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Students should feel safe and welcome in Marshall

As two of the faculty who teach in the SMSU Summer Bridge program, we want to thank Professor Emerita Joan Gittens for drawing attention to an incident in which several of our students recently experienced racial harassment in downtown Marshall.

Everything Joan said is true, although she was unaware of one more event that makes the situation looks even worse. This story does not have a happy beginning. Since the school year is just beginning and the Marshall Police Department is working the case, we are not yet sure how it will end.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 29 our students were participating in a “scavenger hunt” aimed at helping them become more familiar with the diverse cultural landscape of Marshall and Southwest Minnesota. Four of the students (all of them people of color) were standing on the corner of College Drive and Main when someone in a diesel truck drove slowly around the corner and then suddenly gunned the engine and blew a cloud of coal black smoke directly into their faces.

One of us (Rick) was standing just a few feet away and got smoke in his eyes as well. To make things worse, no more than five minutes later three other students (all of them people of color as well) ran up to us and described a similar incident. They were walking along College Drive when a different truck drove up next to them, slowed down to a crawl, and then suddenly accelerated loudly leaving then in a cloud of sooty black smoke.

That these two things happened so closely together hardly seems coincidental. The people who did these things appeared to be working in coordination. Even worse, their behavior fits into a larger pattern of racial harassment and vandalism Professor Gittens described in her letter. The practice of blowing smoke on people in this way is called “rolling coal,” and the people who do it apparently think it’s funny.

Our students are understandably upset and confused. They are a highly diverse group that includes people from all across the nation representing a wide range of cultures. When these terrible incidents happened, most of them had been in our community for only four days. Over the last few days we have done our best to answer their questions and to assure them that SMSU and Marshall are great places to live and get an education.

But the truth is we cannot be sure what motivates people do things like harass students of color, vandalize memorials, or wear swastikas to a Walmart store. We cannot undo what has been done, but we hope at the very least that our community can learn a few things from these recent experiences.

For one thing, we want everyone to know these students are brilliant, funny, and hard working. They and their families are just as deserving of respect as anyone else. Second, we want everyone to understand what can happen when people simply look the other way and say nothing when it comes to racist words and practices.

There are people in the community who know the names of those who have been doing these things. We are asking them to step forward and contact the Marshall Police Department. This behavior needs to stop. We should be celebrating the fact that these students chose to spend time with us. Instead we have been allowing a few people to make them feel like unwelcome intruders.

Finally, over the next few weeks, many more students will be moving to Marshall for the first time or returning to the place they call home for at least nine months out of the year. Please join us in welcoming these new and returning members of our community and let’s work together to make this a safe haven for all.

— Rick Herder is a professor of Communication Studies at

Southwest Minnesota State

University and Amanda Sieling, J.D., is an assistant professor of

justice administration at SMSU

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