Amid nationwide protests following high-profile officer-involved shootings, students at the University of Vermont took a stand this weekend by hoisting a “Black Lives Matter” flag alongside the state flag and the American flag.
The flag, which was raised outside of the campus’s Dudley H. Davis Center in Burlington, Vermont, was met with both outrage and support, as seen in the comments on UVM’s and the student center’s Facebook pages.
The university’s Student Government Association sponsored the Black Lives Matter flag in response to the recent shootings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The gesture was meant to show support for those who “are struggling with violence and search for justice in this country,” student government president Jason Maulucci said, according to a UVM Facebook post.
Tom Sullivan, president of the university, approved the student government’s display of the flag, but told local news station WCAX that it did not represent an endorsement from the university.
“I think given this particular time in the history of America, our students thought it was an appropriate time over the next couple of days to show their support for black communities in the United States,” Sullivan told WCAX.
After the flag was raised Thursday, students and staff, including Tynesha McCullers, a UVM graduate student and assistant residence director, began posting images of the flag to social media.
“My university issued a statement today,” McCullers wrote on Facebook that evening, along with a picture of the flagpoles. At the time of publishing, readers had reacted to McCullers’ post more than 11,000 times and shared it more than 12,300 times.
Many people, including McCullers, said they were proud of the university’s students for showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It makes it seem like UVM is paying attention to what’s happening in the nation,” McCullers, who is currently a teacher’s assistant for a course titled “The Political Economy of Race,” told The Huffington Post. “If anything, it’s definitely our students who are aware and willing to engage in dialogue.”
Others criticized the university’s decision to fly the flag, with some saying it is “racist” and condones violence.
“Not at all surprised that UVM would condone this racist organization which promotes the murder of white people and officers,” user Chris Kaufman wrote on UVM’s Instagram page.
“Fuck this. We are a public University,” Instagram user Andrew Charlestream wrote in the same comments section. “I happen to agree with BLM but this is not right. It’s equivalent to flying a republican flag on campus. BLM is an independent political organization. This is not right.”
McCullers, however, wasn’t surprised by the negative backlash.
“It plays into how there’s still a lot of people who don’t understand what the Black Lives Matters movement is,” she told HuffPost. “It’s been rough reading the different comments, but it reminded me of the current climate in the nation. It’s really made me want to protect my students that are here, especially the black students here.”
Someone stole the flag on Saturday night, but a new one was raised in its place the following day, the Burlington Free Press reported.
“This action underscores the necessity in this country to engage in a frank and open discussion about the injustices that so many Americans face simply because of the color of their skin,” UVM’s Student Government Association said of the missing flag on Facebook. “Too often we let ourselves become divided into categories ― if you’re for something you must be against something else. It doesn’t need to be that way.”
On Monday evening, student activists dressed in all black held a peaceful rally outside the student center to show their support for the flag flying on campus and the Black Lives Matter movement. According to the Facebook event page, around 600 people attended the event.
Using the Dudley H. Davis Center’s flagpole at UVM to express support for a movement is a common practice on the campus, college news watchdog site Campus Reform reported.
In the past, student organizations at the university have formally sponsored other flags that have been flown on the flagpole to “teach and support the principles of social justice and community,” Enrique Corredera, UVM’s executive director of public affairs, told Campus Reform.
Other flags hoisted on that pole include the “rainbow flag to celebrate marriage equality or to support our community following the targeted shooting” in Orlando, and Haiti’s national flag, following the country’s devastating earthquake.
Although McCullers has received negative comments because of her support for the Black Lives Matter flag on campus, she is happy to see that it is starting an important discussion on race.
“These students put a lot of effort to have that flag be raised, getting permission from upper administration, and to make a statement,” she told HuffPost. “These students want to be recognized and they want to be visible and they want people to realize that they’re hurting here at this institution.”