Activists and Alumni Commemorate the Fifth Anniversary of Amherst Uprising in Series

Activists and Alumni Commemorate the Fifth Anniversary of Amherst Uprising in Series
President Biddy Martin review the events of Amherst Uprising on its fifth anniversary with alumni. Photo courtesy of Sophie Wolmer ’23.

President Martin hosted a virtual panel as part of a series commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Amherst Uprising on Nov. 12. The dialogue was moderated by Lola Fadulu ’17 and featured Martin, Katyana Dandridge ‘18, Christine Croasdaile ’17, Amir Hall ’17, Andrew Smith ’18 and Bella Edo ’21. 

The origins of the Uprising can be traced back to October 2012, shortly after Biddy Martin assumed the role of president of the college.  At this time, a student named Angie Epifano published a letter in The Amherst Student detailing how the mishandled her sexual assault. The article encouraged students to speak about experiences where they felt marginalized or threatened. Epifano’s letter fostered conversation concerning intersections between sexual assault and race. Consequently, in 2015, when conversations concerning racial injustice were on the rise at other well-known institutions, namely, the University of Missouri (Mizzou) and Yale, Amherst students seized the opportunity to tell their stories. 

Amherst Uprising, an organized sit-in, began at 1 p.m. on Nov. 12, 2015. It was coordinated by three female students of color — Dandridge, Lerato Teffo ’18 and Sanyu Takirambudde ’18 — and was originally intended to last as an hour.-long solidarity demonstration in support of students at Yale and Mizzou. However, after students began to draw attention to the fact that the very same issues present at other institutions existed at Amherst, nearly 200 students showed up in support and transformed the event into a weekend long occupation of Frost Library.  During the massive demonstration of solidarity, students from 54 affinity groups gave testimony about their experiences at Amherst. Staff, faculty, administrators and Martin came to witness the sit-in.

The demonstration culminated in a list of 11 demands for the college. Among the stipulations was a call to distance Amherst from its unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff. The college officially changed its mascot to the mammoth in 2017 in response to the Uprising. The Uprising’s demands also requested that Martin revise the Honor Code to reflect a “zero-tolerance policy for racial insensitivity and hate speech;” the measure is one currently still in discussion among faculty after the #IntegrateAmherst and #ReclaimAmherst initiatives by the Black Students Union (BSU) and Black Amherst Speaks. 

The panelists discussed their involvement in the four-day sit-in, the impact of the demonstration and the importance of social justice at Amherst today. They also reflected on the personal and institutional ramifications of the protest. The event drew 130 live viewers, consisting primarily of Amherst students, faculty, alumni and staff.

With new perspective from time away from Amherst, the four alumni recounted how the Uprising was sparked in 2015. Dandridge, an organizer of the sit-in and a sophomore at the time, said that the event was sparked by a conversation with friends on the evening of Nov. 11, 2015.  “We were hanging out in Marsh House and were venting our frustrations about … things that were happening at schools like Yale and Mizzou. They were in the middle of several racial injustice demonstrations, and … we knew that, you know, a lot of the things that related to Amherst, but it just hadn’t been addressed at that moment,” she said.“ Lerato and I at the time, we’re taking a class by [Assistant Professor of Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies] Aneeka Henderson called Bad Black Women … [where we had] been studying the act of protest of transgression. And that background, mixed with our strong feelings, led us to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do about this?’ And then eventually, the three of us decided: ‘Let’s do a sit in, or make posters and put them up, or something like that.’”

Inspired by the BSU’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement a year before, the organizers created signs and broadcasted their intent to have a sit in Frost Library the next day. The sophomores aimed to raise awareness about marches and demonstrations condemning hateful speech and racial insensitivities that were occurring on other campuses across the nation. “While it felt like a big deal to us, we knew that not every student on campus knew or could relate to what was happening everywhere else. And a lot of times students get stuck in the Amherst bubble, where they don’t really consider how things outside, external factors are affecting Black students” Dandrige said.

Word spread fast, by word of mouth and through Facebook. The next day, a total of 200 students from Amherst and Hampshire College filled Frost Library. The mass sparked a conversation that snowballed into a multi-day demonstration and list of demands presented to the college.

Among the attendees were Croasdaile and Hall. The former played a critical role in transforming the hour long sit-in into a movement that gained national attention. She was inspired to speak out because of the shortcomings of the national walk-out the prior year when on December 1, 2015, an estimated 500 students, faculty and staff walked around the quad chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot.”  The event called attention to the police shooting of Michael Brown Jr. of Ferguson, Mo.

“I was a junior, really, one foot in ,one foot out sort of kind of because …  I was about to pursue my spring semester abroad in Cuba,” she said. “I definitely wanted to support Katyana, Lerato and Sanyu in their endeavors because of what happened the year prior: the national walkout. Then, we didn’t do anything with that fire that we had behind us. We stood there in solidarity but we didn’t take the time to look at ourselves and Amherst, not just as an institution, but as people.”

Croasdile refused to let the potential of the moment pass. Rather, as she saw the possibility of the moment fleeting, she started to feel a need to encourage those buzzing with conversation to engage in honest conversation. She remembers thinking,  “I can’t let this moment pass and not stand up and say, ‘how can we sit here and say that we’re sitting in solidarity, but we’re not taking the mirror and looking back at ourselves?’ The administration has come forth, we had everyone literally in the same space … and I [stood up and said] verbatim, ‘Let’s not act like the things that happened at Mizzou, and the things that happened at Yale are not things that we’re experiencing on a daily here at Amherst.’”

Hall recalled the strength that Croasdaile exhibited at the time. “[Christine is one of those] people that can recognize the fire and recognize the thing boiling over and give you a word of encouragement and confirmation that you can do this, that you should do this… It’s about the accumulation of these individual feelings that resonates with national and international movements, and resistances,” he said. “Christine’s voice within that space gave us all permission to say what he had to say, in an activist sense.”

At the time, activism was a revelation for Hall. “[The uprising was] one of the most sincere and organic moments of community that I’ve ever felt at Amherst College,” he said.

Martin mirrored Hall’s sentiment.  “I could not be more grateful that the uprising happened. I think the impact is forever,” she said. “And even if I think of my student days in the late 60s and 70s, or about all the institutions at which I’ve taught, and serve in administration. I can’t think of any event or any set of days that matches, how special it was.”

She added that it is impossible to overstate the impact of the Uprising. Among the effects of the Uprising, Martin cited curriculum modifications, increased diversity in hiring faculty, the creation of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and efforts to diversify athletic programs. 

Next, Fadulu turned to Edo, the only current Amherst student on the panel. Fadulu asked her to speak about the long-term impact with the Uprising and its influence on her work as a student activist. “Everyone at Amherst — especially the people in my class — have felt so connected to the Uprising throughout our time at Amherst, but especially over these past few months. As a member of the senior class, I’m feeling like a huge sense of leadership, especially in this moment. So many of us are empowered to ask and demand for change, not only at Amherst, but just in the world …  I’ve definitely felt in the past few months especially, that I’m fortunate to have a legacy and history of important activism,” Edo said.

The event concluded with a brief Q&A session. The first question came from a student who asked about ways to continue social justice work in light of the restrictions of the pandemic. Edo cited social media as a useful tool for advocacy during this time. “We’re living in this time where so many of us are more empowered than ever to do this sort of work and be persistent. I think in some ways, it can be challenging because we don’t have that same sort of physical community. But I think that the use of social media has been a really important way for people to attempt to replicate a sense of community in advocacy work,” she said.

The next question, directed towards Dandrige, asked whether anyone attempted to repurpose the movement while it was happening. Dandrige admitted that there was a large amount of raw energy in Frost Library during the sit-in, and that many thought that the demands were not enough or too formidable. Yet, at the end of the day, Dandrige thinks that the movement was beneficial to most affinity groups. 

“Black and brown and queer students were really the the major groups that were experiencing discrimination and marginalization on campus. But, there were other people who had problems that mattered as well. We refocused our demands, redeveloped our strategies [to include them],” she said. “In the end, it all worked out because some student groups — like Asian American students — had a lot of energy which reinvigorated all student groups. Now many affinity groups have increased their memberships exponentially and are doing great work on campus.”