Students of Color Say They Feel Increasingly Unwelcome at UNR

Racial tensions have been high for the past several years at the University of Nevada, Reno. It began with a viral photo showing then UNR student Peter Cvjetanovic attending the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Swastikas also started appearing within residential halls. Wenei Philimon interviewed students of color to hear about their experiences on campus and in Reno.

A student holds a picture of former UNR star quarterback Colin Kaepernick who has made headlines as a social activist against police brutality. Kaepernick started a kneeling protest during the national anthem of National Football League games to protest police brutality. He’s since been left without an NFL job. During his time in Reno, he also reported being harassed by local police. Current students say they feel dismayed it seems Kaepernick is no longer honored with posters at the university as he once was.
Above an audio documentary by Wenei Philimon on students of color sharing their thoughts on their experiences in Reno and the University of Nevada, Reno, amid a climate of tension and repeated acts of racism.

A Safe Place on a Campus Full of Racist Actions

The Center, which has its tag line, Every student, Every story, is the diversity center at the University of Nevada, Reno. This space was created as a safe place for students but, more importantly for minorities on campus. Reuben Nwando (in photo with audio documentary above) started his first semester at UNR this fall and says it’s definitely not the same here as in his hometown, San Diego. He says he feels he gets “certain looks” from other people.

There’s always that feeling that you get when you’re just walking around and there like certain looks that you get from other people that, you know, that isn’t necessarily genuine, you know what I’m talking about. So, those are definitely feelings that can like weight on you long term,” Nwando said.

A Campus Climate in Question

A recent campus climate report showed that minorities are less comfortable than the overall population with the “climate” of the campus. Examples of why this might be the case abound. In late 2017, the University issued apology statements due to the racist behavior of two UNR police officers, one involving a Halloween costume and the other a traffic stop.

Adam Wilson who threatened to shoot a student is still listed as working for Police Services at UNR.
“I feel like the university tends to push aside not only black students, but also people of color, points of view regarding social issues. Like where do I even start? Where do I even begin?” Faith Thomas, a current UNR student, asked.

Police Pulling Over a Grad Student and Threatening to Shoot

A journalism student, Faith Thomas, referred to when a UNR police officer, Adam Wilson, pulled over a grad student who was a football player in September 2017, and said “I am just going to shoot him if this goes sideways,” and then used the F word, according to the police body camera’s video.

“Like even the incident that happened a couple of years ago with the police officer, not only pulling over a student but saying, ‘Oh, you know, if you weren’t a football player, I would have shot you. Just joking about that.’ That’s not okay,” Thomas said.

There was another case soon after in October 2017, when a UNR police officer, Antonio Gutierrez, dressed up as Colin Kaepernick for a Halloween party. The officer had an afro wig, hooked nose, a 49ers jersey, and painted his face with a black beard, and had a sign that said, “Will stand for food”.

Gutierrez who wore the racist Halloween costume is still on the UNR police force.

Both officers were recently seen working at the University’s police station.

Above a mini documentary by Carla Suggs about protests UNR students previously held at home football games.

A Disappearing Kaepernick but a Present Extremist

Malivai Meyer, the president of UNR’S Black Student Organization, says he was stunned when he learned Kaepernick images which used to be on campus are now nowhere to be seen. He says he feels the university doesn’t care particularly about black students or himself.

For his part, the student senator for the College of Liberal Arts, Thomas Hassen, remembers what it was like after the Charlottesville photo went viral, especially having Peter Cvjetanoic in one of his classes.

“Do I have to act like, I don’t know what he represents just for the, you know, just for my feeling of wellbeing, my feeling of welcome.” Hassen asked of being in class with a white supremacist. “No, I shouldn’t have to manufacture my own, um, my own enjoyment on campus.”

A Previous Town Hall

“I remember because they had a town hall and it just a few days before the semester started and I was like, I don’t know what I said, I remember what I said, but I was mad,” Hassen recalls of UNR in the fall semester of 2017 shortly after the Unite the Right rally and the infamous Cvetanovic photo. “This is really about to happen. You guys don’t understand, I can be in a classroom with someone who stands against my entire existence in this place. And what happens the first day of class? Peter Cvetanovic. It literally happens. It’s not just an idea that could happen, like, oh this could happen. Like, no, he’s right there and we know, I know what he represents,” Hassen said.

While students protested to have Cvjetanovic expelled, the University did not do that, citing his freedom of speech. Students of color, meanwhile, say they feel more harassed than protected. Senator Hassen says he and his family have experienced many instances of harassment themselves.

“I got stopped by UNR PD while walking like four times. It was the funniest shit ever. It didn’t make sense. I lived in Sierra Hall, I was in the dorms. I would always walk to Lombardi, when that was the gym at the time. I would walk to Lombardi and walk back. I used to go to the gym pretty late because of class, but I would walk back and forth. A lot of the time, they would pull over and say, ‘what are you doing now?’ I’m like ‘nothing.’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Going home.’ ‘Where is home?’ ‘Sierra Hall.’ ‘don’t be in trouble.’ ‘Like alright, leave me alone bro.’”

One time it got really bad. Me and my homie Devonte, another black dude with dreads. He left because he was tired of this shit… It was me and him, outside Lombardi just talking. It was probably around 10 o’clock at night. We just got done working out. We were both from Vegas. In high school, we actually played football. So, we just talking, talking about football, talking about Vegas, high school all that stuff. All of sudden from behind me, I see lights pop up from behind me. Devonte goes, ‘dude it’s the cops’ and I’m like ‘what do they want?’ At this point I’m annoyed, ‘what do you want from us?’ and so they get out of their car. The one cop gets out of his car. He walks up to us, hand already on his gun and just kind goes, ‘what are you guys doing out here?’ ‘We’re just talking, we just got out of the gym.’ And he’s like, ‘you guys getting in any trouble?’ ‘No, we’re not getting in trouble.’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘I live in Sierra and I think he lives in Argenta’ and he’s like ‘I need you guys’ names right now.’ And I’m like ‘Oh, okay.’ Devonte already gave him his name so I’m not gonna tell him no, you feel me. After I gave him my name, he went to go run everything and was like, ‘alright, go back home, don’t get in trouble.’ ‘Alright cool.’

“Since my cousins went here also, I was always kind of, you know, really close to them and a lot of their, their experiences, cause they were in here longer, they were at the time. I was hearing all these stories of kind of like what they’ve been through, like how when they’re walking past Manzanita Lake one time and a car pulls up, a white SUV, pulls up and yells, ‘we burn nigg*** in Reno’ and then drives away. Right? Like these are like the experiences of my family here,” Hassen said of the racist environment in Reno. “And at this point I just saw at that point you just kind of don’t ever feel welcome on a campus when kind of, at every instance, like the university can say what it wants in terms of like, oh we support X, Y and Z. But the student body, the culture, the climate doesn’t represent X, Y or Z, you know, it does, that’s not how it feels to us. It’s not, from my experience, it’s not from a lot of black students’ experience.”

When asked for a comment about the incidents recounted above by Hassen and other similar incidents, campus police said they don’t stop people to just ask them what they are doing.

Faith Thomas, who came from Las Vegas, says she quickly had new negative realizations when she came here for orientation during her freshman year.

It was me and my mom and we were staying for orientation and we were staying off campus and we are getting water at the 99-cent store and we were walking back to catch the bus and there was this guy sitting at the stop light and [he] just rolls down his window and just shouts … before driving off. And that kind of sort of shook me because I was like, okay, I’m not in Kansas anymore. I’m not in Vegas. You know, I’m not in a liberal city where everything is all rainbows and sunshine anymore. Like this is real. Like I could be killed up here for being what I am and I didn’t have a choice in that,” Thomas said.

More Flyers and Presence of Extremists

More recently, another white identitarian group the American Identity Movement posted flyers in several university buildings. Another current student and former member of Young Americans for Liberty was identified by Right Wing Watch as a member of that extremist group (our coverage here trying to locate him). Conservative firebrand Charlie Kirk from Turning Point USA also came to campus recently as part of his so-called Culture War tour, adding to existing tensions.

Senator Hassen says there seems to be no progress.

“Some things don’t ever change. It still the same discussion, year after year. I don’t know how many statements we have to have from administration about whatever issue may be happening.”

A town hall for students is being planned for mid October to discuss these issues, but many students are afraid it won’t make a difference either.

Reporting and Photography by Wenei Philimon shared with Reynolds Sandbox

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