Dan Papscun / The Eagle
American University students are once again speaking out about the racial climate on the campus. They point to a recent incident as yet another example of a pattern of hostility toward black students by administrators at the Washington institution and among the larger student body.
A multiracial group of about 120 students protested outside the student center Monday to call attention to what they described as the racist treatment of a black student who was suspended from American late last month after being accused of allegedly assaulting another student. According to the student newspaper, The Eagle, the suspended student was forcibly removed from her university-owned apartment by at least six officers from the university police department during what was supposed to be a wellness check.
The removal of Gianna Wheeler, a junior, was videotaped and shared widely on social media. She can be seen struggling and shouting in the 30-second video as the police officers carry her out of the off-campus apartment by the arms and legs. Officials from the city fire department were also on hand during her removal.
"I’m not complicit,” she shouts. “This is my dorm room. Get off of me.”
The Sept. 27 incident sparked the hashtag #HandsOffGianna on Twitter as outraged students and online activists took to the platform to call out American. The protesters have said that Wheeler was falsely accused.
University officials responded to the backlash with a thread of tweets on the evening of Sept. 28, cautioning students not to jump to conclusions.
“Complex situations such as this one often involve more than what is seen in a short video or a social media post,” read one tweet. “We must be careful before making any conclusions based on limited information.”
University officials said in the tweets that they could not provide details about the incident because of privacy policies, but that the student was safe and “being provided support.” They also said all appropriate procedures were followed and that the director of residence life and housing was also present during the incident.
The protest this week, which also called attention to the treatment of other African American students on campus, was held to coincide with a student conduct hearing for Wheeler by the university's Conduct Council.
The protest was coordinated by AU students and activists from Black Lives Matter DC and The Future Is Feminist. According to statements posted online by the protesters, American temporarily prohibited Wheeler from returning to campus since the incident because of safety concerns.
Fox 5 reported that a ruling during Wheeler’s disciplinary hearing ended her suspension effective Tuesday morning after she was found not guilty of the assault. Wheeler could not be reached for comment.
During the protest, the students held six minutes of silence, one minute for each police officer that participated in Wheeler’s removal.
“It was so outrageous that anybody would be treated like that. I don’t care if she murdered somebody -- she didn’t deserve to be treated like that,” Adrienne Pine, an anthropology associate professor who took part in the protest, said of the video of Wheeler. “As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing that justifies the way that she was treated by those police.”
Pine noted that during the protest, two men wearing name tags with the university logo carried around a large poster listing the university's free speech policy.
Protesters released a list of demands for American, which included allowing Wheeler to retake any classes she missed for free and paying for any therapy Wheeler might need. They also want the university to fire the officers involved in her removal, release an official statement from the administration explaining how it handled the case, develop new policies to prevent a similar incident from happening again, and release the identity of the student who reported being assaulted by Wheeler.
American University's student government released a statement the day after the protest encouraging students to expose university misconduct and injustice, and expressed solidarity with the protesters.
"As a predominately white institution, it is the university's responsibility to build and foster a campus culture that is welcoming and safe to students of all backgrounds. The university should not profit off of the perception that the university practices 'diversity and inclusion' without addressing the pain and concerns of marginalized communities," the statement read. "It does not make any sense that students, particularly students of color, should feel unsafe in a university that they have paid tens of thousands to attend. It does not make sense that students must protest to apply pressure on the university to rectify wrongdoing."
AU officials issued a statement Tuesday supporting students' right to free speech and dissent and also noting the university's obligations to the well-being of the entire student body.
"American University is committed to the right to free expression, including the freedom to express dissent. We welcome student organizations to exercise these freedoms on campus guided by factors that include safety, the rights of others and the normal functioning of the university," the statement said. "It’s part of our mission of building inclusive communities, learning, and sharing knowledge. As a University, we are focused on the safety and welfare of all of our students. Our emergency response to members of the AU community is a collaborative effort between AUPD, the Office of Campus Life, the AU Counseling Center, and others to ensure a comprehensive effort that de-escalates a situation, prioritizes safety, and provides the support required."
Racial tension is not new at American. The university came under fire last April for its response to a video of a white student using the N-word. In 2017 bananas were found hanging on campus with the initials AKA, or Alpha Kappa Alpha, a black sorority, scrawled on the bananas.
American released its Inclusive Excellence plan early last year, intended to combat hate and promote diversity on its campus, and pledged $121 million toward that goal, including for diversity scholarships, academic initiatives and other resources.
“Broadly, however, universities do have a responsibility to create a safe and inclusive learning environment for their students and staff, and by all accounts, American University did take steps to do just that following these incidents,” said Naomi Dillon, senior director of content strategy for the Council for Advancement & Support of Education. “But universities cannot eradicate racial animus and narrow-mindedness; it is reflective of larger societal issues in which our educational institutions operate. Every college and university has to address the specific issues that arise in their community and endeavor to find a path forward consistent with institutional mission and character.”
Pine said American has made "fantastic efforts" to address these issues, including the establishment of an Antiracism Center, but she said that these efforts haven't been enough.
"I think the problem to a large degree is intrinsic to the structure of neoliberal higher education," she said. "Administrators are concerned about the bottom line; they’re also concerned about their image. The students who are at the university who are people of color have repeatedly expressed that they feel ignored by the administration, and in many cases by their faculty as well. I think there’s an inherent contradiction."
An internal campus climate survey released in 2017 showed that only 34 percent of African American students felt that American was "committed to creating a campus community where everyone has a sense of belonging."