By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Less than 24 hours after a post-election disturbance triggered police intervention and two arrests on the University of Mississippi campus, nearly 700 community members came together to proclaim unity.
Tuesday night’s incident reportedly started with about 30 or 40 students trading taunts and epithets after the re-election of President Barack Obama had become evident.
A university statement said after police arrived at a gathering in front of the Student Union, the crowd grew to more than 400 students before it was dispersed. Some social media users called the protest a “riot,” but Chancellor Dan Jones said there were no injuries and no property damage.
“Unfortunately, early news reports quoted social media comments that were inaccurate,” he said. “Too, some photographs published in social media portrayed events that police did not observe on campus. Nevertheless, the reports of uncivil language and shouted racial epithets appear to be accurate and are universally condemned by the university, student leaders and the vast majority of students who are more representative of our university creed.”
A photo reportedly from the disturbance showed someone igniting a small Obama-Biden campaign poster. One faceoff ended with the shouting of “Hotty Toddy,” Ole Miss’ signature cheer.
University police arrested two students. Ryan Matthew Young, 19, of Franklin, Tenn., was charged with disorderly conduct and failure to comply with police orders. Robert Kell, 19, of Dallas, Texas, had the same charges plus an additional charge of public intoxication.
Jones said the administration was “very disappointed in those students who took a very immature and uncivil approach to expressing their views about the election. The gathering seems to have been fueled by social media, and the conversation should have stayed there.”
Jones said, “Parents are being notified that it’s a normal day on campus and that one of America’s safest campuses is safe again this morning, though all of us are ashamed of the few students who have negatively affected the reputations of each of us and of our university.”
Janae Henderson, a black freshman biology major from Memphis, said she hadn’t seen any aftereffects in campus behavior Wednesday. However, she said, “It’s embarrassing. A lot of people are talking about it.”
Karneshia Patton of Senatobia is working on a second degree in communicative disorders and is also black.
“It wasn’t as big as the media tried to make it,” she said. “It was ‘much ado about nothing.’”
Bryan Cuchens of Madison, a white senior in biochemistry, attributed the disturbance to “some immature students, probably freshmen, not knowing what they’re doing.”
He added, “I hope it doesn’t reflect on the university. There are still people who do foolish things.”
Erika Pruitt, a freshman forensic chemistry major from Corinth, didn’t know about the incident until Wednesday morning.
“My brother sent a message to me asking what had happened,” said Pruitt, who is white. “He lives in Indiana, and he knew about it. It hasn’t affected me – not in the least.”
Demetrius Morgan, a junior psychology major from Natchez, said he understands just how easily the importance of minor incidents can get exaggerated. An African-American, he was a senior in high school when the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally at Ole Miss, and even though the campus response was universally condemning of the Klan’s presence, the incident gave him second thoughts about Ole Miss.
“It almost turned me away from coming here,” he said.
Claiborne Barksdale, CEO of Barksdale Reading Institute, said, “The reputation of Ole Miss is fragile. We can do a thousand things right, and all it takes is one stupid mistake for people to say, ‘See, nothing’s really changed.’”
Jones vowed not to accept Tuesday night’s setback as failure.
“As we have acknowledged throughout this year of recognizing fifty years of racial integration at our university, despite evidence of progress, we still live in an imperfect world,” he said. “All of us in the university community must recommit ourselves to condemn hate and to continue our work to assure our university is a safe and welcoming place for every individual every day.”
Justin Cluck and Geoffrey Yoste, chairmen of Lafayette County’s Democratic and Republican executive committees, respectively, issued a joint statement condemning the “inappropriate behavior.”
“Although our organizations encourage spirited debate and engagement among University of Mississippi students on political campaigns, there is no place for divisive and disrespectful confrontations like those that occurred on campus last night,” they wrote. “The heat of the campaign is no excuse for violent words or actions.”
Nearly 700 people participated in a candlelight campus walk Wednesday night sponsored by the William Winter Institute on Racial Reconciliation and One Mississippi, a student reconciliation group. At the Lyceum, participants collectively recited the University of Mississippi Creed, including this statement: “I believe in respect for the dignity of each person. I believe in fairness and civility.”
Jones said the resolute crowd proved “there will no longer be quiet acquiescence to injustice” at Ole Miss.