How a visit from Waka Flocka Flame ignited an ongoing controversy around race and accessibility at the University of Northern Iowa
The threat, university leaders said, was credible.
Rival gangs from the Cedar Valley area were planning to attend a Feb. 16 performance by rap artist Waka Flocka Flame at the University of Northern Iowa, UNI President Mark Nook said.
The intelligence, Nook said, came from a Jan. 28 meeting between university officials and members of a Waterloo Police Department task force that tracks gang activity. He said police did not name the gangs they thought would be involved or share many details, but initially asked that the source of the intelligence remain confidential.
UNI administrators said the threats were serious enough that they decided to move the concert venue to restrict space and access. They also barred the public from the event, limiting it to students only.
But students resisted what both they and the administration described as unprecedented school control of a student-run event, saying it was the artist's race that prompted the response and criticizing the lack of specific intelligence shared by university.
“We rarely have black artists come to campus, and for the administration to intervene only when a black artist comes makes it very clear to the students of color and allies on this campus that racial bias is most definitely a factor in these decisions,” said Mahlia Brown, a senator in UNI’s student government. “These decisions were made by the administration in order to 'maintain safety' due to the assumption that the black community would bring violence.”
UNI’s student government drafted a resolution condemning the “racial biases that appear to be present and a lack of data or research to support the decisions” and the negative message sent by the decision to the “Cedar Valley community, specifically black community members.”
Nook released a letter to students Friday afternoon, apologizing for his administration’s handling of information about the event. In that statement, Nook doubled down on his initial concerns about gang violence.
“Let me be as transparent as possible: They were concerned because there was solid evidence that area gang members from rival groups were going to attend the concert, and there was significant potential for violence to occur between the groups,” Nook said.
Where that information originated is a matter of some dispute. In his statement, Nook again said the event “raised serious concerns among area police departments,” and said the evidence of a threat was “brought forth by law enforcement.”
But at least one member of Waterloo Police denied that, saying the department had “no information on any threats” related to the event, Maj. Joe Leibold told Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
Neither Waterloo police nor Nook responded to questions raised Friday afternoon by the Des Moines Register. Waterloo police previously directed inquiries to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which they said facilitates their gang strike force. The FBI didn't respond to requests for comment.
Nook has also said the administration reviewed eight different instances of violence or disruption at past Waka Flocka Flame concerts, including a 2016 incident in which a concert at the Iowa State University in Ames was preemptively shut down due to the rowdiness of the crowd. Nook also consulted with ISU, he said.
Nook said canceling the concert was an option, but that he didn't want to send the message that there was no place to enjoy rap music on campus
The university first changed the venue of the concert from the Maucker Union to the Nielsen Field House, then decided that tickets for the concert would no longer be made available to the general public, and refunds would be given to ticket-holders who were unaffiliated with the university. The event, in effect, would be for students only.
When Waterloo police assessed the university's response, Nook said, they said that limiting ticket availability was enough to significantly lower the threat level. After meeting with students, the university moved the performance back to Maucker Union.
Brown, of UNI’s student government, said concerns were initially raised by students of color and allies within the Center for Multicultural Education. She said the university only involved students in discussions after they forced the university's hand by going to the press.
Nook met with the campus activity board, the student-led organization that planned the concert, and what Nook characterizes as a group of African-American students to discuss events and the decision-making process.
This level of administration involvement in a student-run event hasn't been seen in response to any student-run event in the past, the university confirmed.
Nook said he also considered how the Cedar Valley community would respond.
“Yes, we knew there would be community members that would question what we were doing,” Nook said. “But in the end, the safety of our students is more important and making sure we’ve got a safe event for them has to be our first consideration.”
Black students at UNI have long said they don’t always feel welcome on campus, and university administrators have undertaken a variety of efforts in recent years to address the issue.
The university claims that it's a priority to involve more students in the decision-making process when safety concerns are made known by police or other officials for events on campus.
“We knew this was not going to be an easy conversation to have, and we knew that this is an extremely difficult choice to make,” Nook said.
“The most important thing is ensuring the safety of our students," he reiterated. "We had a credible threat, what I still believe was a credible threat of violence occurring at that concert if we hadn’t made a change to the ticketing.”
Brown and other concerned students are not convinced the right changes are being made. A town hall has been planned for Feb. 19, the Tuesday after the concert, to discuss the way the concert was handled and other instances in which they feel the university can improve diversity and inclusion.
“Even though this situation is important, it is bigger than just a concert,” Brown said in a joint statement with the student government. “We as students see that there are many aspects of UNI’s campus where racial biases are rampant and affect the way we value students. Our town hall will allow us to bring about a united force upon this campus to ignite change. This is only the beginning of a greater movement.”
Waka Flocka Flame has acknowledged his awareness of the controversy on Twitter, but has not responded to requests for comment and has had no further communication with the University of Northern Iowa.
SUPPORT LOCAL JOURNALISM: Subscribe to the Des Moines Register