstrators would react with such indignation.
“It wasn’t probably the nicest thing to say,” she said.
Mussa said the dinosaur comment, along with chants of “Build the wall” during the parade—a reference to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s plan to separate Mexico and the U.S.—angered her the most.
“To chant ‘Build the wall’ has these extremely negative connotations, it is something coined by someone like Donald Trump,” Mussa said.
“‘Build the wall,’ it’s implications are ‘we’re shutting out the criminals, the rapists, the people coming to America,’” Amayo said. “If you’re chanting that, you have to be aware you’re supporting that whole notion.”
Demonstrators took to social media to condemn the Augustana Republicans’ actions. Some implied that the chants were racially motivated, while others explicitly accused the group of racist words and actions.
Beck strongly disagreed, arguing that her and her group’s reputations were being unfairly tarnished. She pointed out that some claims were substantiated only by hearsay, which, to her, was unfair.
Mussa and Amayo chose to highlight the statements the Republicans admitted to making, with Amayo saying that “what isn’t in dispute is outrageous enough.”
Amayo was talking in part about what happened at the end of the Republicans’ parade route, where roughly 10 demonstrators stood, Mussa among them, who had heard the chants of “Build the wall” and “All lives matter.” She and the other demonstrators held their fists in the air as the float went by, which, she said, was a mark of defiance against the chants.
Members of the float reacted by chanting “U-S-A” and “All lives matter” in the direction of the demonstrators. Mussa said the people on the float were “super aggressive” toward her group.
Beck said the float was within its rights to chant the phrases throughout the parade and that she saw no issue with it.
“The whole saying, ‘All lives matter,’ I don’t see how that’s a problem,” Beck said. “It’s the same thing as shouting, ‘Build the wall,’ it’s someone’s political preference. I didn’t shout it, but I don’t see how it’s wrong, by any means. It might be politically incorrect.”
Amayo saw a problem, saying that ‘All lives matter’ implicitly demeans the value of black lives.
“Opposition to this cause is, to me, unacceptable,” Amayo said.
Beck said she didn’t support the movement but wished her group had been consulted to walk with the demonstrators.
Other groups were represented with the demonstrators, most notably Augie Green and the Augustana International Club.
Mussa said both clubs were natural fits to the cause because of Native Americans’ feelings of oppression relating to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Augie Green was protesting, and the international club’s obvious connection to minority students.
Mussa said she didn’t ask the Republicans to walk because she hadn’t targeted specific groups to collaborate with. Rather, she had consulted with close friends whom she knew would be interested in walking and asked for their support.
Beck said that the Republicans likely wouldn’t have walked or wore BLM attire anyway and that, while she supports the demonstrators right to walk, she doesn’t approve of the movement itself.
Spencer O’Hara, president of the Augustana Democrats and a demonstrator, lashed out on social media against the Republicans’ behavior. He said that he didn’t want to make the issue political, and Mussa stressed that their goal was to keep party politics out of the discussion—hence marching with Augie Green rather than a group like the Augustana Democrats.
O’Hara said that “the Augustana Democrats decline to comment” on the dispute between the Republicans and the protesters because the Democrats did not, as a group, interact with the Augustana Republicans during the parade.
“Rather, the conflict is concerning displays of racial prejudice the [Augustana] Republicans exhibited toward students of color that participated in the Black Lives Matter demonstration,” O’Hara said.
Mussa and Amayo said they were compelled to start the discussion because people in South Dakota avoid talking about social issues involving minorities.
“The main purpose of it all was to start a much-needed conversation on campus,” Mussa said. “Everyone just thinks this is a national issue that doesn’t really affect South Dakota or the Midwest very much. We thought that it was important to join that national conversation if we wanted to institute some sort of change.”
Mussa and Amayo said they regularly see racism—even on Augustana’s campus—with some actions being more overt than others. Amayo emphasized that the standard for measuring racism is far different than in the era of Jim Crow, that “you don’t have to hate black people to be racist.”
They admitted that, as international students (Mussa is from Ethiopia and Luca, Kenya), it was difficult to take the lead on what is considered to be an American issue (specifically that of police brutality) which is associated with African Americans.
But, because Augustana has more African students than African American students, they felt they had to act.
Mussa and Amayo are not, as of now, planning another Black Lives Matter demonstration. They do, however, hope to maintain the conversation by organizing discussion events—Mussa suggested one comparing All Lives Matter to Black Lives Matter.
The Issue of Ole
After the parade and during the homecoming football game, a 42-35 loss to Minnesota State-Mankato, Augustana’s mascot, “Ole,” entered the Augustana student section wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. Whilesome demonstrators took selfies with the mascot, other students, according to Mussa, looked uncomfortable, even “pissed” when the mascot arrived. In Amayo’s opinion, the symbolism proved effective.
“It gave [the demonstration] legitimacy, at that point it became possible to ignore, and you could tell by [student’s] reactions,” Amayo said. “We were hoping to elicit a reaction, so that people are forced to think about this. For the majority of South Dakotans, this is not going to be something that crosses your mind unless we put it in your face.”
According to Mussa, Augustana officials asked the mascot to remove the shirt. Students selling merchandise and concessions who were wearing the shirt were also asked to take them off and instead wear Augustana clothing, which drew the ire of Mussa.
Athletic Director Slade Larscheid said the athletic apartment was not made aware of the mascot’s participation in the demonstration and that “Our stance, regardless of the message, [is that] the t-shirt was not part of the spirit squad uniform.”
“We require all [cheer/spirit squads] to have Augustana-issued uniforms that are pre-approved prior to competitions, this also includes our mascot,” Larscheid said.
Amayo said that neutrality is almost as bad as intolerance—that Augustana should institutionally stand behind the demonstrators.
“Neutrality in the face of something like this is staggering to me,” Amayo said. “This shouldn’t be controversial, and you can’t afford to be neutral on this. I just don’t get it.”