A student protest at the University of Maryland on Thursday quickly dissolved from a united front against the institution’s handling of football player Jordan McNair’s death into a heated quarrel over whether to boycott football games.
The Student Government Association announced plans earlier in the week for a protest held on the University of Maryland’s campus Thursday afternoon in hopes of harnessing student outrage over the university’s decision Tuesday to reinstate football coach DJ Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans.
University President Wallace Loh changed course Wednesday and announced that Durkin had been fired. The student government decided to press on with Thursday’s protest, calling further for a resignation from James Brady, the chair of the Board of Regents, which recommended reinstating Durkin and Evans. Brady resigned in a statement released minutes after Thursday’s protest concluded.
A racially and ethnically diverse crowd of several hundred people, including students and professors, marched across campus to the campus administrative building, where speakers ascended the steps. Many gripped homemade signs bearing McNair’s name and declarations that black student lives matter.
McNair, 19, fell ill May 29 after a conditioning test that consisted of 10 110-yard sprints during an offseason workout at Maryland. He was hospitalized and died two weeks later from heatstroke at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
Organization at the rally quickly broke down. When speakers from the SGA began advocating that students continue to support the football players by attending games, some in the audience began chanting “Boycott” and “Black lives matter.”
“Boycotting this institution is boycotting the player,” one speaker said.
Those advocating for a boycott began to form into a smaller group to the side. A man approached the group and said, “Go up and take it over.”
About 10 individuals started to climb the stairs and stand on the step above members of the SGA group, whom they tried to persuade to yield their megaphones.
Members of the student government and the student chapter of the NAACP shouted back at the rebelling section of the crowd, calling their interruptions “disrespectful.” The statement was met with cries of “Let us speak.”
“They [the SGA] didn’t even have a platform,” said one student, who declined to be identified because she said a close friend had received death threats. “It’s fake. They don’t actually care.”
At some points, it became unclear who represented which side, with students in heated exchanges in the crowd softening their tones only once they realized they agreed with one another.
Supporters of the boycott and those in opposition both said McNair would have supported their stance on attending football games.
After several minutes of confusion, SGA members declared the event had concluded and descended the steps, which were quickly taken over by the group calling for a game boycott.
SGA vice president Ro Nambiar stood in the crowd after descending the steps. She said she was elated over the protest’s large turnout and then broke into tears.
“This boycott, they don’t get it,” she said. “This was not the purpose. But, of course, there’s nothing wrong with freedom of speech.”
SGA director of communications Leah Barteldes declined to comment on the protest and said, “We’re taking all feedback positive and negative.”
Graduate student Rick Marving lingered toward the rear of the crowd after the protest. The students were unable to keep up with the rapid string of announcements from university leaders this week, he said.
“I think we didn’t have enough time to organize,” he said.