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University of Missouri football team and coach join protest to oust university leader

University of Missouri football team and coach join protest to oust university leader
University of Missouri students are protesting racial incidents using the hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950 -- the year the university began accepting black students. (Allison Long / Kansas City Star)

After a spate of racially charged incidents on and around the University of Missouri campus, the football team announced this weekend that it would not participate in football-related activities and would support a hunger striker's demand that the university president leave or be fired.

The team's black players announced their decision Saturday night. The white players quickly backed them up, as did football coach Gary Pinkel.

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"The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe 'Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,'" the players said in a statement. "We will no longer participate in any football-related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students' experience. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!"

Pinkel tweeted a photo of the team and the coaches locking arms and said on Twitter Sunday: "The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united."

The coach used the hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950, invoking a campus coalition whose name reflects the year the university began accepting black students. (Even today, more than 75% of the university's 35,000 students are white.)

Pinkel and Athletic Director Mack Rhoades issued a statement announcing that Sunday's practice had been canceled and that the players would not resume practicing until the hunger strike ends.

The team is scheduled to host Brigham Young University next Saturday. Skipping the game would cost the school more than $1 million.

"Our focus right now is on the health of Jonathan Butler, the concerns of our student-athletes and working with our community to address this serious issue," Rhoades said.

The university scheduled a meeting of its governing body, the Board of Curators, for Monday. The university did not say what the meeting would be about, but said part of it would be an executive session closed to the news media.

The campus furor is not just about race. But several black students have said some white students use the n-word, and last month someone drew a swastika on a residence hall wall, using human feces.

Wolfe, a former businessman, became president of the University of Missouri system in 2012. Protesters accuse him of not taking enough action or showing enough sensitivity to the problems.

Wolfe has issued a series of statements in recent days, including one Sunday in which he said, "It is clear to all of us that change is needed." He did not indicate any intention to resign, but added that his administration is reflecting on how to address the situation and said that the university had been working on a "systemwide diversity and inclusion strategy" due out by April.

Campus tensions reached a boiling point during the Oct. 10 homecoming parade, when student protesters blocked the parade route by standing in front of a car containing Wolfe. The car inched forward and, according to communications professor Melissa Click, bumped into a protester. Wolfe did not speak to the protesters, and police took them off the street, threatening arrest.

Wolfe "allowed his driver to try to drive around us, even hit one of us," said Shelbey Parnell, 20, a black studies major who participated in the demonstration. In an interview, she said police threatened protesters with pepper spray and pushed them, and Wolfe "did not intervene whatsoever."

"His silence is violence," she said.

On Friday, Wolfe said in a statement that he regretted his reaction and acknowledged the existence of racism on campus. "My behavior seemed like I did not care," he said. "That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment. Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn't be where we are today."

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Butler, a black graduate student, began his hunger strike Nov. 2, pledging to consume only water until Wolfe is removed. Grad students were already unhappy with Wolfe because of changes to their healthcare.

Students also confronted Wolfe on Friday night outside a fundraiser in Kansas City and challenged him to define "systematic oppression."

A video clip shows him replying, "Systematic oppression is because you don't believe that you have the equal opportunity for success," before he is cut off by a chorus of people upset that he characterized oppression as a perception rather than a reality.

"Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe?" someone off-camera shouts as Wolfe walks away. "Did you just blame black students?"

Parnell said Wolfe failed to understand the problem and is therefore unfit for his position.

Wolfe's office did not respond Sunday to a call and email seeking comment.

Sunday night, as temperatures dropped into the upper 30s, dozens of students milled around a small tent city on the university's southern quad. More than a dozen tents were ringed by signs commanding the media to stay out and declaring the site a safe space. Earlier in the day, a truck sporting a Confederate flag drove by in what protesters saw as a likely attempt at intimidation.

Three of the founding members of Concerned Student 1950 — after ducking inside the nearby lavish student center, where it was warmer — said the truck's passing was only one in a series of racist incidents.

Ayanna Poole, 22, a senior from Tyler, Texas, recalled how she was kicked out of a fraternity party her freshman year as a man used the n-word and said, "All you ... girls have to leave."

Andrea Fulgiam, 21, a junior studying psychology and sociology, said when she sat down in a lecture class freshman year, the student next to her muttered, "I'm not about to sit next to this black girl."

Fulgiam said a professor once told her she was only at the university because of affirmative action.

Parnell said when she transferred to the university last year, other black students warned her, "Don't walk through Greektown," the cluster of fraternities and sororities just off campus.

The three eventually became founding members of Concerned Student 1950, which they describe as a "movement." They were part of the group that confronted Wolfe during the homecoming parade.

"We need you to say something, and he said absolutely nothing," Poole said of Wolf's response to racial issues on the campus.

It is not clear what will happen next, but the governor has taken notice.

"Racism and intolerance have no place at the University of Missouri or anywhere in our state," Gov. Jay Nixon said Sunday in a statement. "These concerns must be addressed."

Pearce reported from Columbia, Mo., and Raab from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Mike Hiserman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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