HBCU DIGEST: The Rise and Impact of Weaponized HBCU Student Activism

These are the breaks.

In the last two days, the members of the Blackburn Takeover protest at Howard University have gone public with their alleged victory in bringing justice to Howard University. The student leaders of the unassociated Live Movement, HU Young Democratic Socialists of America, and the HU NAACP failed spectacularly but have boldly revealed four elements of what they earned in 34 days of occupation. 

“What students can expect as a result of the protest: 

  1.  every student can expect increased transparency from the university and an opportunity to ask questions; 

  2. students can expect and observe increased scrutiny on the university regarding environmental concerns; 

  3. all students can expect to graduate on time; 

  4. significant methods of accountability were garnered and still being worked on outside of the occupation.” 

Juxtapose these “victories” with the original demands of the protestors: 

  1. An in-person town hall with President Frederick and the Administration scheduled before the end of October; 

  2. Reinstatement of all affiliate trustee positions with voting power; and

  3. President Frederick and Chairman Morse to meet with student leadership to outline a housing plan to protect current and future Howard University students.    

Students with legitimate concerns about their well-being in campus housing and campus life experience were co-opted by peers and alumni. Protests at Howard began nearly a week before similar demonstrations by Live Movement members at the Atlanta University Center, which ended in just days. 

Why such a difference in two protests on the same issues under the same group of activists? Why is embarrassing Howard such an irresistible idea that even after a humiliating defeat, some students and alumni are willing to do it all over again? 

The answer has two conflicting parts driven by two very different groups. One part is the mixed agendas of students, student-run but unassociated organizations, and Howard University alumni special interest groups (Howard Alumni United and The Capstone Group). At every step of the protest, they encouraged Blackburn Takeover students to stay the course, even after the university acknowledged and met the first demand related to housing and residence life maintenance issues.  

Howard Alumni United and the Capstone Group thought that by backing the Blackburn Takeover protest, the university would reconsider its decision to eliminate the affiliate trustee positions. They thought wrong. 

The other part is a pursuit of clout. Consider Tyler Davis, who was quoted by the Chronicle of Higher Education on the takeover.  

“even if there was a resolution, it does not change the fact that there is always going to be this vendetta against us because we essentially created the biggest smear campaign that this school has ever seen…If the university does not do what it promised to do, we will take over another building.”  

That is an awful lot of audacity behind a confidential agreement and a list of vague outcomes. There were zero concessions; the university did not meet the demands of the Blackburn Takeover in full. There was no reinstatement of the affiliate trustee members, and the housing plan has not changed. The university has not penalized students for the Blackburn Takeover. They will not pay for any damages to Blackburn. The most that the public saw was students being forced to vacate and clean out the Blackburn Center.  

Issues at Howard University are complex because the federal government appropriates the majority of its operating budget. In addition, the US Education Secretary is an ex-officio member of the Howard University Board of Trustees. 

Quite literally, there is always a direct line to the federal government that Howard University must answer.  

This is why it was puzzling to see members of Congress like Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Cori Bush, and others side with students during the Blackburn Takeover. As members of Congress, they have access to information and context that most Howard University student and alumni stakeholders will never have. They know that the issues plaguing Howard (and other HBCUs) are systemic and directly related to historic underfunding and unaddressed maintenance due to the same. 

It is horrifying to think back to previous protests and remember how they can create inquiries and spur investigations. Remember the 2018 nine-day A Building occupation? That episode led to Howard being placed on Heightened Cash Monitoring status after select Bison also muddied a public occupation with ulterior agendas.  

Suppose public officials are willing to use misguided student angst as political backdrops, and the federal government feels forced to scrutinize schools as a showing of engagement. What chance do HBCUs have at surviving in the court of public opinion?

This is the rise and impact of weaponized HBCU student activism. The Blackburn Takeover may have failed entirely at achieving its objectives, but it surpassed its power in driving potential students and their families away from enrolling at the school. In addition, it drove away suspicious alumni from giving or giving a damn about the school, maybe forever. 

This cannot happen again. Some believe that Howard University can’t protect its image and vulnerabilities from its own stakeholders. What are the chances that any HBCU can be protected from this, or more organized, covert action from real enemies in state and federal governments?