Adonis Billizon-Johnson sat amid a sea of empty blue chairs one recent afternoon, patiently waiting for a town hall forum at American University.
“I want to make sure that I have a seat,” said Billizon-Johnson, a 19-year-old from New Orleans. “I’m pretty sure it will be filled today.”
He was right.
Soon enough, a crowd packed the space at the Mary Graydon Center on AU’s campus, some standing in the back. Earlier in the week, a disturbing racial incident had disrupted the campus, and they had come to talk about how the school and its students could respond.
“At this very moment, people are waiting to see what we do. All eyes are on us right now, everyone,” Taylor Dumpson, American’s new president of student government, told the crowd. “There are children, parents and students alike, looking to us across the country, to figure out how we’re going to address these issues on our campus. We have to use this microcosm that is AU to set an example for others to follow.”
On Monday, just days earlier, bananas hanging from string “in the shape of nooses” had been found at three locations on the Northwest Washington campus, school officials said. The bananas were “marked with the letters AKA,” the initials of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a predominantly black sorority.
“I regret this happened, apologize to everyone offended, and state emphatically that this incident does not reflect what American University truly is,” read a memo on the matter, issued by AU President Neil Kerwin.
The discovery came as the university wrapped up its academic year and students at American, a private school with an enrollment of about 13,000, tried to focus on final exams. It also occurred as Dumpson — who is a member of AKA and the first black woman elected as the school’s student government president — was just beginning her term.
“I called this town hall because as the first African American female president, I am appalled; as a student second, I am outraged; as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, I am nauseated; and as a target, I am numb by the vile act that a member of our community decided to take during a historic moment for our campus,” Dumpson said Thursday.
She called the event a “tipping point that officially caused everyone to say ‘enough is enough.’ ”
Though racist incidents are not a new problem on college campuses, said Kevin Kruger of NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, there seems to have been an increase recently.
This academic year has seen racially offensive posters on many campuses, as well as other charged incidents. A student wore a gorilla mask to taunt Black Lives Matters protesters at one Southern college. Just this week at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota, a racist note was left on a student’s car. At the University of Maryland, a noose was found in a fraternity house.
Some speculate that national political rhetoric and controversial speakers who come to college campuses have emboldened people to say outrageous things, Kruger said — that they feel as though they have been given permission to say things that offend others.
“I think it’s been a tiring week,” said Asha Smith, a senior from Indianapolis who is African American. “I think it’s particularly difficult because I feel like black students on campus have been robbed of the ability to spend their time focusing on finals.”
Thursday’s town hall was not a meeting filled with angry outbursts. Students came with questions, concerns and suggestions about what might be done differently at AU. As the afternoon continued, the crowd filled a whiteboard with ideas.
Some suggested more public-safety foot patrols at night; others wondered whether such a policy would disproportionately affect students of color.
Some spoke up about diversity among members of the university’s faculty, or about training that faculty and staff receive. AU is about to get a new president, said one person — will this entire conversation repeat itself when she arrives?
“It was an hour and a half, and I think that every bit of that hour and a half was well spent in terms of getting ideas and writing them down,” said Kris Schneider, secretary of AU’s student government. “If there was somebody that disagreed, they voiced that disagreement, and we’ll definitely be taking that into consideration, as well.”
Earlier this week, a $1,000 reward in the AU case was announced. University police released videos showing a person walking through the empty campus. The FBI is assisting in the investigation, which was still ongoing late last week.
The incident created “a period of great difficulty and great distress” for the campus, Kerwin said Thursday.
“And we’re determined to ensure that the rest of the campus and the entire community — and in fact the nation and the world — understands that what occurred here has nothing to do with the fundamental values of this university,” he told reporters.
Still, the situation spiraled. On Friday, the university announced that a white supremacist had encouraged online followers to digitally harass Dumpson.
“Earlier this week, the threats were on campus. They continue online. American University will not allow any member of our community to be intimidated,” Teresa Flannery, AU’s vice president for communications, said in a statement. “We are working closely with Taylor to ensure her security and to support her throughout this process.”
Falyn Satterfield, a freshman from Indianapolis, said she remained very confident and pleased with how the university had handled the matter so far. She said that though she hoped the school would make changes, she didn’t feel as though this was American’s fault.
“It just feels so empty,” said Satterfield, when asked about the mood on campus. “Me, as a black student, walking around, I see people who are white, and I’m wondering what they think of me. And I’m wondering what their opinions are about it, and if they support me.”
Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.