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Dear White People Who Crashed the Warren and Sanders Rallies on Atlanta’s HBCU Campuses

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I’ve always been interested in politics but the 2020 presidential race is the first time I’m actually able to participate as a registered voter. It’s been a pretty exciting time but it’s also sort of daunting since, for me, it’s a matter of human rights.

It’s also been slightly exhausting. So many candidates are running and on top of my school work, it’s been hard to take the time out to research them on my own and figure out who stands for what, so the presidential debates have been helpful. The fifth Democratic Presidential Debate happened on Wednesday, November 20 in Atlanta, which meant we had candidates in the city. Most candidates decided to stick around after the debate to capitalize on engaging young voters.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders specifically decided to have rallies on Thursday. I was especially excited to go to their rallies, due to the fact the Bernie Sanders was having his rally at Martin Luther King Chapel on the Morehouse campus, a four-minute walk from my dorm at Spelman, and Elizabeth Warren was having hers at Clark Atlanta University, a 10-minute walk from my dorm. I was excited that they were not just reaching out to college campuses, but specifically black college campuses that have held an integral role in the history of social justice in the city of Atlanta. This spoke volumes that they knew the importance of young black voters and I was interested in what they had to say to us.

Students gather outside the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on the Morehouse campus for a Bernie Sanders rally on Nov. 21, 2019. Photo for VOX ATL by Lyric Eschoe

The Sanders rally started around 12:00 p.m. so I decided to skip class and queue up for the line around 11:15 a.m. I walked over there, ready to be greeted by the faces of my peers ready to be fired up. Instead, I was greeted by a sea of white faces.

While the event itself was open to the public, I found it interesting that so many white college students and families had decided to come out, and not just ones from the community as I heard attendees mention their hometowns from all over Georgia.

I didn’t have an issue with it at first. They were simply there as I was, ready for change and to hear Sanders speak. However as the event went on, I began to get more annoyed.

I noticed that the vast majority of the people in the front were white and that the majority of AUC students ended up in the back, not really being able to see. This was amplified when one of the opening speakers started talking about the value of HBCUs and I heard white people in attendance asking, “What is an HBCU?” and the way the crowd was dead silent when the choir sang “Lift every voice and sing.”  I eventually left the crowd to go on top of the parking garage across the street to be able to see. There I found fellow students who shared my sentiments of being slightly uncomfortable about who was front and center in this conversation specifically held to address the needs and concerns of the black community.

At 6 p.m., the Warren rally was due to start. Unlike the Sanders rally, this event gave out dedicated physical tickets to the AUC students prior to the event, tickets that were supposed to let us in between 4 and 4:30 p.m. before the general public. Or at least that’s how it was supposed to work. But the organizers did not specify the line was for AUC students and this resulted in students from Georgia State and Emory getting into the event first. The evening was an exercise in fighting our ground.

Young people gather in the L.S. Epps Gymnasium on the campus of Clark Atlanta University for a Warren rally on Nov. 21, 2019. Photo for VOX ATL by Lyric Eschoe.

The Warren event made it even more blatant who the targeted audience was. The name of the rally was “Valuing the Work of Black Women.” The pins they gave out said “HBCU Students for Warren” and “Black Women for Warren.” The signs they handed out read “Black Women for Warren” or “Black Voters for Warren.” Eventually, the staff did break out general “Students For” or “Women For” paraphernalia but it was clear the rally was supposed to be a conversation where black women would take front and center. So, when I looked out into a crowd where the entire floor of the arena was made up of predominantly white faces, again, I had some questions.

White people need to be aware of their privilege. In their minds, they probably thought they were doing the right thing. They came out to support a liberal candidate who’s against marginalized oppression. On the surface, they hadn’t done anything wrong.

But the lack of awareness about coming into a neighborhood that doesn’t usually have access to these types of educational opportunities and making yourself the center of attention just screams colonization. When you come into a community created by and for black students and you decide to to dominate the conversation, you make it hard for us to feel comfortable in our own blackness.

When the DJ plays Maze’s “Before I Let Go” or Fast Life Yungstaz’ “Swag Surfin’” and we can’t be carefree because you’re staring at us like we’re a foreign species, it doesn’t make us feel comfortable.

VOX ATL teen staffer Lyric Eschoe with presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

I’m not gonna say that you don’t have a place in these conversations, but you need to be firmly aware of your role as an ally and not be literally front and center.

I know you can take one night out of your whiteness to be hyper aware of your place in these spaces. After all, black people have done this every minute of the day for every moment of our lives.

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