Point Park students respond to the Black Lives Matter movement

Written By Amanda Andrews and Nardos Haile

As students settle into the fall semester and protests calling for police reform and racial equity continue, universities across the country have responded in a variety of ways. At Point Park, leading groups and administrators on campus have different perspectives on how to handle conversations about race and equity as well as what actions to take.

Although protesters and Black people have called for racial equity in general society, the demonstrations have fixated on police brutality and police reform.

Deputy Chief Nicholas Black of the Point Park University Police Department said the 9-year-old department is accredited and that campus policing will not be different from any prior years. Black also mentioned that Point Park Police are equipped with body cameras.

“We’re a diverse police department. Chief Besong won the Racial Justice Award [in 2014], and we were ranked top 20 in the country in 2017,” Black said. “We train yearly on biased-based policing, profiling, like we’re a well-rounded university. Plus we’re in the city, so we’re definitely diverse because we encounter all races all the time.”

Hundreds of Black Lives Matter demonstrations have passed through downtown Pittsburgh over the last few months. Regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and its focus on police reform, the Deputy Chief said, in his opinion, that much of it was being instigated by videos on social media “taken out of context” that “puts the officers in a very bad light,” and he casted some doubt on the motivations of protesters.

“A lot of these people who have these incidents whether it’s a Black Lives Matter group or various groups and organizations that are out there in the world today is what all do they know on what they’re speaking about or are they just going off of what somebody else is doing,” Black said.

In June, the university sent a mass email to students about the May 30 demonstration that resulted in a window being broken on campus property, but no other damage to campus has been reported since that incident.

“I think it’s definitely getting out of control. I get to where people have the right to protest, trust me, the freedom of speech I’m all for it. If something is wrong, something is wrong,” Black said. “But I’m never the one to jump to conclusion without knowing the whole totality of the situation, and I believe that numerous factors come to play with all incidents and I think that’s all across the board, all colors and races and creeds.”

Recently, the nonprofit organizations the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and the Bridging Divides Institute at Princeton University, analyzed political protests across America this summer. The report, named US Crisis Monitor, stated out of the roughly 7,700 protests in 2,400 locations, an upwards of 93 percent of demonstrations were peaceful.

The report also stated that 40 percent of the general public believe most protestors tried to incite violence and or destroy property. The University of Washington said the disparity stems from political orientation and biased media framing.

Some protests have called for defunding police departments and distributing duties to other officials. According to Black, the Point Park Police Department is funded by the university and currently employs nine officers and four dispatchers. Rather than defund the police, Black said the solution is to employ more officers and dispatchers to handle more situations.

Prior to the activation of the force on June 7, 2011, the university only had security officers for public safety purposes. Black, who has been with Point Park Police since that time, said that he has not noticed any deterioration in relations between students and campus police.

“We’ve always got along with students. Never been an issue,” Black said.

This summer, Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) have been vocal about concerning interactions with the police, but the Deputy Chief said students of color should have no reason to be concerned about their safety.

“…if someone was to come up to us and say ‘hey I’m an African American male or female well why should I feel safe?’ Well why shouldn’t you? What have you ever faced throughout your career here at Point Park or even prior to Point Park that you would feel that you wouldn’t be safe? I think that everyone should feel safe, but you might see an incident that took place a few months back and then judge every officer that you see, based upon that. Now that’s a stereotype against police. That is unfair.”

“I do think that those police that do happen to be doing police brutality, they should be punished but not all policemen should be punished,” Savannah Sawyer, president of the Black Student Union, said. “I do feel protected by some but obviously I’m afraid of others.”

Even before the death of George Floyd sparked global outrage and protests, Point Park was forced to confront implicit bias at the end of the fall 2019 semester when students spoke out against “Adding Machine” and “Parade,” ultimately leading to the cancelation of the two productions. In the following spring semester, the university held town halls to discuss diversity and inclusion. Among the main decisions, the university developed the Theatre Department Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, a university-wide Steering Committee for Inclusion, and created a position called Director of Equity and Inclusion.

Nia Bourne, President of the COPA Theatre Club and co-chair of the Theatre Department Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, and one of the many COPA students who called for the cancellation of “Adding Machine” and “Parade,” declined to comment on this story.

Lisa Stefanko, Vice President of Human Resources, said the university-wide Steering Committee was supposed to first meet in March of 2020, but the coronavirus pushed back the meeting date by several months. Stefanko anticipates that the first meeting will be held in October this semester.

Regarding the Director of Equity and Inclusion position, Stefanko said that the university has been searching for candidates since the town hall meetings last semester. As of the most recent update, two finalists had been interviewed for the position, and the university hopes to pick the candidate and conduct final interviews before announcing the selection.

“So the way that I see that position is someone who is really addressing inclusion on campus from a number of different standpoints,” Stefanko said. “For one, that person would be helping with culture change initiatives, so that we’re implementing the right type of training opportunities and ensuring that we have the right follow-up training opportunities because you can’t just train people and then expect it’s going to be all good from there.”

Stefanko added that the Director would advise on “learning material” that would help “eliminate microaggressions on campus.”

While Black Lives Matter protests over the summer have not caused any specific policy change, Stefanko expects that participants in the inclusion committees will have a more well-rounded perspective in discussions.

“I don’t think that the plans have changed because the plan for the steering committee was always to have a group of people that come from students, staff, faculty and administration together to develop a strategy. I think that probably what’s changed is, you know, all of the input and actions taken over the summer, the protests, the activism that we’ve seen,” Stefanko said. “What I would expect is that our steering committee is probably coming in more informed that they would have if we had met in March.”

Nationally, many universities and even states have implemented new mandatory African American studies courses. In August, California Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted mandatory ethnic studies, including African American, Asian American and Latinx studies, for all schools in the California State University system.

Point Park students, specifically the BSU, want to pursue the same initiative.

“We’re trying to get safe spaces for us to be,” Sawyer said. “We were actually thinking about trying to ask for a course like African American studies. So we can get out there and try and make it mandatory so everybody takes it.”

Locally, the University of Pittsburgh instituted a new course called, “Anti-Black Racism: History, Ideology, and Resistance.” The course is offered to first-year students as a one credit course that examines Black history, culture and anti-Black racism.

According to Stefanko, Point Park is also providing a mandatory training course called Diversity Awareness for Students through SafeColleges. The course will be 23 minutes in length, and any students who have not taken the course in the past will be required to do so.

The steps Point Park is taking are important to Sawyer, but she said there is more to be done.

“[The administration] should take the time to at least find a structure where we can sit down and talk about what we go through and they can think about ways they can help us so we can fix things a bit,” she said. “Because things do need to change. There’s a bit of [racism] on Point Park’s campus, maybe a lot of it, honestly.”