Yesterday, I delivered a letter to President Mark Schlissel at the University of Michigan. I have been asked to make that letter public and willfully am doing so here. In this letter, I speak only for myself as an individual, but I do hope that these words will additionally amplify the voices and leadership of Black students at the University of Michigan.
On Wednesday night, Black students held a protest and engaged in conversation with President Mark Schlissel, demanding that he take tangible actions to secure their safety on campus. Here in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan, Black students have experienced an increasing number of racist incidents over these last few years. Just this last Sunday, two additional incidents took place. They were devastating:
President Schlissel did not put out a response until Thursday, the day after the protest and conversation.
I want to talk about two particular moments on Wednesday night, when Black students courageously used their voices to hold the university accountable. These moments demonstrate that the university’s response has been woefully and dangerously inadequate.
At one point in the conversation, a Black student asked, “What happens when this is not a sharpie [about the dorm doors] but a knife? What then?” Fifteen minutes later, we all left the building and a white man assaulted Black students. That incident and my first-hand account of it is what this Letter to the President is about.
And this moment will forever stand out to me too. In fact, it invites all of us to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the University of Michigan: On Wednesday night, a Black student said to President Mark Schlissel, “You and I have been here four years now, right?” Then, after listing just a few of the racist incidents involving discrimination, graffiti, flyers, and even death threats via email, he asked President Schlissel, “In those four years, how many people have been caught and held responsible?”
President Schlissel said two words I will never, ever forget:
In light of these needs, I offer this letter. This letter mentions details of the violence initiated, unleashed, and threatened by a white man after the protest. It also mentions some related topics that are quite challenging. For these reasons, I want to issue a content warning before sharing the letter.
CW: Anti-Black, Racist Violence; White Supremacy; Gun Violence; Racial Epithets; Dylan Roof
You have my permission and invitation to share this letter.
Letter to President Mark Schlissel
To President Mark Schlissel:
My name is the Rev. Renée Roederer. I am a Community Chaplain in Ann Arbor and a member of the community at Canterbury House at the University of Michigan. I am writing you today to give you an account of a troubling moment of violence that took place last night immediately after the collective protest and conversation at the Union.
Last night, MLive reported a story with the headline, “Umich protest over racist incidents ends with fight near Michigan Union.” While this headline and framing of the story may give an impression that tempers simply flared and multiple people broke out into a fist fight, as a first-hand witness, I can tell you that there was one, sole instigator of this violence.
Most crucially for this letter, however, I am writing to let you know that this man made a direct threat in conversation with me. This was heard only by me and those nearby, and thus, was not reported in the MLive story. For the protection of Black students and the wider campus community, it is crucial for me to share this information with you. Here is an account of what happened:
When we left the Union, I joined a number of white students and community members who lined the sides of the crosswalks and blocked traffic so that Black students and students of color could cross safely on those crosswalks. After standing there for a couple of minutes, a white man in a red shirt (the man who was arrested and pictured in the MLive story) approached me and the person directly to my left. Presumably, he stepped away from a car on the street, though I did not see where he came from. It is possible he emerged from the crowd.
He began to yell at us, saying that we needed to move. “You need to move!” he said a couple of times. I tried to deescalate the situation and calmly said, “It will be okay. This will only last about five minutes.”
He continued to be irate, and at one point, he said his wife was in labor. I could tell from his body language that this was not true, nor what his anger was about.
Again, I kept my voice calm and tried to deescalate again.
What he said next was quite serious, and it is my primary reason for contacting you today. His next statement to me was,
“Do you want me to come back here and bring a group of people with guns?”
In this letter, I want to speak to you about this directly because this threat was spoken to me directly. The people closest to me also heard his threatening question. Since this was heard only by a few in the nearby area, it was not reported by any of the news sources, and I am doubtful that this statement was relayed to the police officers who arrested him a few minutes later.
After making this statement, a Black student behind me yelled to the man, “Turn around!” In the moment, I did not understand what that student said, but I have since seen a video that begins with his comment.
Then white man in the red shirt then said, “Shut the f*** up, N—–! I’m not talking to you!” Quite quickly, multiple people put their bodies between the white man in the red shirt and the Black student. Several people pushed the white man in the red shirt to get him to retreat. Then the white man in the red shirt began throwing punches in the direction of multiple Black students.
At this point, the fight then moved a bit farther away from where I was standing, so I did not see all the aspects of the violence. But not long after, we all saw this man being escorted away by the police. I was grateful to see this happen.
“Do you want me to come back here and bring a group of people with guns”?
President Schlissel, I believe it is absolutely imperative that we address this man’s threat with utmost seriousness. White supremacist threats and direct violence are escalating on the University of Michigan campus, in very real part, because no one has been caught and held responsible for an array of cases we all know about, involving racist threats, messaging, graffiti, and violence. The national climate additionally creates conditions for such an escalation.
I am not an alarmist, but one of my consistent fears is that we will not make adequate collective changes to safety and campus climate until an event of direct violence has occurred. We have to make tangible safety a top priority so that direct violence does not continue on this campus as it did last night.
So this is what I ask you to do:
1) Learn the name of the white man in the red shirt.
There is certainly an arrest record. This man made a direct threat to do violence to students on the campus you lead with expressed willingness to bring a group of others with guns.
2) Assign someone on your staff to follow this man’s social media accounts.
Do not assign this task to the Campus Police only. Stay aware as much as you can of this man’s whereabouts. Check in regularly with the person(s) who are following along.
3) Recognize that threats like these are precisely why students are not safe on campus.
In addition to the threat of what this man could do in the future, in the moment, he used the most dehumanizing epithet of our racist history and acted violently in a direct way. This is already dangerous and devastating to the student body.
4) Demonstrate to students that you take this seriously and are making it a major priority.
I am not sure if you aware of how passive your voice and posture sounds to Black students and students of color. I also felt the impact of your tone last night. I cannot assess your intent in these conversations, but I do want to speak to you honestly about the impact. I am also willing to speak to you about this directly.
5) Most importantly, provide material resources for creating and implementing lasting solutions in conversation with Black students.
Over the last few years, Black student organizations have created lists of demands and tangible suggestions for actions.
Finally, I do want to reiterate that these threats are escalating in their frequency and intensity. I was especially shaken on Sunday when posters of Dylan Roof’s face were placed on campus and a mural on Liberty was defaced with the words, “Free Dylan Roof. I hate N—–s.”
I know people personally who were directly impacted in the violence and loss of human lives at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. When people invoke the image and violent history of a white supremacist terrorist, it is quite possible that others will be emboldened by that invocation. We must do everything we can to impede such an outcome. This is not just about words, horrific though they are, written “with a sharpie.” This is an escalation that is potentially marking our campus for direct violence.
Please take immediate, direct action.
I am available to speak with you. Most importantly, as you know, a powerful set of Black students are emboldened to lead and discuss how to change the campus climate with you.
I thank you for taking the time to read my letter.
Rev. Renée Roederer