On Feb. 15, more than 200 members of the Plattsburgh community, dressed in all black for solidarity, braved frigid weather and snow showers as they marched through the slippery streets, demanding the resignations of Plattsburgh State President John Ettling, Vice President of Student Affairs Bryan Hartman, Director of Student Conduct Larry Allen and Chief Diversity Officer J.W. Wiley.
Students have since rescinded the call for Hartman’s resignation, but a resolution by the PSUC Student Association passed a memo of a vote of no confidence in Ettling, Allen and Wiley.
A racist post on Snapchat by PSUC freshman Maria Gates, captioned “Lynching n****** tonight,” ignited the demonstration against campus administrators, who originally said there was “nothing [they] could do” to punish Gates.
In response, about 200 members of the PSUC community gathered at the Angell College Center Warren Ballrooms to review the student code of conduct. Students demanded the administration amend portions of the code related to harassment and endangerment to assure disciplinary action against hate speech. However, the forum turned volatile, and many students stormed out, still outraged.
PSUC Autism Speaks President KaitLynn Cortez believes the administration turned a deaf ear to minority students.
“The school board didn’t see [the post] as a threat.” Cortez said. “But when you say ‘lynching n****** tonight, you’re making a threat to [the] masses, which is why everyone’s action was justified.”
Cheyenne Richards, member of the National Association of Black Accountants, was unimpressed by how the administration handled the forum.
“The faculty that facilitated the forum did not show enough care for the students,” Richards said. “Larry Allen had a straight face the entire night and did not show any sympathy for the students affected.”
Richards noted this wasn’t the first time the administration held a forum to discuss racial incidents on campus.
“This has happened so many times before,” she said. “This is now about someone targeting a certain group of people who pay to be here, and she attends classes with these students. If the school doesn’t do anything, then that just shows how they feel about us.”
Chapter president of Sigma Lambda Upsilon Syane Clemente echoed Richards’s sentiment.
“This is supposed to be the man that’s in charge of what’s going to happen to this woman,” Clemente said. “If he doesn’t see it as a hate crime, then what’s really going to happen?”
Not convinced the original forum had achieved any resolution, students sat on the steps of the ACC— refusing to leave until their demands were met, and some even prepared to sleep on the floor of the lobby.
Beside them stood an easel with a list of what they wanted: Maria Gates and her male friend, who was featured in the Snapchat, expelled; counseling services for affected students; and a policy protecting minorities from race-related violence and hate crimes. Administration then convened in the Educational Opportunity Program Office to discuss the school’s current code of conduct.
Around 10:45 p.m., EOP Director Kyla Relaford stood in front of the impassioned crowd, and announced although the administration could not disclose information about individual student records, she assured listeners “action has been taken.”
Shortly after the crowd dispersed, Ettling issued an email encouraging students to provide feedback on the drafted changes to the code of conduct at the next day’s forum at 10 a.m.
As students exited the ACC lobby, PSUC senior anthropology major Chelsea Green grabbed a bullhorn and reminded them the fight wasn’t over. Involved campus organizations Black Onyx, Club Caribbean, Young Democratic Socialists and the Student Association scheduled a protest for Friday at noon after the 10 a.m. forum.
“As an administration, they need to stop taking the coward’s way out and be upfront,” Green said. “They do not tackle diversity. This institution is inherently racist, and they don’t know how to deal with that.”
Escorted by city police who blocked off sections of Oak Street, Broad Street and Cornelia Street, protesters marched from the ACC to Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie’s office chanting “black lives matter” and “no Trump, no KKK, no racist USA.”
As the crowd gained momentum, the voices of underrepresented students and their allies roared through downtown Plattsburgh. Members of the Young Democratic Socialists led the group, holding a banner that read: “Make racists afraid again, smash white supremacy.”
Drivers tightly clenched their steering wheels, their facial expressions varying from confused to appalled. Some lowered their windows and raised their fists in solidarity. Others sneered and laughed at the crowd.
“All lives matter,” one driver yelled as he drove past Oak Street.
Holding a Black Lives Matter sign with one hand and raising her fist with the other, PSUC senior biomedical sciences major Reshma Sukhu was proud to see how unified the demonstrators were during the protest.
Living six hours away from home, she finds it hard to feel safe at an institution that allows racist incidents to occur on campus.
“SUNY Plattsburgh claims everyone is welcomed,” Sukhu said. “But when racist situations like this occurs, administration wants to be mute and not protect their students.”
Chapter president of Omega Phi Beta Chienne Harris shared her experience with racism on campus.
“I have personally been a victim of being called a n***** here,” Harris said.
Harris recounted the story from her freshman year when she and her friend were followed by a driver on their way to a party. He spewed racial slurs and asked the women, “how much for you to spend the night?”
After marching a mile, protesters arrived at the district attorney’s office at 137 Margaret St. Two students entered the building to speak with Wylie while Black Onyx President Latay Moultrie and Social Chair Damion DaCosta rallied the crowd.
Moultrie expressed her disappointment toward the campus divide.
“I’m heartbroken,” Moultrie said. “The lack of humane feelings from the administration is disgusting. It’s time for people to come together and realize this is unacceptable.”
Half an hour later, the students exited the DA’s office and headed for Ettling’s house.
At 134 Court St., the demonstrators surrounded the white colonial-style house, chanting louder than before. Ettling was expecting them.
As the protesters waited for Ettling, Relaford stepped out of the house first. She praised the protesters for their relentless efforts to bring change on campus.
Fifteen minutes later, Ettling and Vice President of Student Affairs Bryan Hartman came out of the house. Ettling remained stoic, while Hartman lowered his head, as they both listened to the crowd’s call for their resignations.
Ettling requested to see the list of demands prior to the 5 p.m. forum that would unfold Friday night in the ACC Warren Ballrooms, drawing in over 600 attendees. Demonstrators obliged as protest leaders filed into Ettling’s house to discuss their demands, and the crowd began to dwindle.
At that night’s forum, the third held in two days, students and faculty members continued to vent their frustrations.
“Students right now are the epicenter for a whole new civil rights movement in this country,” Relaford said. “They’re demanding justice, basic respect towards others and dignity. They are the drivers, and it gives me hope that we’re gonna see that trickle out into our communities.”