After participating in a teach-in about the history of racism in the FBI, students put up posters and arranged chairs into the word “no” in the Ferris Lounge to protest a virtual talk to be given the next day by alumni and FBI Special Agent Amy Beuschlein ‘89.
The talk focused on Beuschlein’s life at Knox and how that eventually led to her becoming a special agent in the FBI. The protesters were concerned about how having a law enforcement officer on campus made supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and undocumented students uncomfortable, citing the FBI’s role in efforts against minority movements and organizers.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Kwame Zulu Shabazz voiced some of his concerns through questions at the presentation. He asked Beuschlein about the history of the FBI in regards to its history of antagonism towards people of color and whether she had known about that history when she joined.
“I think if we are only willing to take employment with an employer who has a spotless history, most of us wouldn’t be working anywhere,” Beuschlein said. “My view is that the FBI is in general a really good, ethical organization.”
Shabazz then asked her if she could name any instances of the discrimination from the past. Beuschlein responded with the investigation of Martin Luther King Jr. under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. She then continued to explain her view of her role at the Bureau.
“We’re by no means a perfect organization. It’s basically just a giant group of people. My view is I can make it a more ethical, a more equal, a more fair organization by working there versus not working there,” she said.
Shabazz later told TKS that the school’s invite to an FBI Special Agent was not a surprise, nor was it specifically the problem. What Shabazz wished had been done was more consultation and thought about how inviting a police officer to campus might affect students of color, especially those involved with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“At least acknowledge … that there’s a struggle going on in the real world. Black people are protesting. But I don’t think it was necessarily a mean-spirited thing, or that there was any ill intent. Just we have to have better conversations about these issues,” Shabazz said.
Seniors Tamia Phifer and Sofia Tagkaloglou both attended the teach-in and Beuschlein’s talk the next day. The two had been involved in the student protests in response to the college not planning to renew Shabazz’s contract when it expired at the end of last year. The lack of conversation around the event reminded them of worries about the lack of resources for students of color that arose last year.
“[By saying the institutions are overall ethical], you’re normalizing the behavior to justify it, and it’s not okay. I just feel like your ignorance and lack of knowledge is no longer a justification for your actions,” Phifer said.
According to an email to TKS from Carol Brown ’99, Director of Alumni Programs, and Director of the Bastian Family Center for Career and Pre-Professional Development Terrie Saline, Beuschlein’s talk received a lot of enthusiasm from students interested in careers in law enforcement. It also appealed to those excited to meet the alumna who started the Knox women’s soccer team. The talk had one of the highest in attendance of any KNect Program event.
Brown and Saline also explained that speakers are primarily chosen using student feedback from a survey given out by the Bastian Family Career Center. The survey tries to match students’ interests with alumni expertise. They acknowledge that due to Knox’s diverse population, students might react in different ways.
Shabazz, Tagkaloglou and Phifer all emphasized that they took issue with the institution, not the individuals who work there. The goal of the protest was not necessarily to discourage students from joining, but to make sure students who are considering it have all the facts about the institution.
“I think we have to interrogate [the relationship between the individual and the institution], because that person is telling us that the FBI is a wonderful opportunity,” Shabazz said.
For Shabazz, simply diversifying the institutions of oppression is not enough. Instead they need to be held accountable for their past actions and a conversation needs to take place about their role in white supremacy.
Going forward, Shabazz hopes the controversy from the talk helps spur discussion about Knox’s relationship to racism and white superiority. The Africana Studies department, according to Shabazz, was founded to remove some of the power in education out of the hands of the oppressors.
“I don’t think Knox College has yet made a serious commitment to challenging white supremacy. This is a state of emergency for black people. Black people are under duress,” Shabazz said.
Shabazz also hopes that greater attention will be paid to the needs of the Africana studies department in order to provide a counter to events like Beuschlein’s talk. More funding could allow the department to hire student workers and hold events.
Tagkaloglou and Phifer mentioned that the Center for Intercultural Life could also play a role in helping event planners think through and discuss unintended consequences of certain events.
“Why didn’t they contact the Center for Intercultural Life?” Phifer said.
Students approached Tagkaloglou with worries because she is Student Senate president. Many of them were concerned with the presence of a federal agent on campus given issues around undocumented students and Black Lives Matter. However the event actually used Skype.
Tagkaloglou said she plans to bring the issue up at the next Student Senate General Assembly meeting, which anyone can attend. She is thinking of working with the Alumni Relations Office to see if students want to hold a second event to have a discussion on the topic of their complaints.
“Going forward I would say we have to have more robust, more frequent, campus wide discussions about white supremacy,” Shabazz said.