ITHACA, N.Y. – Several hundred students, faculty, and members of the Ithaca community gathered on the Arts Quad at Cornell University during the lunch hour to take part in the Take a Knee rally to protest racism on Wednesday afternoon. More than 60 faculty members took part in organizing and kneeling in solidarity during the event.
The protest, following two major national and local events, was modeled after the national protest occurring currently within the NFL after many players have decided to take a knee during the national anthem during games since last Sunday. The form of non-violent protest followed the lead of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who initially began taking a knee during the national anthem as a way to protest the oppression of black Americans and police brutality directed toward black Americans.
Wednesday’s protest also followed the recent assault of a black Cornell student, which is currently under investigation as a possible racially motivated incident. According to police, the complainant said he was walking home in the early morning hours of September 15 when he attempted to break up a fight between his neighbors. Records state between four and five white males repeatedly yelled racial expletives at the victim before physically attacking him.
One Cornell student, John Greenwood, 19, was arrested in relation to the crimes and has since been charged with misdemeanor third-degree assault and second-degree aggravated harassment.
Russell Rickford, a history professor at Cornell, was one of the first professors to take the microphone and speak to the overflowing crowd of students and faculty on gathered on the quad.
“Some will say that the kneeling today by Cornell faculty and staff is an empty gesture… the participants, they will say, are climbing on the bandwagon,” Rickford said. “If a few minutes of gentle disruption can pierce our facade of neutrality, then today’s exercise has served its purpose. If it unmasks hypocrisy, then it is a welcome intervention.”
Rickford addressed the recent incidents on the university’s campus, tying them into Wednesday’s protest.
“Our society is steeped in white supremacy. Why should we expect Cornell, an enterprise built on stolen land, to be any different?” he said. “In recent weeks, a group of white fraternity members chanted “build a wall” outside the Latino living center… of course they did,” Rickford said in disbelief. “Then a band of thugs – you know those thugs – battered a black student while yelling racial epithets. Those attacks, while disgusting, are merely symptomatic. Cornell University is a white supremacist entity because its daily functions reproduce the functions of privilege.”
Following Rickford’s speech, Tracy McNulty, professor of comparative literature invited everyone to take a knee during the protest for two minutes, the approximate length of the national anthem.
As the tower bells chimed and students filtered out of the quad to get to class, Aziz Rana, a professor in the law school, spoke to the hundreds who remained at the protest despite the mid-day sun beating down on the crowd.
“There’s a single act of taking a knee, which is a symbolic act. But that single act is meaningless unless it goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to say that everybody here now is accountable for what it means to create justice in this community and justice in this country, because if we don’t start with the institutions that we’re a part of, like Cornell, it will not just be the denial of the violence of structural inequality, but there will be persistence of that system alongside a general and everyday practice of dehumanization and degradation that is unacceptable,” Rana said. “If we don’t see every single act of that dehumanization as an affront to our own humanity, then we are part of that problem.”