Monday night, hundreds of individuals joined hands on West Virginia University’s campus to show support for each other after last week’s presidential elections.
“People are fearful. People are afraid for themselves, their families, their lives. Had Mitt Romney gotten elected in the last election cycle, I don’t think my mother would’ve had to tell me to stay safe, keep a low profile, not go out at night,” said Shani Waris, one of the students who organized the Unity Circle. “It’s because the rhetoric has been blatantly racist and it’s almost encouraged.”
The event was announced in a campus-wide email last week from WVU President E. Gordon Gee. He called for open and respectful discourse, and said the WVU community must remain a safe home for all Mountaineers.
“The only thing we will not tolerate is intolerance,” Gee wrote in his email.
Organizers say the unity circle was a reaction to Donald Trump’s election last week.
One by one, members of the public went up to the lectern and spoke voluntarily about a variety of subjects, including sexual assault, sexual orientation and mental health. Some talked about their fears of living in West Virginia as individuals of color.
“I walk in terror. I’m a girl from Atlanta. I’m a southern girl and I’m proud. And never have I been so afraid to to walk out my door, hearing that minorities and women are being treated – on a college campus, a place where people come for higher learning – so I’m afraid,” one student said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate crimes, says more than 200 incidents of election-related intimidation have occurred nationwide as of last Friday. Several talked about comforting their parents and family, some of whom felt that life in the United States was no longer safe.
“I had to force myself to tell her, we’re not going anywhere. Not only us, but my family as a people, we worked too damn long and too damn hard to be pushed out by one man,” a student recounted of a conversation with his mother following the election. “The sad thing about it is, even though I was telling her that, I really had to think to myself, ‘Do I believe what I am saying?’”
As people made their way home after the event Dean of Students Corey Farris said he was proud of the students for standing up for unity.
“I don’t think unity is a partisan thing. It seems like it was a divisive election,” he said. “Our students are saying, but still we’re the United States of America, and it’s still a beautiful country, where individualism can be celebrated and all people are welcome and should be included in the conversation.”
But not everyone is on board. At least one man passing by shouted, “Build the wall!” at the crowd, referencing Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall to prevent undocumented Mexican immigrants from entering the United States. An attendee at the Unity Circle chased him away.
The night ended with an interfaith prayer for community, safety, patriotism and for a West Virginia University football win against the University of Oklahoma this weekend.