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Missouri Football Players Strike To Demand Ouster Of University President

About 30 University of Missouri football players have said they will not play another game until university system President Tim Wolfe steps down.

The football players said that they were standing in solidarity with the Concerned Student 1950 movement, which has for months now called on the university to seriously address systemic racism on campus.

The team tweeted a picture of the student athletes linking arms. "We are no longer taking it," the tweet said. "It's time to fight."

For months, now, black students at Mizzou have documented a series of incidents in which they were accosted with racial epithets. In the most notorious incident, a swastika was drawn on the bathroom wall of one of the dorms using feces.

In October, black students staged a protest along the homecoming parade route. They formed a chain in front of the president's car chanting, "It's our duty to fight for our freedom!"

Wolfe said nothing to the students and when police removed the students from the street, the crowd erupted in applause. Some of the protesters cried.

Since then, the protests escalated and one student, Jonathan Butler, began a hunger strike last week.

In an interview with the Washington Post, on Friday, Butler said he was "exhausted" and his body felt like it "was on fire."

"I already feel like campus is an unlivable space," Butler explained to the paper. "So it's worth sacrificing something of this grave amount, because I'm already not wanted here. I'm already not treated like I'm a human."

As the Post reports, much of this links back to the protests that drew national attention in Ferguson, Missouri:

"Butler says the problems began in Ferguson, about two hours east, but quickly made their way to Columbia. When white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Brown on August 9, 2014, the incident shook the entire nation. But it also affected Columbia. Many Mizzou students come from the Ferguson/St. Louis area. Many others, including Butler, nonetheless drove to Ferguson to protest.

"Butler was just starting a Master's degree in educational leadership and policy analysis when protests erupted in Ferguson. He had attended Mizzou as an undergrad as well and liked it enough to stay.

"But even as he and his friends were holding signs and chanting on Ferguson's streets, he was surprised, as he sees it, to see his university do little to address the racial tensions simmering in the same state."

On Friday, Wolfe met with Butler and other representatives of the Student 1950 Movement — 1950, by the way, was the first time black students were allowed to attend the University of Missouri.

In a statement, Wolfe said he was concerned about Butler's health and said he was "listening" to Butler's "important and powerful" voice for social justice. Wolfe apologized for not getting out of the car and talking to students at the homecoming parade and he closed by "asking us to move forward in addressing the racism that exists at our university — and it does exist."

That same night, however, Wolfe was confronted by a group of students outside a fundraiser in Kansas City. They asked him what he thought systematic oppression was.

"I will give you an answer and I'm sure it will be a wrong answer," he said. The students pressed him and he eventually relented: "Systematic oppression is because you don't believe that you have the equal opportunity for success."

The protesters erupted in disbelief. The words "you don't believe" stung. "Did you just blame us for systematic oppression?" one of them asked, as Wolfe walked away.

A day later, the student athletes announced their strike.

John Gibson, a cornerback for the team, tweeted: "We're black. Black is powerful. Our struggle may look different, but we are all #ConcernedStudent1950."

Football coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a picture of the entire squad saying "We are behind our players."

Mizzou's next game is Saturday.

Update at 4:06 p.m. ET. President Responds:

University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfeissued a statement earlier today, saying that university has already begun working toward a system-wide diversity program.

Wolfe said the system will unveil a comprehensive strategy in April 2016.

"In the meantime, I am dedicated to ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues as they affect our campus community," Wolfe said.

DeShaunya Ware, a 22-year-old student activist, dismissed Wolfe's statement.

She said he has shown that he doesn't care about their cause.

"We're not taken seriously," she said. "Black and brown bodies at this institution do not matter and our existence is obviously up for debate if people are continuing to do things and nothing is happening."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.