UNION COUNTY, NJ — Rather than fade away during the winter months, the ministers’ coalition protesting structural racism at Kean University battled the elements in another rally on Monday, Jan. 18, outside of State Sen. Raymond Lesniak’s Union office on Stuyvesant Avenue.
More than 70 people, among them Kean faculty and local activists, marched and chanted for the resignation of Kean University President Dawood Farahi.
Rev. Ronald Slaughter, of the St. James AME Church in Newark, led the group in slogans like “no justice, no peace,” and “Farahi must go,” while evoking the memory and civil rights efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Day.
“Lesniak, as anyone knows, is the protector of Dawood Farahi. Dr. King once said ‘you will not remember the words of your enemies, but you will remember the silence of your friends,’” said Slaughter, who believes a racist campus culture is damaging the students and faculty at Kean. “Lesniak has sat idly by and watched it happen, benefitted from it, so then I must speak it. I have nothing to gain from speaking up, but I have everything to lose by leaving these people in bondage.”
The ministers’ issues with Kean stretch back to late November, when anonymous death threats against black students were made on the social networking website Twitter.
Those threats appear to have been a hoax, as in December the Union County Prosecutor’s Office charged a student activist with allegedly creating a false public alarm. But the ministers say they’ve uncovered other, more distressing racial issues on-campus that stem from Farahi’s poor leadership.
These include a decline in support services, full-time faculty and lack of community input on the major decisions made at Kean, according to James Castiglione, the president of the Kean Federation of Teachers, who marched with Slaughter’s group. That decline disproportionately affects minority students, he says.
At the same time, adds Castiglione, a rise in tuition has crippled minority students’ ability to attend Kean in the first place.
“The university has been structurally aligned against the interests of our majority-minority students. When you look at Kean University, you see a lack of full-time faculty in the classroom. You see a lack of professional advisors for the students. You see a lack of student support services,” Castiglione told the crowd. “Our students are being denied the quality of the education that their peers are getting at our sister institutions across the state.”
That people attended the outdoor rally, strategically scheduled on Martin Luther King Day, in frigid weather conditions was a testament to the validity of the coalition’s message, says Slaughter, who intends on protesting against Kean’s administration until he gets results.
“On a tough day, it’s almost 20 degrees — with the wind chill, it’s almost 10 degrees — and look at the crowd. That means this is sincere and close to people’s hearts, that’s what this means,” said Slaughter. “I see it going on as long as it takes. I have youth on my side. I’m 40. I don’t know how long the senator has on his side, or how long the president has on his side.”
“I have started to live this each and every day of my life, because I hear the horrific stories,” added Slaughter. “I can understand if it was just two or three people, then you leave it alone. Even if it was just a union issue, you leave it alone. But it’s bigger than that.”
There was no visible student presence at the rally, with Kean classes slated to begin the next day on Tuesday, Jan. 19, for the university’s 14,000 enrollees. Among the protesters were Slaughter’s coalition of black ministers, the Newark North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen, the People’s Organization for Progress and the National Action Network.
Skeptics surmised the previous demonstration in front of Kean on Friday, Dec. 11, would be the last anyone saw of the protesters, according to leaders at the rally. But that isn’t the case, they added. They’re “in this for the long haul,” as put by Lawrence Hamm, the chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress.
“Fighting for justice is the best way to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. We aren’t going to let no cold weather, we aren’t going to let no adverse conditions turn us around,” said Hamm. “We’re here today to show them we’ve got staying power.”
Lesniak’s office was closed during the rally. On the same day, Lesniak was awarded a Martin Luther King Jr.-related honor, “Alone We’re Good — But Together We’re Better,” from United Youth of New Jersey.
The award recognized Lesniak’s “commitment to advancing social and civil rights and for his continued efforts to keeping Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream alive,” and described him as “a champion for social justice.”