howard u student protest of 1989: the takeover, 25 years later

exclusive feature
April R. Silver
The Liberator Magazine


1989. 25 years ago, students at Howard University took over the “A” (administration) building. We occupied the building until March 5th. Hundreds of us, led by The Coalition of Concerned Students, were protesting ten things and we decided that the most important was the removal of Lee Atwater from the Board of Trustees of this historically Black university. Aarian Pope (now Aarian Punter) was the one who bought the Atwater issue to Black Nia F.O.R.C.E. in late February (Black Nia FORCE, the student org founded by Ras Baraka). In Douglas Hall, room 116, the members of BNF couldn’t believe that our beloved university had such a man on the board. The more we sat and talked that Friday night at our weekly meeting, the more it was obvious that this was unacceptable. The plan for direct action was being shaped and over the course of two weeks we had countless meetings and debates about how to take our university back and how to language and present our grievances to the university. We sought advice from a few trusted adults, we worked in committees, we researched the issues, and we outreached to other student groups on campus. On the day we actually went to have a meeting with the president of the university about our grievances, we even said a prayer in the lobby of the “A” building. I was the executive minister of BNF at the time so I was designated as the spokesperson of the group. We were a small but determined coalition: Sheri Warren, David Porter Sr, Garfield Swaby, Rob Turner, Zenobia, Ras, and I. We worked hard to make this a campus-wide direct action, to get more students engaged. Truthfully, most of the people didn’t join in until they saw that we were serious. Kicking Bill Cosby off the stage during Charter Day ceremony a few days before the unannounced take over might have been a clue that something was brewing. The local and national news attention, Jesse Jackson’s (carefully orchestrated) appearance, and that of Ralph Abernathy might have been another clue that this was something big. The SWAT team that stormed the building in an effort to remove us I’m sure let the world know that were were indeed serious about what we believed in.

Sonia Sanchez, who guided me so carefully during this time (over the phone), made it all clear to me one night when we, as a group, had decided to go through with the plan to shut down the school. In effect, she said, in the most maternal way, “April, when people ask you why you are fighting against your own school, when they try to tell you that you are wrong to protest against President Cheek, when they ask you why are you going through with shutting down the school [a plan that was unknown to most at the time], you have to tell them it’s because you love Howard University, because you love Black people. You have to tell them that you are fighting because what you believe in is worth fighting for. It’s up to you all to make sure that Howard fulfills its mission to you. We fought too hard to let our Black institutions end up in the hands of people who oppose us.”

So on the 25th anniversary, as Jelani Cobb seeks to write an account of The Protest for the archives and as other projects and initiatives are being planned for this milestone anniversary year by the organizers and participants of The Protest, I’m asking myself what do I love and is it worth fighting for. In my private life, with my family, within my community, am I fighting wisely? At what point do we say “The fight is over. Tally up!” Always us, always yes, eternally.

To my BNF family, the protest organizers, the ones who showed up, the ones who were with us in spirit, to the Rooftop Posse, to the young women who laid their bodies in front of the SWAT team thinking that that would slow them down, to the faculty and administrators, security officers and employees on campus, to Marion Barry (God bless you for calling off the SWAT team whose soul intent was to kill us) and to his aides, to Cathy Hughes who was at the time a radio host on WOL AM Radio and told WDC to come to our rescue, to all the WDC residents who sent us food and clothing and toothpaste and sanitary napkins and other sundry items because we had locked ourselves in that building with no set time to leave, to our lawyer Donald Temple, to everyone who made copies for us at their jobs so we could get the word out, to the people who watched us take over our beloved campus and said “Dem niggas is crazy,” to the HU football team, to all the people who sang and chanted in the lobby to keep the spirit alive, to the people who slipped and fell in the stairwells when the SWAT poured oil on the steps, to all the parents and caretakers who watched in horror as the helicopters hovered over the A building as though we were armed (and we weren’t), and to Bill Cosby who said to the press “These are good kids. Cheek should listen to them. They don’t mean any harm,” and to all the high school students who watched the protest on national news in their homes and decided in that moment that they too wanted to be bold and brave and said “I’m going to Howard!,” AND to whoever in the world told us that when we take over the building to NOT block the entrance or exist to the post office in the basement of the “A” building, lest we catch a federal case after everything is over, and to Morani for introducing me to his mother… to all of you, 25 years later I’m saying that I love you still with all my heart. Every waking moment of my life is somehow still tied to 1989 and how that period in time shaped me as a thinker, a woman, an activist, a proud carrier of African ancestry. I have never fully processed that moment in time on a personal level. The death threats from the skin-heads from around the country who called my dorm room had me shook for a very long time. But politically, I’m clear and always have been. We are worth fighting for, flaws and contradictions galore, we are worth fighting for… over and over again.

There’s nothing new or unique about what we did 25 years ago this day, not spiritually. New to us at the time, yes but not universally. Still, I do get nostalgic and emotional and a little sensitive looking back (no apologies for that). But mostly, I’m focused on what’s next and making sure that my love of Howard and of family is concrete…that you can see it and touch it and know that it’s real. I’m thinking about how to do my part to get Ras elected as mayor of Newark this May. I’m thinking “What is our 2014 version of the “A” building, the flagpole, 116, and the Black tam?” I’m thinking about families and friends and contradictions and lessons not learned. I’m also thinking about the fact that we’re still here, most of us. I’m thinking about how to use the time we have left for the benefit of our community so that, for instance, there’s a Howard and an HBCU for our children to attend if they desire. BNF epitomized for me something that Souljah used to say all the time: “Love is demonstrative.” With that, count me in as a life-long, joyful, fierce demonstrator, scars, gray hairs, and all.

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