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Protesters grapple with IUPUI’s troubled history, modern grievances

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“Who owes us,” Aahron Whitehead asks a crowd assembled in Military Park June 19.

“IUPUI,” the group responds emphatically. Whitehead, 20, organized a protest as part of the Indianapolis Racial Justice Alliance to shine a light on the troubled history of IUPUI, as well as the disparities he says Black students still face on campus. 

When Indiana University and Purdue University began accumulating property in Indianapolis — even before their 1969 merger — the neighborhood where IUPUI sits today was predominately Black. Through strategic legal maneuvers, the creation of IUPUI led to the displacement of neighborhoods and gentrification that continues to this day. 

In recent years, IUPUI administration has been frank about the school’s unsavory history. Lectures, symposiums and plays have all been hosted on campus to discuss the past, present and future of IUPUI in terms of race relations. 

But protesters say simply acknowledging IUPUI’s history isn’t doing anything to dismantle the systemic issues they say are still in place. 

“Where IUPUI is built today, there once stood a strong Black community,” Whitehead said. “IUPUI has exploited that community and broke it apart. They exploited and broke apart Haughville, Indiana Avenue and Lockefield Gardens.”

Whitehead, who is in his third year at IUPUI, said the school ought to make more of an effort to partner with Black-owned businesses, and students should be able to use their Crimson Card — a student ID which can be used in certain stores downtown — to shop at Black-owned businesses in the area. Further, he said IUPUI should offer scholarships or freshman year tuition deferments to Black residents of Indianapolis’ west side. 

“We want IUPUI to basically repay the community for their actions,” Whitehead said. “They need to help and reinvest into the community to help it grow to become a more urban and innovative environment.”

Sha-Nel Henderson, a junior at IUPUI and president of the school’s Black Student Union (BSU), also helped organize the event, which attracted a group of roughly 45 people.

Demands from the IUPUI BSU are very similar to Whitehead’s demands. The group’s top demands of IUPUI are to require history classes to discuss the gentrification that took place, to partner with more Black-owned businesses, more funding for research into health disparities throughout the Black community, and for the creation of a Black community center on campus, separate from the multicultural center on campus.

In response to the demonstrations, IUPUI Chancellor Nasser Paydar issued the following statement: 

“… I am proud that our students are engaged and active in the community, and I am equally proud of all that IUPUI has done to recognize, respect and tell the story of the neighborhood that once stood where IUPUI now exists. We have been vocal in our opposition to the violence that has been perpetrated against African Americans and other people of color and through words and actions will continue our longstanding efforts to combat systemic racism that leads to such violence.”

Outside of University Hall, where Paydar’s office is located, the protesters chanted “We’re the change,” as they headed toward Taylor Hall.

As the march continued through campus, with chants of “Unity in community” reverberating off the buildings, it became apparent the demonstration was about more than IUPUI. Chants of Dreasjon Reed, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s name echoed through the crowd. The group stopped outside of Taylor Hall to take an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence in memory of Floyd, the exact amount of time Minneapolis police officer Dereck Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, resulting in his death late last month.

“They take our culture, our slang, our music,” Whitehead said. “And then they take our lives.”

After the moment of silence, the floor was open to anyone who wanted to speak. Will Horton, a senior at IUPUI, reflected on his experiences with law enforcement. 

“I’ve been pulled over seven times over the past few years,” Horton said. “Each time could have been the end for me. … We need to take this time to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize. We’ll rise together, by any means necessary.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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