A roar of applause greeted a 61-year-old man, donning his trademark black suit, as he sauntered up to the Media Theater’s stage. Dr. Cornel West, the sole reason why hundreds of students filed into the theater that night, had arrived.
“I am in no rush,” West told the students. “I believe in moving with the spirit.”
West returned to UC Santa Cruz for the second time in four years for “Speaker Blowout: Ferguson, Racism and the Media.” The event was sponsored by Engaging Education and Student Media and endorsed by the African/Black Student Alliance (A/BSA).
An internationally recognized professor, philosopher, author, activist and artist, West focuses on the impact of race, gender and class on U.S. society. Most recently, he was arrested on Oct. 13 alongside other protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.
“We wanted to have an event that would start a dialogue around Ferguson because we were noticing that the campus wasn’t addressing it,” said Engaging Education co-chair Adlemy Garcia. “But we knew the communities we represent were being affected by the different incidents that were happening.”
The organizers felt West was an ideal candidate because he had traveled to Ferguson in solidarity with the intent of getting arrested, as well as for his ability to connect with students. West would spark a larger conversation among students on campus.
Engaging Education chose to reach out to A/BSA in particular out of a desire to ensure they were represented, given the timeliness and sensitivity of the subject.
A/BSA co-chair Shadin Awad said West’s speech was critical to facilitating a conversation about race on campus. She emphasized the importance of the discussion in light of recent national events.
“The existence of black folks is being challenged systematically,” Awad said. “For a lot of us this is still an everyday reality. Having someone like Cornel West speak on issues that hit home is crucial because unfortunately this is not a campus that holds dialogue like that.”
West was introduced by Tiffany Loftin, an Oakes College alumna and former Student Union Assembly chair, who helped bring West to campus in 2011 in the midst of a string of discriminatory graffiti on campus at the time. Loftin recalled being in Ferguson at the same time as West and hearing him declare, “I didn’t come here to give a speech. I came here to get arrested,” before being arrested the following morning.
West’s speech used Ferguson as a point of reference to tackle broader issues of race, modern politics and mainstream media. Ferguson is the tip of the iceberg, West said, a marker of the way racism affects people of color and spills over to discriminate against other groups marginalized by society.
First-year art major Amir Williams was struck by the way West engaged students of all backgrounds.
“Sometimes in race-based conflicts, people start to detach themselves,” Williams said. “They feel like, ‘I’m not a black person, so it’s not my problem.’ It’s that ‘black person problem.’ With him, it was a lot deeper than that. He addressed multiple facets of life.”
Second-year student Thomas Logwood agreed, saying “I enjoyed how he was very thorough and inclusive when he spoke. He wasn’t speaking to a particular demographic. He was firm on his blackness, but still was inclusive to yellow, brown and even white.”
West praised the young leaders in Ferguson, most of whom fall between the ages of 19-24, for organizing day after day against police violence, the face of what he deemed the “repressive apparatus of the United States.”
He also urged students to be “courageous seekers of truth” and to demand more than the status quo.
“To be successful in America is to be well adjusted to injustice,” West said. “I don’t want to know what you’re adjusted to, I want to know what you’re faithful to.”
West was critical of Congress and President Obama, stating disorder and lawlessness begins at the top and trickles down into the streets. Originally an Obama supporter, West became a prominent critic of the president’s policies.
“He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency,” West said in an August interview with Thomas Frank for Salon.
In his speech, West said Obama failed to deliver in the name of truth and justice, but remained adamant that his criticism bore out of tough love.
“When you love folks, you can’t stand the fact that they’re treated poorly,” he said.
An artist himself, West found it difficult to discuss freedom without discussing music, an art form he regarded as a source of transcendence for African-Americans. The blues is a language rooted in catastrophe that offer people hope, West said, and fighting for freedom is about progress in the face of catastrophe.
“The blues idiom is the idiom of the whole world,” West said. “The whole world’s got the blues.”
Following his speech, the floor was opened for a question and answer period. West fielded questions on the difference between being a white savior and an ally, the internalization of white supremacy and how to turn rage over social injustices into love.
The topic circled back to Ferguson, with a question asking whether justice for Michael Brown could ever exist.
“There will never be justice for Mike Brown,” West said, “That’s like asking for justice for all of the bones at the bottom of the ocean because of the Atlantic slave trade. We are asking for accountability for people who kill people.”
West addressed education many times throughout his speech, even denouncing the privatization of the education system in reference to the recently approved UC tuition hike. Immediately following the event, he joined the students occupying Humanities 2 to deliver a second speech demonstrating his solidarity.
“What the brothers and sisters are doing in Humanities is so important,” West said. “You have to bear witness. What person will you be in the short trek from the womb to the tomb?”