June Philippe ’20 was visiting Princeton with her high school on Nov. 18, 2015, when she noticed students streaming out of buildings walking toward Nassau Hall. It was the Black Justice League’s student walk-out and first sit-in, acts of civil disobedience intended to force the administration to consider their demands to make the University more hospitable to students of color, particularly Black students. Their actions, coordinated as part of a national day of student resistance and hashtagged #StudentBlackOut, rocked campus and sparked discussion on racial justice and historical memory.
Philippe, a Black Haitian student, remembers feeling encouraged as her tour guide explained that the people streaming outside were “walking out.”
“Here were students in a predominantly white institution fighting for Black rights and Black bodies,” she said. “And they were unrelenting in their pursuit of this. I thought it was really brave.” This, she thought, might be a good place for Black people. The next September, Philippe entered Princeton as a member of the Class of 2020.
But further research about the BJL yielded disappointing results. She discovered Yik Yak posts threatening BJL protestors and media articles about student responses that ranged from apathy to hostility. Most strikingly, once at Princeton, she found a campus largely apathetic toward the BJL. While she acknowledged the reforms that resulted, Philippe bemoaned a lack of “discussion of how they came about or how we got to this point,” she said.
Her knowledge of BJL protests came through informal channels of communication such as Facebook posts and private conversations, but such information rarely circulates in official channels.
“The BJL is often not credited for the work that they have done,” Philippe noted.
In light of the dearth of public knowledge, Winfred Darko ’20, a Black student from the Bronx, brought together some of BJL’s graduating seniors for a panel discussion moderated by Philippe. The atmosphere was candid and informal. No administrators were present, and the discussion centered on student consciousness.
“Throughout the year, a lot of freshmen have heard ‘rumors’ about the issue, small tidbits of information about [the BJL], but there’s never been this one source of information,” Darko said. “By having this panel, I attempted to further understand a small group of students who struggled to create such opportunities for Black students and other marginalized people who often do not feel welcome in this Princeton community.”
The May 18 panel consisted of five graduating seniors — Esther Maddox, Briana Payton, Destiny Crockett, Asanni York, and Achille Tenkiang — who were involved in some form with the BJL. The BJL’s leadership is horizontal in the hopes that credit will be shared more equally. While each panelist was essential to the BJL’s work, they did not speak as official leaders or representatives.
From student to activist
During the panel, BJL members talked about their beginnings as student activists as an organic process fueled by desire for community, a growing political consciousness, and the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests against police brutality.
For some of them, political engagement began by trying to find community in Black student organizations. Tenkiang spoke about his difficulties transitioning from high school to the University and 24/7 immersion in a predominantly white institution.
“At Princeton, it’s hard to find that home or find people to constitute that home with,” he said. “I think that was my desire to join [the] B[lack] S[tudent] U[nion] and [the] O[rder of] B[lack] M[ale] E[xcellence] my freshman year. Eventually those organizations led into the BJL as a sophomore.”
“I just wanted Black community,” Payton echoed. “A lot of freshmen can attest to that desire, and to being excited by prospect of the BSU.” Payton joined the board of BSU her first year, where she became more conscious of the struggles faced by Black students, such as how Public Safety allegedly racially profiles students on campus, she said.
Previous activism work prepared some for their BJL work. Crockett worked with Students for Education Reform freshman year and served on BSU’s board sophomore year.
“Wherever Black people gathered, that’s where I want to be, particularly my first two years here,” Crockett said.
Payton cited the “I, Too, Am Princeton” campaign in April 2014, inspired by a similar campaign at Harvard, as the impetus spurring her and other students to focus on issues plaguing students of color in higher education. “After this campaign, what can Princeton actually do to make this place better for students of color?” she asked herself.
These energies were galvanized by the shooting of Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. The Black Leadership Coalition, a council of students from Black student organizations, organized a town hall to wait for the indictment on November 24. When the grand jury declined to charge Wilson, citing an ostensible lack of evidence, those gathered were devastated.
“We were really, really feeling it,” said Payton, who was also in the town hall. Brown’s killing at the hands of Wilson represented for many people a systemic pattern of state-sanctioned violence against Black people, sparking countless protests in Ferguson and beyond.
Word spread quickly across campus. Hours later, hundreds of students marched down Prospect Avenue in protest, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “No justice, no peace.” While Ferguson provided the spark for students to organize, students insisted that taking on roles as activists was a natural growth in their lives.
“The steps kind of naturally followed one after another,” Crockett said. “We all just ended up in the same place together at the same time. I don’t think I really decided to be an activist.”
The students who would later form the BJL began meeting with administration that November to learn more about how the University worked, asking questions about the number of Black Princeton students and faculty, according to Crockett.
“We were just trying to figure out how bureaucracy works,” she said. “We were searching for who had the most power and what they do.”
Progress and solidarity
When the students began presenting their demands later that year, their agitation imbued planned institutional changes with greater urgency. In May 2015, in keeping with long-term plans from 2006, the Board of Trustees voted to upgrade African American Studies from a center to a department. Students can now concentrate or get a certificate in the field. Members of the BJL attribute this change at least in part to their work.
Similarly, after a 33-hour sit-in of Nassau Hall from Nov. 18 to 19, 2015, the BJL’s work also reverberated broadly. After the sit-in, the University removed a large mural of Woodrow Wilson in Wilcox Hall and changed the title master of college to head of college. The Board of Trustees formed a special committee to consider the legacy of Wilson, which launched a mobile exhibition that critically reexamines that legacy: “In the Nation’s Service? Woodrow Wilson Revisited.” Later, the Council of Princeton University Community Executive Committee launched a special task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion that compiled a report of recommendations in May 2015, which the University has started implementing. The three identity centers — Carl A. Fields, Women*s, and LGBT — were renovated and their funding increased in the protests’ wake. A new administrative position was even created: LaTanya Buck is now the Dean of Diversity and Inclusion. In April 2017, the University announced that it would rename two University buildings after professor emerita Toni Morrison and Sir Arthur Lewis based on recommendations made by the Committee on Naming, which was established in the wake of the protests.
BJL members also reflected on the personal growth that emerged out of their organizing, changes that are not as easily captured in public records.
“I think what was really beautiful about the process was that a lot of us really came into our own as individuals through the BJL,” said Tenkiang, one of the seniors in the panel. “We would have these long meetings in the Women*s Center from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next day just going through the nuances of activism, trying to create a space that we felt was inclusive of all the bodies in the room. We were really tackling the nitty gritty, the messiness, of what it really means to be an activist.”
The students specifically remembered encouraging moments of public solidarity from the University community. Payton recalled the December 2015 die-in that involved over 200 people in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. The nonviolent protest, in which people lay on the ground as if dead, lasted 45 minutes. Protesters sprawled all over the the north lawn and walkways of Frist Campus Center.
“It was huge,” Payton said. “We walked out with of our African-American history class with our professor with our hands up.”
“I haven’t seen [a protest] like that since,” Payton continued, commenting on how powerfully the die-in signified that Black lives mattered specifically on the University’s campus.
The members emphasized the support received from AAS faculty. Some read and edited an inter-Ivy manifesto denouncing anti-Blackness in universities that the BJL wrote with other Ivy League schools and read aloud during its sit-in. The department held AAS classes in Nassau Hall and catered food for the students. When a bomb threat notice was released the day after the sit-in, some professors personally paid to house the BJL student activists in hotels off campus.
Maddox recalled the moving experience of hearing songs and chants from protesters outside of Nassau Hall, where she was staying overnight, and seeing photos of those camping outside.
“Seeing all those people waiting for us outside the hallway and cheering us after we were walking outside of the office after 36 hours, or however many hours we were in there, that was amazing,” Maddox said. “You could feel the energy all around Nassau Hall. I think that’s the most energy that place will ever get.”
“I remember the night of the sit-in, when we were exhausted and frustrated, and you could hear Black folk outside singing ‘We shall not overcome.’ That’s some shit you won’t forget,” Crockett said.
Despite admitting that change within the University is slow, Payton emphasized the importance of appreciating the progress that has occurred. She expressed pride in AAS becoming a full department and the Fields Center renovation last summer.
“You have to let yourself celebrate the small victories,” she said.
Labor, backlash, and trauma
Even as they recognized their substantial accomplishments, the student panel emphasized the immense labor required for, and trauma inherent in, Black student activism at Princeton.
York recounted how a draft for his junior paper was due the day of the sit-in. He ended up alternating between arguing with University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and typing his junior paper, working through the night instead of sleeping.
“It’s really difficult. I’ve asked for 500,000 extensions,” York explained. “It’s hard to balance it all, but it’s possible.” He talked about going to professors, deans, and staff at the McCosh Health Center to explain and ask for support. “I’m not asking for this [extension] because I don’t want to do the work. No, I’m doing something else that at the time I thought was more important than me doing this damn paper.”
In the fall of 2015 when the BJL started protesting, York began experiencing symptoms for what would later be diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, which flares up under times of high stress. York explained that the stress of organizing the BJL protests likely exacerbated his illness, which persists until now. He spent three weeks on bed rest this fall because moving his lower body brought excruciating pain.
“The hardest part was not being able to do my work. I fell ridiculously behind. I literally could not work on my thesis at all because I couldn’t move to actually do research,” York said.
Tenkiang noted that each BJL member takes on a crushing load of work because the core group is small. “Even looking at the different iterations of the BJL, for the most part, it has always been the same five to eight people,” he explained. “It’s a full-time job.”
For him, sustaining energy on an apathetic campus has been especially trying. He vividly recounted the immediate aftermath of the Frist die-in: walking through the building and seeing students going about their day as if nothing had happened.
“I think for me, BJL was a grieving process. It would suck to do these things and grieve and step back and reflect and be like, ‘Oh wow, most of the student body doesn’t give a f*ck about what’s going on right now,’” he explained. “Constantly feeling as though you were putting Princeton on your back and trying to make a change and being slapped in the face afterwards. And that can break you, right?”
Crockett added that the backlash toward BJL was also trying.
“I think the most painful backlash and the most frustrating backlash has not been from white students and not been from administrators; it has always been from Black students,” Crockett said. She noted that Black students were often apathetic and callous toward their mental health struggles.
“There was a woman who said that she waking up in sweats thinking that white people were chasing her,” Crockett explained. “Three days after we left the sit-in, I just kept crying, like uncontrollable tears.”
She warned, however, against using her words against Black organizing.
“Non-Black folk, that’s not a cue to say, ‘See, Black people didn’t even like BJL; Black people they don’t even like protest, so why are you guys doing it?’ It’s to say watch the way white supremacy works.” She explained that not all Black students come to Princeton to find Black community or grapple with the question of race.
“Even though their body asked it [the question] all the time everywhere they went, they could sometimes ignore it and pretend that they, too, were colorblind.”
However, the divisiveness of the BJL made questions of race impossible to ignore. The spotlight was placed upon Black students who then felt burdened to explain their position as Black students everywhere they went. “People were afraid, and they took it out on us,” Crockett said.
Dealing with the media and general scrutiny was also a point of frustration for the seniors for Maddox complained of the “constant badgering” from the public.
“You feel you feel like you don’t have a place to escape because people are constantly asking the same questions,” she said. Having to explain the BJL to outsiders while simultaneously doing the work itself was frustrating and “evident of how you always have to explain Black pain to people and justify it,” Maddox added.
Crockett also spoke to the resurfacing of trauma that occurs in the face of constant interrogation. “When you ask me about BJL, you are asking me about times when people threatened my life and you are asking for the time when I kind of unofficially walked away from the Black community at Princeton, which is painful,” Crockett said.
After the panel, Darko commented specifically on the taxing nature of being a student activist and noted the need for greater community support for marginalized students in the future.
Lessons for the future
The students, facing a crowd of largely underclass students, talked extensively about what they would have done differently with the BJL and their lessons for future organizing on campus.
“I wish we would have demanded more,” Crockett said. “We asked for what we thought we could get — and we didn’t really even get all of that — not necessarily what we wanted.” She said she rued that the BJL did not demand for reparations for Black students descended from slaves or demand divestment from prisons despite the fact that members’ politics aligned with those stances.
“I wish we would have been a little bit bolder, a little bit braver. I think we were brave, but I think our politics could have been bolder,” Crockett said.
One of the foremost things that Crockett wished that the BJL had done was to build a foundation to undergird and fuel their work.
“I wish we had established what it meant to us to love Black people,” she said. “I wish that we would have been able to talk more about what it means to love a people even when you don’t like everybody, even when everybody don’t like you, even when you don’t know if they love you back. I think that would have fueled us.”
Political education is critical to this work, Crockett continued, explaining how she wished the BJL had held teach-ins for both activists and general community members, citing the Black Panther Party as an example. The Panthers encouraged members to read texts such as Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, allowing an ideology rooted in revolutionary Marxism to form. Crockett explained that all living Panthers hold similar socialist politics.
“That’s because they were invested in the same stuff; they were reading the same stuff, even when they didn’t like each other that much,” Crockett said. “I can’t scream at you in a meeting to get you to realize that reverse racism ain’t real, that we gotta abolish prisons, but we can read the same thing and we can talk about it and our politics can align.”
Despite the changes that the BJL managed to enact, York expressed deep skepticism of the University’s ability to fundamentally change.
“I don’t necessarily think there’s going to be any substantial change that comes to this University through working with the University.” After all, meeting with administrators does not always spur institutional change. “Half of them don’t even know the processes,” he continued, explaining that during the dozens of meetings with administrators, he realized that many of them, not knowing how to enact the requested reforms, would constantly refer them to other administrators, trapping the activists within a bureaucratic maze.
“Whatever you do, it has to be outside the university because they will try to co-opt it,” York said. While complete separation has been impossible during their time as students, they purposefully decided that the BJL would not be an ODUS-recognized group to lessen the possibility of being “co-opted” by the University and to avoid having to follow certain regulations.
Cynicism toward the University, however, does not mean disengagement, according to the student activists.
“Never be complacent,” Tenkiang said. “We often were met with the question of gratitude at the very beginning of BJL.” While he admitted that we should be grateful for our privilege as Princeton students, “you do yourself a disservice as a student if you aren’t constantly questioning and challenging the things that are happening here.”
Payton emphasized the importance of community-building as a central sustaining force for organizing. “As far as building safe and fun and loving spaces for Black students on campus, the university is not going to do it,” Payton said. “So do it. Do it for yourself, do it for each other, and have fun with it.”
Crockett, who has continued meeting with administration and asking for changes individually in her senior year, emphasized the importance of refusing to feel guilty in the process of demanding change.
“I was being constantly made to feel like I was talking too loud, I was asking for too much, I was asking for people to create processes that did not exist, I was asking for people to think about systems in ways that they had not been asked to think of before,” she said. She had to push the administration to think “more broadly and boldly” of its moral duties outside of its contractual obligations.
In her parting words, Crockett stressed the importance of expanding our imagination of what we can claim as ours.
“If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone into everything with the assumption that it was already mine,” Crockett said. Philippe, who moderated the panel and has three years of Princeton ahead of her, said Crockett’s words resonated deeply with her.
“As a student of color who is low-income and first-generation, I tend to shy away from opportunities,” she said. “But you’ve gotten into Princeton — it’s your right to use this campus, your right to use the resources, and your right to use the systems and change those systems if they’re not really made for you.”
Philippe has taken this knowledge and run with it. As a USG Senator for the Class of 2020, she leads a task force to provide greater visibility and access to resources for low-income, first-generation students. Reflecting on the legacy that the BJL activists have imparted to her, she expressed an “overwhelming sense of fighting for what you believe in and knowledge that everything that this university has to offer you is already yours.”