Cal Poly students protest during Open House weekend over blackface, response
Hundreds of angry Cal Poly students marched and chanted across campus Friday to protest the university's response to photos of fraternity members in blackface and gang clothing.
The protest was held the same day that thousands of visitors arrived on campus for the university's annual Open House weekend.
Prospective students and their parents looked on as protesters walked around campus for hours, holding signs, blocking roads and marching through booths and displays advertising campus programs.
Marchers expressed their anger over the photos, which surfaced on Sunday and showed Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity members dressed in racist clothing at an April 7 party. One member, Kyler Watkins, was also shown with his face and neck painted entirely black.
Watkins sent an email to The Tribune on Friday apologizing for the blackface.
Protesters also blasted administrators' reactions to the photos, directing much of their anger at President Jeffrey Armstrong, who said at a Thursday night forum that Watkins likely won't be expelled.
Just before the protest began, Armstrong approached a group of marchers to talk with them and was met with angry responses.
"You don't support us," one student said. "You're not going to use us for a photo op when you haven't done anything for any of these people."
During the demonstration, marchers called on Armstrong to resign and chanted phrases like "Black students matter," "Whose campus? Our campus!" and "Bye bye, Lambda Chi."
At one point, protesters even disrupted the Agriculture Pavilion Department Showcase, marching around the tables where visitors were preparing to eat lunch.
Victoria Siaumau, an 18-year-old biochemistry major, held a sign that said, "Prove that I'm not just your costume."
She said she was excited to attend Cal Poly as a first-generation college student, but now doesn't feel safe at the school. Siaumau said someone laughed at her sign as she was walking to the march.
"I feel like a fraud if I don't say something," she said.
Michelle Vasquez, a 20-year-old kinesiology major, said she's experienced racism from fellow students: "Right off the bat, I was taken off guard."
Vasquez said she sometimes feels slighted by other students and thinks her skin color and language are to blame. She said this kind of behavior has been a problem since her older sister attended Cal Poly.
"It's just not OK anymore, and we're done being silent," she said.
Many students said they weren't satisfied with the university's response to the fraternity photos and racism on campus.
Kim Knollenberg, an 18-year-old biomedical engineering major, said the blackface incident and the administration's response don't make her feel like a respected member of the university.
"(Armstrong) keeps saying he's sorry," she said. "But how can he be sorry if he can't even do anything about it?"
Savannah Nieman, a 21-year-old business major and volleyball player, said Armstrong and the university have praised her for her athletic accomplishments, including a trip to the NCAA tournament in December.
But after this week, Nieman said she feels "disrespected and not of the proper value."
"I think there's a culture on campus that isn't being properly addressed," she said.
The protest wrapped up on Dexter Lawn, where 20-year-old sophomore Leilani Hemmings read a statement explaining changes students want to see implemented at Cal Poly.
Hemmings is a member of the Black Student Union who helped organize the protest and an emergency town hall on Monday night.
She said she's struggled with campus culture since she started attending Cal Poly.
"It's very toxic," Hemmings said. "The student population is just not white, it's top-10-percent-of-the-population white."
Because San Luis Obispo is isolated and also lacks diversity, Hemmings said it feels like the culture can't be changed.
Even so, Hemmings said she hopes such demonstrations can start chipping away at the negativity.
"I think we came out and made some noise," she said of the protest.
Katie Ettl, a 21-year-old political science major, helped organize the protest as a member of Students for Quality Education.
She said her group's No. 1 priority is to stand in solidarity with black students and the Black Student Union.
"This is one of the biggest turnouts I've seen for a protest on campus," she said.