FARGO — Protesters convened on the campus of North Dakota State University for the second consecutive day Saturday, Dec. 5, to voice their objections to the university’s handling of hate speech incidents involving students that were recently made public.
At approximately 2 p.m., roughly 100 protesters gathered outside of school President Dean Breciani's house for speeches before commencing a march that wove through campus for over an hour.
Seemingly to the surprise of organizers, Bresciani himself was in attendance for the speeches, where he bore the brunt of criticism from Faith Shields-Dixon and other speakers.
"I was really disappointed in hearing what was said yesterday by the president of the school," Shields-Dixon, a Black Lives Matter organizer, said. "I want him to know that, yes, we’re happy that you put a task force together, but it was a little too late."
Shields-Dixon, directing the crowd’s attention to Bresciani, drew attention to his and the administration's response to recent hate speech incidents.
A group of NDSU students were recently discovered to be using a slur against Black people on the messaging app Snapchat. Afterward, two other instances of "potential hate speech" were discovered and brought to the school's attention, which Bresciani reported via an email to the campus.
In an interview with WDAY, the president continued to say the students involved in the incidents were disciplined to the "extent legally allowable" within 48 hours from the time the school learned of the incident. However, the school could not make further information public, he continued.
"As a university, we're not allowed to report on judicial matters with students," he said, lamenting that protesters believed the school was trying to cover up the incident. "There was no effort to hide this."
Solomon Sewell, an NDSU student, addressed the group, saying students of color at NDSU find themselves "the subject of similar transgressions" as those recently made public.
"In my interviews today with people I saw here, they continually used the words of 'shocked' and 'surprised' that these types of things could happen here in our community," Sewell said. "The only people who are shocked and surprised are the people that are out of touch and do not come here on the NDSU campus."
Sewell accused the university of only working to maintain the status quo, calling the response from school officials an "unacceptable display of this university’s commitment to inaction".
"We're not here because of one particular group chat or one group of students saying these words," he continued. "We're here because the administration chose not to march with us, not to change their policy and not to take action."
Ambrosia Yellow Bird, a member of the Mandan, Hidasta and Arikara Nation and NDSU student, echoed Sewell's sentiment, calling Bresciani's response "completely unacceptable" and "horrible."
"It made me want to reconsider if I want to graduate from this college," Yellow Bird said. "Unless something changes, I don’t feel validated as an Indigenous woman at this college."
Speaking directly to Bresciani, Shields-Dixon later called on the university president to impose harsher sanctions and move more swiftly to address hate speech on the campus.
"Yes, we respect your office, sir, but we don't respect what's being done to students of color at your university," she said. "This is God's land, and he is holding you accountable to do what’s right to his children. We are all God’s children, and I expect and challenge you to do what is right and hold these students accountable."
Bresciani marched with the group, at one point going to the front and carrying a sign that read "Black Lives Matter." Officers from the Fargo Police Department and North Dakota State University Police Department blocked traffic and stewarded the marchers.
The protesters traveled as far south as 12th Avenue North and as far north as the Fargodome before walking down University Drive and returning to Bresciani's residence.
Protesters then gave further speeches and shared stories of mistreatment on campus while Bresciani stood at the back of the crowd and listened.
Bresciani said the protest was a "terrific show of support," and he found it to be "refreshing."
"Even though it might be perceived otherwise, it's actually a show of support for our university community and our attitude towards the unacceptable behavior that some of our students partook in," he said.
Bresciani explained that the university's objective is to prevent instances of hate speech before they happen rather than respond afterward.
"I'd hate to be presumptuous, and I don't want to disrespect anybody by just throwing out ideas, but culturally what we need to do is change the perception of students that this sort of behavior is acceptable," he said.
Because federal courts have determined hate speech to be free speech, the school has few options to react to incidents, Bresciani said.
"The after is when we have a lot of limitations on this, but the before and educating students that this is unacceptable behavior in our community is what we need to do a better job of," he said.
Despite facing harsh chants from protesters, Bresciani said it was his job to listen.
"Whether that's comfortable or not, the only way we're going to become a better university is to listen to that feedback," he said.