Freshman Tahliyah Tabron has known Syracuse University was her “dream school” since the eighth grade. That’s when her science teacher, who had attended, first told her about it, and when she toured the upstate New York campus. She thought it was beautiful, she says, and everyone she met on campus was “nice.”
She came away thinking, “I have to go here.”
So Tabron set her sights on the college throughout high school. She was accepted last year with financial aid, and she readily accepted the offer of admission. Her parents were proud; she’s a first-generation college student. “It was a huge deal,” she says.
Nevertheless, she had her guard up when she first came to campus. After all, Tabron says, she was coming from a predominantly Latinx and African American community in north New Jersey — and stepping onto a mostly white college campus. But when she actually moved in, those fears were shattered. She got to campus and felt like she belonged.
“It was like, okay, you earned your spot to be here,” Tabron says. “You deserve to be here like everyone else does. So that kind of gave me confidence, especially being a woman of color.”
That was three months ago. At that point, Tabron says, she didn’t “get the sense that anything that’s happening now could’ve happened.”
In the past two weeks, nearly a dozen attacks targeting black, Asian and Jewish people have been reported on Syracuse’s campus. On Nov. 7, students found graffiti in a bathroom stall that disparaged Asian and black students; a week later, a swastika was reportedly found drawn in the snow outside a luxury apartment building just off campus, where students live. And on Sunday, all social activities for fraternities were suspended following reports that fraternity members yelled the n-word at a black female student at a campus bus stop Saturday night.
Most recently, a “document purported to be a white supremacist manifesto” was reportedly AirDropped — a function on Apple devices that allows for rapid file transfer — to several students who were sitting in the university’s Bird Library, according to an alert from the school’s Department of Public Safety. In response to the latest incident, the Department of Public Safety has doubled patrols and stationed police vehicles throughout campus. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) criticized Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud’s handling of the situation and called for an independent investigation. The same day, Syverud said that the university was immediately committing extensive resources to combat the issues.
Students’ responses to the events have been newsworthy, too. Protesters with the #NotAgainSU movement have staged an around-the-clock sit-in at the Barnes Center at The Arch, a wellness center on campus. They’ve now been occupying the space for eight days, leading teach-ins and drawing up a list of demands for Syracuse’s administration. They’ve been creating a community, too, hosting a capella performances and impromptu dance parties. The group estimates about 300 students are there at all times.
Student members of #NotAgainSU say they are talking to media outlets on the condition of anonymity because they are afraid for their safety.
“Right now the threat is extremely real, because I have never been on campus when tensions have been at this level,” a black woman, a senior with the group, said over the phone. “With things continuously being reported, a lot of us are starting to feel extremely uncomfortable. That’s why we’ve been doing interviews anonymously, because we don’t want to be targeted for acts of violence.”
Tabron first started hearing about the incidents a couple weeks ago. A friend of hers was watching the Instagram Story of a girl who lives in Day Hall, the dorm where the first incident, in which racial slurs against black and Asian people were written in a bathroom and on a bulletin board, occurred. But the student was talking about the incident a couple of days after the fact, which was “the first warning sign” for Tabron. Information about the vandalism “wasn’t from any faculty or administration,” she says. “It was from a student on social media.”
“You hear about these things that happen, and you never think that it’s going to be your school or anybody that you know,” she says.
After what she calls the initial “shock” of the first incident, Tabron has been feeling “a lot anger, a lot of confusion — this irritation with this institution I’m supposed to feel protected under.” Since the first incidents were reported, the campus, Tabron says, has been “tense.” As the Barnes sleep-ins stretch on, some teachers and departments have canceled classes.
But the reality is that this is nothing new on Syracuse’s campus, according to women of color who have attended the school. Race relations, as well as fraternities, have come under scrutiny in the past.
Just last year, graduate student Angie Mejia successfully brought a Title IX case against a fraternity member after being verbally assaulted on campus.
As Mejia tells it, she was walking to Bird Library, past a number of fraternity houses, on a Saturday afternoon. Everyone was “out drinking and partying for a game day,” she says. When she walked past one fraternity, she heard yelling. Then she realized it was being directed at her.
“I have a disability, so I was limping a little bit,” she says. “I’m a queer Latina woman, and there I am limping, and I remember hearing, ‘Look at the Mexican it. It’s limping. She looks like Andre the Giant.’”
Mejia had heard her own students say they chose not to walk in front of fraternities for fear of being yelled at. “But I had never experienced it,” she says. She didn’t see anyone else on the street, she says, so she didn’t respond, kept walking and managed to capture a video of some of the comments.
Mejia had been working on her PhD for about five years at that point. She says the Title IX process was “disempowering” — that it took “eight months more” than it should have. Now an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota at Rochester, she has a message to current Syracuse students:
The problem of race relations on Syracuse’s campus “has been continuous,” according to Washington, D.C.-based journalist Nicki Mayo, who attended the college from 1997 to 2001. Like Tabron, she had high hopes when she stepped onto campus. And, like Tabron, the “reality” of the place set in during her freshman year.
That’s when students found a small noose in an office occupied by the Student African American Society and other organizations. “There was this loosely tied noose, made with twine or something, but the sign on it was sending the message more so,” Mayo says. The piece of paper read: “The South shall rise again.”
Mayo was a writer with the Black Voice, the black student magazine on campus. When students found the noose, she says, “we were told, ‘Well, it’s probably just a joke, a prank.’ And that has become a common theme.”
Mayo says that it’s paramount to remember that the “victims” in these situations are students.
“When you go to college, you’re probably not thinking you’re going to be doing a whole bunch of protests,” she says. “You’re probably not thinking about, ‘I’ve got to fight the power’ every damn day. These are students who are probably there to get the top-notch education that Syracuse has to offer.”
Tabron can relate. She’s been forced to reckon with her college experience just a few months in. When students started protesting at the Barnes, she had an “internal battle” about whether to participate. She didn’t know if there’d be disciplinary repercussions; she didn’t want to risk her financial aid.
Ultimately, a friend — who told Tabron that students like her “had power” to give the movement traction — convinced her to participate in one sleep-in night at the Barnes. “So I kind of put aside my own personal situation,” Tabron says, “and realized this is far bigger than me and my education, far bigger than my safety or me being afraid of what might happen to me.”
The sleep-in, Tabron says, was “vibrant”: There were resources and food, and people were sharing stories and doing work. There, in the Barnes, she felt safe: “I felt like for the first time in a really long time that I belonged.”