The Activist: Maliya Homer Black Student Union President
What College Activists Want
Defunded police. Inclusive coursework. Faculty members who look like them. Students demand radical change for racial justice, and they’re not backing down.
There was a time when stripping a racist’s name from a building would have been celebrated as a breakthrough for racial justice in higher education. Today, it’s accepted as a starting point.
As the Covid-19 pandemic and outrage over police violence converge, college students are demanding radical change. They want Confederate symbols toppled, police departments defunded, coursework diversified, departments restaffed with people of color, and a host of other actions.
“We’re past the point of conversation and reforms and panels,” said Maliya Homer, president of the Black Student Union at the University of Louisville. “We can’t panel our way out of this oppressive system that controls us.”
For students like Homer, these issues are personal. On a daily basis, they face fear, frustration, judgment, and ostracism because of their race and ethnicity, and their demands are shaped by those common experiences.
The Chronicle spoke with four student activists, each shedding light on a single demand.
The demand: Sever ties with the police.
The activist: Maliya Homer, president of the Black Student Union at the University of Louisville
When Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was shot to death by Louisvile police officers who crashed into her apartment in the middle of the night, it was a jarring reminder for Maliya Homer of how vulnerable she felt as a Black woman.
Homer, president of the University of Louisville’s Black Student Union, had been disturbed for years about accounts of local police officers questioning Black and brown students for behavior that wouldn’t have raised suspicion if they were white. A Mexican American friend, wearing a hoodie and walking to the library, was asked where he was heading. A white student driving with two Black passengers said a police officer pulled out her gun when they asked her for directions.
But Taylor’s death marked a turning point for Homer. “Breonna’s murder was the last time I was going to even entertain ideas of reform,” she said. It “made me feel like Black women are dispensable.”
On May 31, Homer and the Black Student Union called for the university to sever ties with the Louisville Metro Police Department. “Nothing about being in closer proximity to state-sanctioned violence makes us any safer," Homer wrote in the statement.
Helping impoverished neighborhoods near the campus meet food and affordable-housing needs would be a more equitable and effective way, she said, to improve public safety. Policing, Homer believes, contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. She might have ended up there herself if the police had been summoned during her years as a strong-willed middle-schooler, she said.
Louisville’s president, Neeli Bendapudi, sympathized with Homer’s concerns but wrote in a response on the university’s website that cutting ties “would be an insufficient answer to a very complex problem.” The university relies on the local police to help investigate crimes, the president wrote. Its criminal-justice department houses a police-training institute.
Bendapudi promised that campus police officers would lead most investigations and that de-escalation or cultural-sensitivity training would be required for all officers hired to work on campus.
To Homer, those steps fall short. “It’s a slap in the face,” she said, “when you have Black and brown students asking you, begging you, telling you we don’t feel safe” with the metro police department, “and you talk about reform."