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Hundreds of students at Ohio State University occupied the student union and participated in a protest in downtown Columbus Wednesday, demanding that the university cut ties with the city’s police department after an officer shot and killed Ma'Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl.
Bryant was killed Tuesday just minutes before it was announced that a jury in Minneapolis found Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd, guilty on murder and manslaughter charges, The Columbus Dispatch reported. The following day, students took to the campus and the streets, marching from the student union to the Ohio Statehouse to protest Bryant’s killing and renew demands made last year in the wake of Floyd’s death for the university to sever contracts and agreements with the Columbus Division of Police.
Pranav Jani, a professor of English at Ohio State and director of the Asian American studies program, who said he supports the student organizers and attended the protest march, said whatever sliver of hope some Black students felt after the Chauvin guilty verdict was quickly stripped away as news of Bryant’s killing spread throughout campus. Jani said that the proximity of the two events fueled students’ anger and prompted a large, racially diverse and peaceful crowd of demonstrators to join the demonstration led by Black students.
“Many of my students described it [as] feeling that maybe something will be different this time, then immediately having that cut off from the news of this killing,” he said.
The Council of Graduate Students, a student government body, began circulating a petition that advocated for the university to abolish its relationship with the Columbus police, which the group also called for in a June 2020 joint statement and demands along with other student government organizations after Floyd was killed. Such calls to sever ties with local police agencies were commonplace on many college campuses last summer.
“Over the past year, the Columbus Police Department has routinely shown their inability to safely deescalate situations,” the petition said. “The recent killing of Ma'Khia Bryant only further demonstrates the negligence and unsafe nature of CPD.”
Jani said students’ outrage over other incidents with Columbus Police over the last year also came to a head on Wednesday, including what students thought was a weak response by officers to destruction of property and vandalism during an off-campus block party over the weekend.
Leaders in Undergraduate Student Government compared the lack of arrests during the massive party to the aggressive police action taken to disperse protests for racial justice last summer. A statement from the undergraduate government body posted on Twitter early Monday said the disparities in the police response reflected how the Columbus police treats Black students differently from white students, who were the majority of the people at the block party that got out of control, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
“Peaceful student protests advocating for social change, which are protected under the First Amendment, have led to a swift response from CPD with wooden bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, and so much more,” the statement said. “It is clear that CPD’s priorities lie in protecting interests of their own, and not those of general public safety, given their unmistakable negligence of the disgusting acts of last evening.”
Student protesters on Wednesday renewed demands that were not met after Floyd’s death and the protests that followed. They demanded that university leaders “immediately cease” contracts with Columbus police for “any and all on-campus investigations, services and events,” said the joint statement from June 2020, which was signed by Roaya Higazi, president of the Undergraduate Student Body, Stephen Post, president of the Council of Graduate Students, and Jordan Vajda, president of the Inter-Professional Council and chair of the Council of Student Affairs.
“We, the student representatives of The Ohio State University, firmly and without hesitation, condemn the violent and inexcusable actions of the Columbus Police Department during these protests and the harm the department has caused Black and marginalized communities for decades,” the joint statement said. “As our university leaders, your priorities, commitments, and duties are to the safety of your students and the footprint our university leaves on the City of Columbus. We can no longer accept bias trainings, reactionary meetings, or community dialogue.”
Benjamin Johnson, director of media relations for the university, said in an email that Ohio State contracts with the local police division for certain services, “largely traffic control for athletics events.” The university also has a mutual-aid agreement that allows the Ohio State University Police Division to work with Columbus police if they need assistance off campus, Johnson wrote. Students also demanded an end to this agreement, according to the joint statement.
“Ohio State supports the right of our students, faculty and staff to peacefully express their views and to speak out about issues that are important to them,” Johnson wrote. “Freedom of speech and civic engagement are central to our values as an institution of higher education.”
Johnson did not address the students demands to cut ties with Columbus police. But he shared an email to students, faculty and staff members from Jay Kasey, senior vice president of the Office of Administration and Planning, and other university leaders last June, which called Columbus police responses to the summer protests “disheartening and unacceptable.”
The email laid out plans to create a Public Safety Advisory Committee and a training program for non-Ohio State police officers before they work at university events and a push by the university for a student seat on the City of Columbus Civilian Review Board, which addresses city public safety concerns.
“Students have had encounters with the Columbus Division of Police that do not uphold Ohio State’s expectations for how our students should be treated -- and supported -- when peacefully protesting,” the email said. “The concerns of our students are taken seriously, and the university is prepared to be an agent of change to help make the City of Columbus safer for our students and other constituents. We appreciate that Ohio State’s student government leaders encouraged us to re-evaluate the way we work with non-university law enforcement agencies.”
Some students took to Twitter to call for a response from university administrators about Bryant’s killing. Several students noted that President Kristina Johnson and other university leaders had commented on the Chauvin verdict.
"This no doubt releases many emotions and feelings due to the tragedy," she said in a statement. "I hear and honor these feelings. Now more than ever, we need to take care of each other and engage peacefully and respectfully."
Jani, the Asian American studies director, said he was surprised President Johnson had not commented about Bryant’s killing and that university leaders did not go and meet with students during their sit-in at the union building. He called on the leaders to engage students in discussion and debate about abolishing local police ties.
“They’re challenging the university to take a big step, and I think the university needs to do that,” he said. “We should take the bold steps that we pride ourselves in. Let’s do it.”