A year and a half later, some local activists reflect on the protests of summer 2020
Voiceover provided by T'Keyah Thomas.
As the nation watches the trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and Gregory and Travis McMichael this month – the summer of 2020 comes back to mind.
During that summer, Columbia residents took to the streets amid the ongoing pandemic to protest the continued mistreatment of Black Americans and bring awareness to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others.
Among those demonstrating was Black Lives Matter organizer Christopher Watkins, Jr, who’s lived in Columbia for years and helped organize many events that summer. He said while the work of improving life in American for Black people has been going on for years, something was different.
“I think it changed because now people are really aware. I think cell phones and social media are so important,” Watkins said. “Because now we get to see these things. But it really just opened people's eyes really to say, this is why there is a black lives matter movement.”
He said that the public should just know that it doesn't stop at a protest.
Since the summer of 2020, he’s been to city council meetings and police review boards. He said that now more than a year and a half after George Floyd’s death, the Columbia community and its government have made some progress in understanding the needs of Black residents.
“Just being able to have those individuals in their respective offices come out and help and understand the frustration we have with what’s been going on in our nation. I believe, within a year, we've made some change,” he said. “We’re still striving and striving for more change, especially here in the Columbia community.”
But he added that change takes time and not everything can be fixed in a year.
Students at the University of Missouri also joined in that summer. According to the Columbia Missourian, in June 2020 the Missouri Black Student-Athlete Association held a “March for Mizzou” that around 800 people attended.
And police brutality wasn’t the only issue impacting Black MU students at the time. Roman Leapheart, a Black MU student, created a petition to remove the statue of Thomas Jefferson from the Francis Quadrangle – which garnered nearly 4,000 signatures.
The petition stated: “Mizzou has no room for a racist slave owner on our campus, in the Quad, where thousands of Black students pass by every day, forced to deal with imagery of the past in the future where we should be promoting equality, diversity and inclusion.”
The statue ended up being vandalized with five words “Say her name Sally Hemings” spray painted on the ground next to it.
Caleb Sewell is a senior at Mizzou and the President of the Legion of Black Collegians, the Black student government at Mizzou.
He said that years ago, he wrote an op-ed article for the ManEater, MU’s student-run paper, entitled "Column: MU hasn’t done enough since 2015."
In this article, he wrote about how the campus still hadn’t met all the demands of Concerned Student 1950, whose protests in 2015 led to the resignations of multiple system leaders.
In that piece, he wrote that it was important for Black students to have Black faculty to feel supported and comfortable on campus.
Which meant he was even more frustrated when Dr. Ashley Woodson was denied tenure that same summer. Woodson was an assistant professor in Education, whose research focused on Black history.
“Oftentimes, when we talk about systemic racism, when we talk about change in general, especially in the social justice realm, we see things that change performatively."Caleb Sewell, President of the Legion of Black Collegians
“We see this lack of value when it comes to Black folks in higher education,” Sewell said.
“When it comes to not valuing Black people in these spaces, not valuing Black research, not valuing professors and people," he said. "Not valuing the work that people bring to the table when it comes to making institutions more equitable itself, and the country more equitable."
The denial of Dr. Woodson’s tenure prompted another change.org petition, which gathered nearly 16,000 signatures. Sewell added that in many ways things still haven’t changed, and his article still rings true.
“Oftentimes, when we talk about systemic racism, when we talk about change in general, especially in the social justice realm, we see things that change performatively,” Sewell said.
“The system itself hasn't changed, and so the system itself has perpetuated the same type of individuals who contribute to the harm being done," he said. "And that's causing that same harm for many of us. Students, faculty and staff in the Columbia community at large"
Dr. Woodson has since left MU, and just a few months ago – in June of 2021, the Board of Curators rejected a proposal to have a sign posted to contextualize Thomas Jefferson’s statute and legacy.
Which, Sewell said, shows there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Believe Black voices, believe marginalized voices, believe people who are speaking out against these things,” Sewell said. “The first step – you have to believe it, and then you have to go in and be part of it [the change].”