Following nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and police brutality, University President Jim Ryan released a statement on social media Sunday morning that elicited strong reactions from community members for what they saw as a failure to adequately address the underlying causes of ongoing national protests. Among those who took to social media to respond to Ryan’s statements was Zyahna Bryant, a rising second-year College student and Charlottesville community organizer, who publicly announced her resignation from the President’s Council on UVA-Community Partnerships after reading his statement.
Ryan began his message by offering a brief reflection on current events sparked in part by the murder of Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed in Minneapolis, Minn. by a white police officer who kneeled on Floyd's neck until he was unconscious. Three other officers were complicit in the murder.
“[Floyd’s] death disturbs, offends and saddens me deeply as a human being and as an American,” Ryan said. “What happened to him obviously deserves to be condemned.”
Ryan characterized the outrage in response to the “brutal killing” of Floyd as “hardly surprising especially coming after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.” In his statement, Ryan also criticized the violence that has erupted in many cities across the nation during protests.
“I don’t believe that violence is ever the answer, and we know that violent protests both backfire and often injure those who are already victims,” he said.
Meredith Clark, assistant professor of media studies, responded to Ryan’s post on Twitter asking for clarification about the violence to which Ryan was referring.
“Whose violence?” Clark wrote. “What violence? Hundreds, if not a thousand people protested [in Charlottesville] yesterday without incident. The violence that started all of this was certainly not the answer. The violence of withholding substantive support and assigning vague criticism certainly isn’t, either.”
In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Clark characterized Ryan’s statement as vague and not specific to “frustrations that have been expressed very specifically, directly and with great detail.” Clark pointed to how Ryan failed to address media coverage of protests showing “how the police are directly instigating violence against unarmed citizens.”
“I really take issue with the conflation of the destruction of property and violence,” Clark said. “Generally, when you're talking about violence, what we're talking about is assault on human beings and murder of human beings, and there was nothing in [Ryan’s] statement that made it clear that that's the sort of violence that he was talking about.”
Clark attributed the “superficial understanding” of the underlying issues motivating the ongoing protests and uprisings nationwide to the narratives portrayed by mainstream media and a lack of communication with community members.
“If you're simply watching mainstream media, then there's a certain type of story that you're going to get … and that's because we know media has specific norms and rules and values and practices through which news is made,” Clark said. “If you're not in touch with activists, and with organizers, and even with regular everyday Black people who don't work for you, or maybe don't live in your neighborhood, you're going to miss some of the sentiments that are behind the protests.”
Less than eight hours after Ryan published his statement on social media, Zyahna Bryant — one of the co-organizers of the protest that took place in Charlottesville Saturday — announced via Twitter her resignation from the President’s Council on UVA-Community Partnerships to which she had been appointed in October 2019.
“While I value the work being done, [Ryan’s] statement has proven that there seems to be no real interest in 1. supporting Black students at U.Va. in an explicit and direct way that calls out the racism that exists and 2. recognizing the very VIOLENT history that this country has in oppressing Black people, in which the university has played a major role,” Bryant wrote. “I refuse to be used to represent an institution that makes it clear that they do not care about me or others who look like me.”
The President’s Council on UVA-Community Partnerships evolved from the UVA-Community Working Group established by Ryan in the fall of 2018 to examine how the University could strengthen its relationship with surrounding communities. The Council includes community leaders and University faculty and staff members.
In a statement to The Cavalier Daily, Bryant outlined changes that would have to occur for her to consider potentially re-joining the Council.
“President Ryan has to explicitly call out the racism in all of its forms that continues to disproportionately impact and affect Black people,” she wrote. “These systems impact Black students right at U.Va. and in the Charlottesville community. The University needs to fully reckon with its racist past AND PRESENT.”
Additionally, Bryant called for mandatory anti-racist trainings and orientation sessions for incoming and current students, faculty and staff. She also called on the University to make Grounds more inclusive and safe for Black students through initiatives such as “funding spaces and organizations for Black students, renaming/removing buildings/statues named after racists, slave-owners and eugenicists and committing to expanding the enrollment and support of/for Black students at the University.”
A group of predominantly Black students released a statement Monday morning in response to Ryan’s statement. Over 380 students and nearly 50 student organizations have signed the statement as of press time.
In their response, the students call upon Ryan and the University to not “be complacent when it comes to fighting against systemic racism and inequality, which the University regularly fails to do.” Additionally, the students have provided a list of 15 demands to be addressed and are urging Ryan to “explicitly denounce racism and white supremacy in all its forms.”
“The lack of substance in [Ryan’s] statement and in the support from this school is a continuation of violence that students have endured since its inception in 1819,” the response states. “It is time for the University of Virginia to reevaluate its priorities and make a comprehensive culture shift. The University must directly address the injustices and inequalities that Black students, faculty, and workers face every day on Grounds.”
Ellen Yates, a rising fourth-year College student and Student Council president, called Ryan’s statement “deeply disappointing” in a statement to The Cavalier Daily. Yates said Ryan’s condemnation of violence “detracts from the core issue — the murders and racism that have catalyzed the protests.” Additionally, she called for further action from the University to address the protests of the past week.
“U.Va.’s administration has a deeply critical responsibility to demonstrate its commitment to the protection of students of color with tangible action plans, and to address events like George Floyd’s murder with gravity and seriousness — something that an Instagram story cannot capture,” Yates wrote. “Moving forward, it is essential that the University addresses this week’s events in a formal manner, and with actionable plans to confront white supremacy in our community and protect students of color from police brutality.”
Rising fourth-year College students Kayla Thomas and Grace O. Gyamfi also expressed similar dissatisfaction with Ryan’s statement.
Thomas felt Ryan’s statement was a “PR move” and highlighted aspects she felt Ryan failed to acknowledge in his statements.
“He failed to state anything that Black people are constantly fighting for,” Thomas said. “He failed to acknowledge the #BlackLivesMatter movement as essential, did not condemn what police have meant for Black people, did not acknowledge the University’s part in our reality. Instead, he made a safe statement that allowed white people to still feel safe within their privilege.”
Gyamfi said she was not “disappointed or surprised” by Ryan’s statement after concerns over the February re-opening of the Multicultural Student Center gained national media attention. According to Gyamfi, Ryan “was neutral and silent” while a Black University student was subject to racist harassment online.
Several days after the incident, Ryan published an editorial in The Cavalier Daily in which he denounced “the vitriol and threats expressed toward [the student in the viral video] and other students of color.”
“To suggest that some students should be excluded on the basis of their race or any other aspect of their identity is, to me, inconsistent with the very purpose of having the center,” Ryan wrote in the editorial. “More generally, and to be plain about it, no student should be denied access to a University program or space because of race.”
Clark acknowledged that the president is in a “sensitive position” as the figurehead and spokesperson for the University. However, it is precisely because he is in such a position of power that she believes Ryan can “deliver messages that speak to the depth of what U.Va. can and should be when it comes to issues of social and racial justice.”
In his statement Sunday morning, Ryan said that he had “no words of real wisdom or comfort” but highlighted his continued faith despite ongoing events.
“I have faith that we, as a country, are better than this,” he said. “Faith that we, as a country, want to be better than this. And faith that we, as a university, can help get there by being the sort of community we would like to see in the world.”
Clark suggested that, just as Ryan found success in connecting with wider audiences through talking about his background as a first-generation student, he might also find success in reaching more diverse audiences through amplifying the voices of “people outside of his immediate circle … and [using] the platform that he has to spread some messages that are more in touch with the common experiences of people connected to the University and people outside the University.”
As a pre-tenure professor, Clark was initially hesitant to respond to Ryan’s statement because of potential fallout as a result of her response, but she decided to “follow [her] conscience” and express her critique.
“I feel like this is one of those moments where, if you've ever wondered what you would do in a time of crisis, this is a test for that time, this is the time to find out,” Clark said. “More and more, I’m really trying to live out my values, and so I encourage other people, whether they are pre-tenure or general faculty, students — wherever you are — to speak up and speak out.”
This article has been updated to include information about the written student response addressed to President Ryan.