Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly: A letter to Jonathan Butler, the University of Missouri hunger striker

Jonathan Butler encourages a crowd during a day of action to celebrate graduate students in August. He now is in the sixth day of a hunger strike to protest acts of racism against black students and the university’s response.
Jonathan Butler encourages a crowd during a day of action to celebrate graduate students in August. He now is in the sixth day of a hunger strike to protest acts of racism against black students and the university’s response. The Associated Press/via The Columbia Daily Tribune

Dear Jonathan Butler:

Because of you, the University of Missouri will never be the same. I say that even though you have not at this moment achieved a stated goal of your hunger strike, the removal or departure of university system President Tim Wolfe.

That will happen, and soon, I think. Your act of non-violent protest, now in its sixth day, and the solidarity of your fellow students, have shaken Wolfe, university Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and the university system curators to the core. The status quo is broken and will not last.

It is my hope and belief that from this point on, no one in Missouri will discount the acts of racism and evil that too often smear your campus as isolated, not-so-serious incidents.

We hear you. From two hours away in Kansas City, where I write about Missouri events for a newspaper, I hear you.

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I trust that the governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, hears you and will speak out. If he learned anything from Ferguson, it is that leaders ignore the voices of pent-up anger at their peril.

The world hears you. I see on social media that people from as far away as South Africa are in your corner.

Your fellow students hear you. Many are willing to camp outside in the cold on your behalf.

Some of your fellow students don’t like you, and don’t like what you are doing. They resent you for disrupting their college experience and giving their university a bad name. They think you were disrespectful for stopping Wolfe’s car in the homecoming parade a few weeks ago. They wonder why you’re making such a big deal out of everything.

These students won’t change their perspectives overnight. But you can be sure that your message, and the actions of other students on your behalf, will work their way into their consciences and change them over time.

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Then there are the truly bad actors, like the bigots who have screamed hateful words to African American students on campus this fall, and the appalling loser who used feces to smear a swastika on a bathroom wall in a residence hall. These people you probably cannot change. They are fundamentally broken.

As you know, Missouri has a sad history of tolerating racism. We were a slave state and some people still don’t see anything wrong with that. Even today you’ll see the confederate flag flying from some porches in Missouri’s rural reaches.

That racism has always found its way onto the MU campus, and black students have suffered because of it since 1950, the first year they could even attend the school. You have said the campus is not safe for black students or any marginalized student, and you are right. Screaming the n-word to an African American student is an act of violence. Defacing property with symbols meant to sear people’s souls is an act of violence.

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Leaders of your university and the state have traditionally been too slow and too measured when responding to these incidents. Instead of turning on the sprinklers to disperse your fellow students from protest sites, they should be out there with you. The response to systemic racism must change, and it will.

The leaders who replace Wolfe and Loftin, both of whom I believe will be gone soon, will be chosen for their ability to listen to you and your colleagues and to make the University of Missouri system a safer, better place for all students.

You need to be a part of the change. As a graduate student in educational leadership and policy analysis, and a leader in student activism, you have a boundless future.

And so I worry about you. I worry that you will permanently damage your health if you wait too long for Wolfe and the curators to act. Bureaucracies move slowly but bodies fail quickly.

Your hunger strike has had a tremendous impact, Jonathan Butler, perhaps more than you know. No one can tell you to end your fast, or when, but I hope you will, and soon.

You are valued, and you are needed.

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