Student protestors gathered on Hearn Plaza Oct. 13 to protest Columbus Day at Wake Forest.
The event started at 6:00 p.m. and lasted an hour. With the crowd growing to nearly 70 students, with dozens of onlookers. In addition, five administrators, including Valerie Holmes, the associate dean of student conduct, were there to watch the proceedings.
The event was organized by Students for Liberation (SFL), a group formed out of the former group Forward Together. In their press release prior to the event, SFL said, “The end goal of the event will be to educate people about what ‘Columbus Day’ really represents through actions, flyers, photo petitions, posters, etc., and to collect as many signatures as possible from students, faculty and staff who believe that Wake Forest University should change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
While there is some disagreement as to what the organization itself stands for, both Charles-Anthony Athanasopoulos, the group’s minister of information, and another member of the group’s ministry (leadership board) confirmed that the group draws its influence from the Black Panthers and Angela Davis, among others.
Protestors were encouraged to read poetry, speak from the heart and express frustrations regarding campus climate. They also spoke out against what they saw as the university’s and society’s glorification of Columbus and the oppression of indigenous people both historically and currently. They also accused the university of celebrating Columbus Day and of marking the event on the school calendar.
“Our communities are affected in innumerable ways [because of systemic oppression],” Savanah Baber, a first-year student and indigenous person, said. “But, despite this, [indigenous peoples] survived and are surviving.”
Baber also pointed out that one in three indigenous women will be sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetimes.
According to Mir Yarfitz, assistant professor of Latin American History, Monday’s protest was part of a larger movement that’s been going on since before the 1992 quadricentennial. Yarfitz pointed out that activism has led to the renaming of Columbus Day all across the Americas, notably to Indigenous People’s Day in many places, including Washington State.
Students also spoke out against campus power dynamics around race, gender and sexuality.
“We want more structural power for disenfranchised communities,” Athanasopoulos said.
Athanasopoulos explained the issues the group was protesting that day. “Columbus was a rapist, a murderer and genocidal,” Athanasopoulos said. “The culture around Columbus Day normalizes our culture to celebrate genocide. This plays into the larger issues of inequality at Wake Forest. My America is not your America, just as my Wake Forest is not your Wake Forest.”
During the protest’s speak out, protestors began commenting on other students walking around campus.
At one point, Athanasopoulous commented on the ignorance and white privilege of a group of girls leaning down to the ground. The group was petting a puppy and headed to dinner. Isabellla Bondarev, one of the first-year students petting the dog, responded, “I am from Washington State and proudly celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. I care about these issues greatly; I was simply petting a dog and getting dinner.”
Other protesters called out random students, as well. Wake Forest junior Mac Cronin notably yelled a number of phrases at passersby, including: “This land is not your land,” “You’re proud of genocide and terrorism,” and “You just keep on walking because you’re … scared.”
In addition to organizing the protest, leaders from Students for Liberation also met with Michele Gillespie, dean of the college, to go over curriculum changes.
SfL has also launched a food and clothing drive. Donation boxes for the drive are all around campus.
Regarding the holiday itself, the university does not observe Columbus Day, according to Katie Neal, Wake Forest’s director of news and communication.
“The event was last listed on the university calendar in 2013 because the calendar was pre-populated with a number of default national holidays,” Neal said. The holiday was not listed on the university calendar in 2015.
Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that the university has not recognized Columbus Day since 2013; the university has not recognozed the holiday at all.