Student Council endorses Black Student Alliance demands after heated session

Public comment period sparks intense disagreement over BSA’s list

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Third-year College student Rawda Fawaz spoke in favor of passing the resolution in support of the demands.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

After a heated public debate Tuesday evening, Student Council unanimously passed two bills supporting the Black Student Alliance’s list of demands for the University administration in light of recent violent events in Charlottesville.

During their legislative session, Student Council representatives unanimously voted in favor of two bills, which expressed Student Council’s support for BSA’s list of demands and established a plan to compile a report on the Confederate plaques on the Rotunda. The latter is in response to the first demand on BSA’s list, which is that the plaques be taken down.

The list of 10 demands has been circulating on social media and has received the support of numerous student organizations, including the Minority Rights Coalition and U.Va. Students United. Student Council’s executive board endorsed the demands Aug. 24 in the days after a town hall.

Representatives also unanimously passed a resolution honoring the counter-protesters who stood against the white supremacist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12.

The pieces of legislation were passed after a lengthy and contentious debate among the students who came to participate in the public comment portion of the meeting. Approximately 100 students packed into the Newcomb South Meeting Room.

Each member was given three minutes to speak without interruption — although as the meeting proceeded, audience members began to shout interruptions and fourth-year College student and Chair of the Representative Body David Birkenthal repeatedly had to use his gavel to attempt to restore order.

Wes Gobar, a fourth-year College student and BSA President, was the first to speak during the public comment period.

“What we’re voting on today is how to respond to an act of terrorism,” Gobar said.

He went on to tell the the representatives the importance of their vote, calling it a part of their legacy. Gobar also noted past support he’d given some of them.

“For many of you reps here, I was in the room when we gave you our endorsement,” Gobar said. “Right now, I’m cashing that check.”

Gobar received applause from the crowd, which heavily favored passing the resolutions to support BSA’s demands. 

The speakers, however, were not all of the same opinion. Several spoke out against the list, for varying reasons.

Adam Kimelman, a third-year College student and chair of the College Republicans, said he supported the sentiment of the demands, but took issue with some aspects of the list.

“I agree we should have more black students here, but we can’t put a quota on it, that’s literally unconstitutional,” he said.

He also took issue with calling Thomas Jefferson a symbol of white supremacy, and claimed the University wouldn’t take some of the demands seriously.

“We could definitely use an amendment to make these things more reasonable,” Kimelman said.

One of the demands on the list specifically references the statue of Thomas Jefferson north of the Rotunda — the same site where a torchlit white nationalist march on Aug. 11 turned violent.

“The statue of Jefferson serves as an emblem of white supremacy, and should be re-contextualized with a plaque to include that history,” reads one of the demands.   

Other speakers objected even more strongly to the mention of Jefferson as a symbol of white supremacy.    

Sean Rastatter, a third-year Engineering student, claimed that sentiment was wrong altogether, saying Jefferson actually tried to make it legal to emancipate slaves in Virginia.

“Thomas Jefferson was not a white supremacist, we are too quick to condemn him,” Rastatter said.

An audience member responded to his comment by yelling, “He raped black girls.”

After Birkenthal gaveled the meeting back to silence, Rastatter responded.

“He did. And that’s absolutely awful. But, so did everyone at that time,” he said, sparking further shouts from the audience.

Milan Bharadwaj, a second-year College student, also caused uproar from the audience for his comments against the BSA demands. He spoke specifically about the eighth one on the list, which asks that the amount of African-American students at the University should match the demographic proportion in Virginia.

Bharadwaj said issues such as high school dropout rates of black students and the proportion of black children raised in single-parent households should be addressed in order to increase the number of black students at the University.

The audience began to shout “This guy’s a racist,” among other comments, and Birkenthal again used his gavel to restore order.

The majority of students who spoke, however, supported BSA’s demands and urged the representatives to pass Student Council’s resolution of support.

JaVori Warren, a first-year College student, was one such speaker. She described her experience seeing the events of Aug. 11 and 12 just days before she was scheduled to move in.

“I don’t think that anyone understands what it was like to be an incoming freshman, and a minority, and to have your parents terrified for you,” she said.

Fourth-year College student Elizabeth Stafford concurred, and offered advice to students who took issue with certain parts of the demands but not their overall message.

“It’s important to just look at the demands and listen to what people are saying, and just support — support students of color,” she said. “If people are worried about word choice and semantics, you need to do some soul-searching.”

Third-year College student Rawda Fawaz spoke in favor of passing the resolution in support, which she admitted was only a small step toward progress, but which she said would go a long way toward making students feel more at home at the University.

“I know it doesn’t solve institutional problems…but I think the least it does is make me feel like I have a right to be here, that my friends and I have a right to be here,” Fawaz said.

Second-year College student Devin Willis also spoke in support of the demands. He urged Student Council representatives to consider the message the University sends in displaying things like the Confederate plaques in the Rotunda.

“Think about what aspects of this University’s character are worth preserving into the future,” Willis said.

After almost an hour of debate, Student Council went into legislative session and voted on each of the resolutions by roll call, one by one, Birkenthal read out the representatives’ names, and one by one they responded in the affirmative. All three bills passed unanimously with no abstentions.

Read the full list of the demands here: 

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