Know your sources: Towson University student editor reflects on campus sit-in

Several weeks ago in one of my classes at Towson University we watched a video from the Nov. 9 University of Missouri protest, in which a student photojournalist argued with students and university employees over his right to photograph the protest. Aside from the debate over the First Amendment rights of both parties, I had a question about why the conflict arose in the first place.

As a student journalist and the editor-in-chief of Towson University’s student newspaper, The Towerlight, I wanted to know why the student photojournalist working for ESPN didn't seem to know any of the student protesters. Isn't that probably the reason ESPN wanted to hire a student photographer in the first place?

I had to wonder, if the same situation had taken place at Towson, would The Towerlight have been able to get full coverage, or would we have been in the same boat as the Mizzou journalist?

I got my answer in November when a group of black students at Towson held two sit-in-style protests—first at an SGA meeting Tuesday, Nov. 17 and then in the university president's office the next day. The Towerlight was the only media source to report live on the entirety of the nine-hour sit-in. Yet for me, this story was bigger than two nights of coverage. It was the payoff for more than a semester's worth of team reporting efforts that made it possible for us to be on the scene for those important nights. As student activists John Gillespie, Bilphena Yahwon, and Korey Johnson, who helped to lead the sit-ins, have said to me multiple times, "We didn't just get up one day and decide to do this," and the same rings true for our coverage of the racial tension on Towson's campus.

I first met Gillespie in one of my English classes early last semester. It wasn't until April 29 however, when he and Johnson led a protest of hundreds of students and members of the Baltimore community from Towson's campus to Baltimore City Hall, that I knew about his activism outside of the classroom.

More than three months of summer passed by before the first day of classes, Aug. 26, when nearly 300 students gathered on campus for a student organized event called #BlackOutTowson where students created a safe space to continue the dialogue from last semester. For me, the event prompted my desire to make following this story a priority of The Towerlight, especially after a summer interning with City Paper and observing this movement grow rapidly both nationally and in the Baltimore area.

I began watching for events or teach-ins on campus hosted by black student organizations or the Center for Student Diversity. I met weekly with one black staff member in particular, to talk about where the university was failing at addressing issues that affected the black community on campus. I listened to Interim President Timothy Chandler speak about these issues both publicly and in the monthly meetings The Towerlight holds with him. I saw the conversation grow when white anti-racism activist Tim Wise visited campus and spoke to an auditorium of students about white privilege on Sept. 23.

In our Oct. 13 issue we published our cover article "Voices for Change," which focused on the stories of six Towson student activists and their experiences with racial injustice on campus. This was the first time I was able to speak intimately with Gillespie about his activism and personal experiences with racism at Towson, and met Yahwon who spoke about the social justice work she has been doing at Towson for the past four and a half years. It was these interviews that finally gave me the personal context I needed to better understand not only as a journalist, but also as a white student at the same university, these concerns as they pertain specifically to Towson's campus.

Around noon on Tuesday Nov. 17, we saw on Facebook a list of 13 demands for "sincere and swift institutional changes" posted by Gillespie, which he planned to present to the SGA during a meeting that evening. Not five minutes passed before Yahwon came into The Towerlight office to bring us copies of the demands, and let us know in person their plans for an "SGA Takeover." The students stated that they would not yield until SGA President Kurt Anderson signed the demands and promised to try and make these changes either through his power as SGA president, or by advocating to the administration on their behalf. Eventually, Anderson signed the document.

The next day at around 2 p.m., Gillespie informed me privately that they were going to hold another sit-in, this time in the president's office. He asked me to go with them in order to have media present who understood the depth of the situation and would report the story using facts. He said they had decided to entrust the story to The Towerlight because we had worked with them throughout the semester, and they felt comfortable that we would not report with bias, sensationalize the protest, or twist the words and actions of the students.

I walked with the student protesters and two of our photographers to the administration building and up two floors to the president’s suite. They entered the office at about 3:47 pm, stood before Interim President Chandler, made their demands, took a seat on the floor and promised not to leave until their demands were met. I immediately began live-tweeting from @TheTowerlight using the same hashtags as the student protesters. By 5 p.m., we were able to confirm that the students, Chandler, administration, and university legal counsel had decided to revise the demands together.

I have already declined to speak on what the students and administration said or felt about each of the demands, or which were most important, as it is my job as a reporter to state only facts. It was my objective while tweeting to report only what was decided upon as they revised each demand, and not to attempt to paraphrase the sentiments and feelings of either party.

A few hours into the protest, media personnel made their way into the administration building. One reporter from WJZ, Meghan McCorkell, tried to interview some of the students before Yahwon told them not to speak to the media and called me over. I told McCorkell that they could use anything we reported as long as they gave us proper attribution. Yahwon proceeded to tell the WJZ reporter that she had no comment for her, and that she was only going to be speaking to The Towerlight. WJZ has still not given us attribution for the videos they took from our Twitter account and used in their video coverage of the protest, despite our multiple requests that they do so.

Later in the evening around 9:30 p.m., other reporters were given access to the building even though the doors had been locked hours ago. The student protesters said that they did not want to be filmed and faced the wall away from the cameraman until university officials asked the reporters to leave.

At more than one point throughout that night and into the next day, Gillespie and Yahwon said that they only wanted to provide quotes to The Towerlight because they feared that other media outlets would twist their words. I am proud of my staff that we were able to build the groundwork for this kind of trust with the student body, and thankful to the student protesters and the administration for working with us and allowing us to be there for the entire duration of the sit-in, which ended at about 12:40 a.m. when Chandler signed the renegotiated demands.

We did our best as a small team of student journalists to describe what was happening through facts and observations, and address real and relevant questions from our viewers on Twitter and Periscope. Those commenting online ranged from overt supporters of the students who were angry with the university, to individuals furious with the actions of the students, to those who simply wanted to show solidarity or genuine interest in what was taking place at Towson.

In the days following the sit-in, Chandler and SGA President Kurt Anderson released public statements regarding the protests and their commitment to putting the 13 demands into effect, while Gillespie released his own statement via The Towerlight.

The one opinion I feel comfortable expressing having watched this story unfold for the past few months is this: If anything comes of these protests and the dialogue between students and administration, it will hopefully be educated awareness and increased communication for all involved. I cannot speak for others, but what I witnessed Wednesday night was a room full of individuals openly committed to learning from one another, be it about the reality of what their day-to-day lives are like, or the systems of the complex institutions that make up a public university. I think that the desire of those in the president's office to be aware and educated about these very real issues has, and will, continue to expand beyond that room through online social platforms (and hopefully) transparent communication about the steps being taken to address the demands.

I am certain that this will not be the end of the conversation on Towson's campus or nationally, as both the students and administration appear to be completely devoted to resolving these problems, as demonstrated in the nine-hour negotiation process. I hope that I will be able to continue to have the opportunity to see it unfold firsthand, and that the Towerlight can continue to provide honest and trustworthy information for the campus and community.

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