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Fight Back! interviews Black Students for Revolution at University of Illinois

By staff |
December 17, 2016
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Black Students for Revolution at University of Illinois (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Black Students for Revolution (BSFR) led a student walkout from classes at the University of Illinois Urbana - Champaign (UIUC) in late October. They demanded an end to tuition hikes, increased retention and scholarships for Black, Latino and Indigenous students, and other progressive changes. They demanded the UIUC administration schedule a public town hall style meeting to discuss their demands, which Chancellor Robert Jones rejects.

Fight Back! interviewed Zila Renfro from Black Students for Revolution about fighting racist discrimination on campus.

Fight Back!: What was the purpose of the Oct. 24 student walkout at the University of Illinois Urbana - Champaign (UIUC)? Why should the student movement fight for increased retention and enrollment of Black, Chicano, Latino and Indigenous students on campuses?

Zila Renfro: The Oct. 24 student walkout was held to formally deliver the Demands for a Transformed University to the administration. These demands, created by a coalition of radical campus organizations, revolve around everything from halting tuition hikes, to justice for people who have been sexually assaulted on campus, to living wages for university employees.

Demand number two revolves around funding for the recruitment and retention of Black, Chicano, Latino and Indigenous students. This is crucial because of our severe underrepresentation. UIUC claims to be a land grant university, but Black people make up only 5% of the campus, while we make up over 14% of the state.

Our freshman enrollment rates have not improved significantly for decades. In the 1960s, there was an initiative here called Project 500, where Black students fought to bring 500 Black students to campus and were able to enroll 565. This year, our freshman enrollment had only 548 Black students and that’s the highest it has been in ten years. We know that Black and Brown people are capable of being here, but are being systematically shut out because of outrageous costs. We are letting the university know that we will fight for our representation in higher education.

Fight Back!: Why did Black Students for Revolution (BSFR) decide on organizing a student walkout?

Renfro: We know that our university administration has a history of having small group meetings to negotiate demands, and then disseminating misinformation to disrupt and weaken student movements. We wanted to do a walkout to show the university administration that we are demanding transparency and accountability. Furthermore, a walkout is something that garners public awareness. We aimed to show not only administration that this is something for which we are willing to take risks and halt classes for, but also to show the wider student body that these demands belong to all of us.

Fight Back!: For the Jan. 20 Inauguration Day of President-elect Donald Trump, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) has issued a countrywide call to action for student walk-outs to demand free tuition, equal access to education for Black, Chicano, Latino and undocumented students, as well as sanctuary campuses everywhere as part of their national Education For All campaign. Is the BSFR planning an action for this day, and if so would they endorse similar demands?

Renfro: While plans for an Inauguration Day action are still in the works, we absolutely endorse demands regarding free tuition, equitable education and protection for undocumented students. Unfortunately, after efforts by professors and students alike, our petition to become a sanctuary campus has been denied. According to an email from the UIUC administration, “As a public institution of higher education, we must uphold state and federal laws.” Once again, the university has put its own interests as an institution above its most marginalized students. However, this in no way means that Black Students for Revolution is going to stop organizing in conjunction with undocumented students so that their safety, protection and rights are upheld.

Fight Back!: Since the Chancellor rejected having a town hall style meeting, how will BSFR continue the struggle on campus for progressive change?

Renfro: At a recent event, our new chancellor spoke consistently on his wish for transparency as an administrator. Now that he’s openly stated this commitment, we will continue to push him to stay true to his words, and we will not budge on having a public meeting where our demands can be discussed. Furthermore, we plan to continue to garner student support for our movement through outreach and political education. Every week, more organizations on campus reach out to us to become more informed about the demands and find out how they can join the movement, which is exciting. There truly is power in the people - the wider our group grows, the more impact we can have to create transformative change.