The Torch

Walk Outs: Gempesaw’s Town Hall Goes Awry

Student calls for impromptu exit, felt faculty not engaged

SJU+administrators+abruptly+exited+the+emotional+town+hall.
SJU administrators abruptly exited the emotional town hall.

SJU administrators abruptly exited the emotional town hall.

TORCH PHOTO/NICK BELLO

TORCH PHOTO/NICK BELLO

SJU administrators abruptly exited the emotional town hall.

Nick Bello, Assistant Photo Editor

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First, half of the students walked out.

Then, so did the president.

The 85-minute town hall meeting last Thursday in which students spoke directly to administration — including University president Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw — about race relations and diversity issues at St. John’s was filled with raw emotions.

This event was the result of an impromptu demonstration by a hundred-plus students Feb. 1 at the Little Theatre in which they voiced their disappointment, frustration and anger with the state of race relations on campus and demanded to address Gempesaw directly.

They were granted that meeting a week later.

But it didn’t necessarily go as planned.

Gempesaw planned to make closing remarks, according to a schedule of events provided at the start of the meeting, but those never occurred because of a series of chaotic events.

TORCH PHOTO/NICK BELLO
As students began to exit Taffner, one student pleaded for all to stay and voice concerns to the administration present.

Toward the end of the packed house meeting at Taffner Field House, a student involved in the event accused some of the St. John’s staffers present of not being engaged with the student speakers and then asked all students to leave because they were not taken seriously.

“I challenge you to actually walk out with me,” she said, “because they don’t deserve our time.” The Torch is not naming the student because it does not know the spelling of her name.

In a statement that was released by Students of Consciousness on its Instagram and Twitter accounts on Saturday, the group announced that the decision to walk out, “was not the decision of solely one person, but instead the decision of S.O.C. as a whole.”

The statement also said that S.O.C. had occupied the remaining speaking slots after they planned on staging the walk-out. S.O.C. also said in the statement, “We in no way meant to disrespect or antagonize anyone, but to make a statement towards the administration.”

As a majority of the crowd left with the student in protest, some students who stayed pleaded for them not to leave, saying they were abandoning their platform to address issues with administration. Some students returned to their seats or stood in the back of the field house to listen to the remainder of the student speakers.

TORCH PHOTO/NICK BELLO
Oliva, Vencak and Gempesaw watched as some students chose to leave the town hall on Thursday.

Once the crowd settled down, four students addressed the panel of administrators, which included Gempesaw, Vice President Joseph Oliva and Director of Public Safety Denise Vencak. But suddenly a string of indecipherable chants erupted from the back of the crowd, and a scene of mass yelling ensued.

That’s when Gempesaw, Oliva and Vencak decided to stand up and exit through a side door. The town hall was then called off by one of the faculty facilitators.

The University did not respond to a request for comment.

At the start of the Taffner town hall meeting, students were reminded that the event was considered a “mindful space” and not a “safe space,” the difference being that a mindful space is in a controlled environment. It was also announced that additional meetings with administration would take place in the future. The dates of those meetings were not announced.

Students who wanted to speak had to sign up beforehand to secure a spot, and they were asked to speak for no longer than three minutes due to time constraints.

One by one students spoke about different issues at a small podium in the middle of the field house. Students raised many issues which ranged from problems with Public Safety to the oppression certain populations on campus feel from faculty and administration.

One student, Roberto Benoit, president of EDEN, a Christian fellowship group on campus, used his three minutes to apologize on behalf of the organization to administration for any discomfort that may have been caused by the demonstration and the use of vulgar language the week prior.

This remark was not well-received by the crowd, which yelled back at him.

He also gave a list of requests intended to improve relations on campus, and said if they were not granted the group would “peacefully” protest events such as Accepted Students’ Day.

Benoit declined to comment to the Torch.

The Torch also reached out for comment to nine student groups who were involved with publicizing the event on social media.

The Black Student Union declined to comment and Spectrum sent the Torch a copy of its Instagram post in which it lambasted the Torch for covering the impromptu demonstration inside the Little Theatre on Feb. 1 against some students’ wishes. Following the release of the Torch’s Feb. 7 issue, which featured a story on the demonstration at the Little Theatre on its front page, several groups posted statements to Instagram calling for a boycott of the Torch.

The rest of the groups did not respond to the request for comment.

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Walk Outs: Gempesaw’s Town Hall Goes Awry