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‘Justice is worth fighting for’: A Q&A with the graduate student whose hunger strike has upended the University of Missouri

(Via Jonathan Butler, on Facebook)
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UPDATE: The president of the University of Missouri said Monday morning that he would resign amid escalating protests. In response, Jonathan Butler announced that his hunger strike was officially over.


Jonathan Butler is in pain, but he has no intention of giving up.

As of 9 a.m. Monday, it has been a week since the 25-year-old University of Missouri graduate student has eaten, a hunger strike he began in an effort to oust university president Tim Wolfe and bring about change to what he and other campus activists see as a school administration that has been unacceptably unresponsive to a series of racist incidents on campus. (Here’s an interactive timeline of incidents on campus prepared by the MU student newspaper, the Maneater.)

In a letter to the Board of Curators, the governing body to which the university president reports, Butler vowed that he would not eat until Wolfe was removed from office.

“I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost,” Butler wrote in a letter announcing his protest.

Butler’s act of protest, in concert with other activism coordinated by a group of students who called themselves Concerned Student 1950 — a nod to the year that black students were first admitted to the university — has seized the nation’s attention. And, on Saturday night, members of Missouri’s football team announced that they would join the protest, and would not practice or play until Butler’s demands were met.

[Missouri football players threaten to boycott season amid racial tension]

The Board of Curators has called an emergency meeting for Monday morning to discuss the unrest. Meanwhile, the news media has flocked to the Columbia, Mo., campus, where more acts of protest and civil disobedience, including walkouts by graduate students and black faculty members, are planned.

We spoke with Butler on Sunday night about his protest, his motivations, and the larger Black Lives Matter protest movement. Here is a Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Tell me more about you personally. Where are you from, and what are you studying?

Butler: I’m 25 years old. I hail from Omaha, Nebraska, and I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri, I got my bachelor’s in business administration with an emphasis in marketing, and now I’m pursuing my master’s degree in educational leadership and policy. I enjoy school, skateboarding. You know, I enjoy life.

And how did you end up in activism? What happened that leads you to find yourself one week into a hunger strike?

Butler: I really look to the example of my grandfather and my mother, who were both raised in the church. And they did a lot of community engagement. And they used their talents, my mother both in education and my father having a law background, really to do advocacy for the community, and I think as a young child that’s where it started.

But when you talk about most recently on campus, in terms of protesting and mobilizing communities, that really came from my experience organizing during Ferguson, after the murder of Mike Brown. Because the University of Missouri is only two hours away from Ferguson, and being able to have that experience, I had never seen that many black people and I had never seen that many black people mobilized in that way. So, it really struck a chord with me, to really have a passion for inspiring and building up my black community.

So what are you fighting for through this hunger strike?

Butler: For me, I’m fighting for justice. It’s really plain and simple.

When you localize it to the hunger strike it really is about the environment that is on campus. We have reactionary, negligent individuals on all levels at the university level on our campus and at the university system level, and so their job descriptions explicitly say that they’re supposed to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students … but when we have issues of sexual assault, when we have issues of racism, when we have issues of homophobia, the campus climate continues to deteriorate because we don’t have strong leadership, willing to actually make change. So, for me, I’m fighting for a better tomorrow. As much as the experiences on campus have not been that great for me — I had people call me the n-word, I had someone write the n-word on the a door in my residence hall — for me it really is about a call for justice. I’m fighting for the black community on campus, because justice is worth fighting for. And justice is worth starving for.

It’s been a week since you ate. How are you feeling? Are you planning on stopping?

Butler: No one really understands what my body is going through. My body is literally shutting down. I definitely have pain all over, shortness of breath. I’m overheated one minute and then I’m shivering the next, so there is just a lot that my body is going through right now. But I don’t really try to focus on that, I’m trying to focus on the fact that I really am encouraged by the activism that’s going on. There are a lot of white allies that are coming on board, there is a lot of education, people are talking about this in classrooms.

In a statement he issued on Sunday, President Wolfe made it clear that he doesn’t intended to resign. What is your response to that?

Butler: I’m completely fine with that because my request last Monday was for the curators to step in. We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve addressed Tim Wolfe, and he’s shown time and time again that he’s not sincere about helping students. So, to me, that means it’s time for new leadership, it’s time for someone who can help the university be financially stable but also make sure that we are an amazing experience for students of all identities.

This protest gained an increased level of attention over the weekend when members of the football team said they would boycott their games and practices until your hunger strike was over. Did you know they were going to join you in protest?

Butler: I had no clue this was going to happen. One hundred percent of the support I’ve received has been unexpected, but it has been a 1,000 percent appreciated. I just received a call over the weekend that some of the football players had heard about what was going on and they really felt passionate about it because they felt that they are all too often separated and put into this athletic bubble away from the rest of our community, and they really wanted to reach out and bridge that gap. And so for me it was a blessing. It was really heartwarming and encouraging really because I didn’t think that I had people in my corner in the beginning.

Do you see your activism as part of the Black Lives Matter movement?

Butler: It is, but it’s not. The Black Lives Matter movement, in terms of what that means and the symbolism of reaffirming black existence, black humanity, and so in that realm with what we’re doing with our education sessions, what we’re doing with our rallies, what we’re doing on campus is definitely bringing about this awareness that we deserve to exist in these spaces on campus and we deserve to have our lives valued. And so in that sense, it’s a part of the Black Lives Matter movement. But in another sense, this is really unique to campus just because of the example that we got from some of those who were organizing in Ferguson. There are three queer black women, who used their knowledge from Ferguson organizing in creating an organization called MU for Mike Brown. And from that, that’s really where a lot of what has been going on on campus has been morphed from. So, it is part of the Black Lives Matter movement, but not necessarily in the cookie cutter way.

A lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t pay attention to this type of protest now are because of the solidarity you received from the football team. For those who are just tuning into this story, what do you want them to know?

Butler: The campus climate here at the University of Missouri is an ugly one, it’s one that often we don’t talk about and it’s one that, when issues come up, whether it’s sexual assault, whether it’s Planned Parenthood, whether it’s racism, it gets swept under the rug because we want to rest on our traditions and rest on all these values that we hold in high esteem. And I think the message is that underneath all of that there is a lot of dirt and there’s a lot of pain and there’s a lot of hurt. There’s things that need to be changed. And at the end of it all, even if you don’t really understand what I’m saying, even if you can’t really understand systemic oppression and systemic racism, is the fact we can’t be at a university where we have values like “Respect, Responsibility, Discovery and Excellence” and we don’t have any of those things being enacted on campus, especially in terms of respect. I’m on a campus where people feel free to call people the n-word, where people feel free as recently as last week, to used [their] own feces to smear a swastika in a residential hall. Everything that glitters is not gold. We really need to dig deep and be real with ourselves about the world we live in and understand that we’re not perfect but understand that just because we’re not perfect doesn’t mean we don’t start to understand and address the issues around us.


Black grad student on hunger strike in Mo. after swastika drawn with human feces

Missouri football players threaten to boycott season amid racial tension

With $1 million at stake, U. of Missouri’s president now taking protests seriously

This post has been updated.