The Portland State University holds a rally in support of Lewis and Clark College after a reported attack on a black student at the smaller school.

The Portland State University holds a rally in support of Lewis and Clark College after a reported attack on a black student at the smaller school.

Eric Tegethoff/OPB

On Portland State University’s busy Park Blocks, students huddle in the cold and rain around a woman with a megaphone.

She’s rallying the crowd to stand in solidarity with peers at Lewis and Clark College, after a reported attack on a black student at the smaller campus, which is across town.

The scene feels like something from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and it’s part of a growing movement against racial discrimination on campuses across the country.

But concerns at the PSU rally vary widely, from discrimination against Syrian refugees to armed security officers on campus, to a Facebook group called the White Student Union.

Two days before protesters pulled out the megaphone, PSU students gathered in the campus multicultural center for an event called “Students of Color Speak Out.”

The Speak Out was big enough to attract University President Wim Wiewel, who was asked to come and silently observe.

Student Melika Belhaj helped organize PSU's Students of Color Speak Out event.

Student Melika Belhaj helped organize PSU’s Students of Color Speak Out event.

Eric Tegethoff/OPB

Student Melika Belhaj, who helped organize the event, said it was the president’s responsibility to be there and listen to students’ concerns on campus.

“Unfortunately we see across the country a lot of presidents and administrators who aren’t doing that,” Belhaj said.

Students at Oregon State University recently held a similar event on their campus. They had tips for organizers at PSU. Attendees who didn’t identify as students of color should be asked to stay silent, they said.

“If there’s not that ground rule set, it doesn’t become about the students of color and our experiences on campus,” Belhaj said. “The focus is lost.”

Many of the students aimed their barbs directly at the president. They wondered why the school didn’t have centers for black students or other minorities on campus.

Wiewel listened to their concerns. The following week he announced that centers for black students and Asian and Pacific Islander students would open by fall 2016.

Students staged a sit-in at the Frank Manor House, where the Lewis and Clark College president's office is located.

Students staged a sit-in at the Frank Manor House, where the Lewis and Clark College president’s office is located.

Eric Tegethoff/OPB

Students on the small, private campus of Lewis and Clark College have similar concerns, but they’ve taken a different approach to talking with their president.

They started a sit-in outside President Barry Glassner’s office in the 90-year-old, brick-and-mortar administration building.

Fear of discrimination on campus has persisted since a reported race-based attack on an African international student on Nov. 21. Police have suspended the investigation into the attack after student Tanguy Muvuna said he doesn’t want to participate in the inquiry.

Lewis and Clark student Sonja Noonan-Ngwane has been part of an on-campus sit-in since before Thanksgiving.

Lewis and Clark student Sonja Noonan-Ngwane has been part of an on-campus sit-in since before Thanksgiving.

Eric Tegethoff/OPB

“How can we live on this campus,” student Sonja Noonan-Ngwane said, speaking from the administration building where she’d been sleeping since before Thanksgiving. “How can we go from point A to point B without being physically accosted?”

The sit-in is addressing something more fundamental than PSU’s Speak Out. Black students on campus needed the basic assurance that they are safe, she said.

And unlike PSU, which is the largest university in Oregon, Lewis and Clark students fighting discrimination on campus struggle to find enough of their peers who support them.

“I think this place breeds a culture of passivity,” Noonan-Ngwane said.

Demonstrations on both campuses have benefited in a big way from the national spotlight on issues of race.

PSU Black Studies Professor Darrell Millner said the Black Lives Matter movement has some of the same energy the civil rights movement did.

But one problem college protests face is the lack of more concrete targets. 

“When you look at some of the activities around the country, you see students on college campuses talking about how unsafe they feel,” Millner said. “Or how they feel threatened by a text message or a sign written on a bathroom wall.”

Millner believes this new level of attention is different from the attention of the 1960s, when demonstrators were fighting against the legal framework of racial segregation. 

The complicated problems of racial discrimination in the 21st century don’t have an easy solution. Yet, at the same time, Millner sees this new level of focus by activists as the next step in the civil rights movement.