Students respond and organize after Ferguson verdict

Swarthmore students join protesters outside the police station in North Philadelphia. Photo by Mindy Cheng
Swarthmore students join a rally protesting police brutality against the Black community. Photo by Mindy Cheng

On the night of Monday, November 24, the St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9. Protests erupted across the country by people who had been hoping Wilson would be sent to trial, and the Brown family asked that supporters and allies take four and a half minutes of silence, a reference to the four and a half hours that Brown’s body was left out on the street after he was killed.

By 10 p.m. at Swarthmore, Facebook messages had been sent out to a large part of the student body announcing a collection at 10:15 p.m. in Shane Lounge to honor the family’s request for four and a half minutes of silence, and asking recipients to spread the word. Kat Galvis-Rodríguez ’16 and Robert Zipp ’18 organized the collection because they thought that it would be a helpful way to offer immediate support and process the event as a community.

Galvis-Rodríguez said she felt frustrated by the lack of a reaction around her and wanted to find a group of people who cared about the verdict and could support each other.

“People in my dorm were like, oh yeah that really sucks but this midterm I have tomorrow sucks even more,” she said. “I saw so many people needing to vent and needing a place and I needed that place so, yeah I put up a Facebook status and just hoped people showed up.”

According to Galvis-Rodríguez, about 140 students showed up within 25 minutes, and the four and a half minutes of silence were held. Following the silence, students shared their thoughts, both specifically in regards to the Michael Brown shooting and generally in terms of their experience in the Swarthmore community and the world as people of color. Many students expressed sadness or anger, others fear for themselves or family members, and some a lack of emotion because of how familiar events like Brown’s shooting were to them.

Galvis-Rodríguez was happy with the way the collection went.

“I was so afraid of this collection because it was something that was so personal and so hurtful for people,” she said. “And I was so afraid for myself because I know that I get really lost in anger sometimes and I was afraid that would prevent me from hearing people, but I felt like the room’s vibe was a good place and people weren’t invalidating peoples emotions, which happens so often.” She also said she was happy with the tone of the conversation.

“I liked how it didn’t get into this huge like academic elitism language, which happens so often when people come together to talk about problems. It was so very real and so very human,” she said.

A’Dorian Murray-Thomas ’16 expressed appreciation for the sense of community she found at the collection.

“I heard the verdict and I expected to kind of deal with it on my own or process it with people in the Black community,” she said. “I thought it was powerful that so many people came out, not just in solidarity, but that they were hurt too, so a kind of community-wide hurting and healing. I really appreciated it.”

Louis Lainé ’16, a leader of Race to Action, which organized a march and collection earlier in the year in solidarity with Ferguson, also appreciated the support at the collection.

“I really appreciated how a lot of people who I’ve never seen in one place got together and expressed that they care about one topic that was really relevant to all of us,” he said. “I thought it was a space where we could speak our minds and also effect change, we want to end this somehow together.”

Murray-Thomas was appreciative of the range of voices heard at the collection.

“It would be a bad thing if we all felt the same way. I think that we all feel a lot of different things and that’s good and will add to the strength of the healing and the action that comes afterward,” she said.

Lainé stressed that he thought further action needed to be discussed at the collection.

“I wanted this to be an opportunity to recognize an issue that we all need to accept on a daily basis and live accordingly to change it,” he said. “So it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t considering the emotions because that’s definitely a first step. You need to grieve in order to understand why this is important in the first place. At the same time, that can’t be the end goal.”

On the other hand, many students, including Al Brooks ’15, co-president of Swarthmore African-American Student Society, found the purpose of the collection to be centered around reflection and grieving as opposed to organizing, with times for action to come.

“To me, the point of this wasn’t necessarily action,” he said. “It was about giving ourselves an opportunity to come together and not be alone in these feelings that we’re going through and not be confused or scared and in isolation.” Several members of SASS agreed, saying that taking time to grieve for a death was important.

Initially, Brooks said, the four and a half minutes of silence were going to be held in the Black Cultural Center, but Galvis-Rodríguez and others decided it was important to hold it in a space like Shane Lounge.

“I thought because the BCC wasn’t at the center of campus, I also didn’t want people who didn’t know where the BCC was to not attend because of that or get lazy or feel discouraged about coming because of the location,” said Galvis-Rodríguez. “But I think that there should be another collection of some sorts and I do think that that one should be in the BCC because it won’t be so last minute.”

“It was definitely a good opportunity to bring it to the entire community because this is something that affects us all,” said Brooks, adding that he was happy with the way the overall conversation went.

“To me, just the fact that so many people did show up and were there to show support and show love, that was meaningful in and of itself, and I think that we stayed on focus,” he said.

Many students were happy with the amount of support they had received since then, including administrative support from Lili Rodriguez, dean of diversity, inclusion and community development. Rodriguez sent an email to the student body Wednesday afternoon offering 98 spots on buses to a rally in Philadelphia protesting police brutality against the Black community, and offering her support. 95 students signed up for the buses within the hour, nearly all of whom attended the march, and dozens more students arrived in carpools or on Septa.

Brooks and Murray-Thomas were especially happy with the way students and administration had been able to work together to accomplish the goal.

“I thought that was so important that [the administration] be that responsive,” said Murray-Thomas. “Literally within hours there were responses, so I’m just really happy about that, and I’m not surprised. I don’t feel like we have an apathetic administration.”

She expressed hope that there would be continued collaboration. “I just hope that maybe we do even more from the administrative standpoint,” she concluded.

While Max Hernández ’17 was happy with Rodriguez’s action, calling it “quick and positive,” he cautioned against administrative involvement in student-organized movements given past events.

“I think it’s possible [to work together] if the administration seriously takes the student’s ideas for action into consideration and doesn’t conduct it as if it were every other movement that happened on this campus,” Hernández said. “Let the students who feel most affected by it and feel most inspired by it be the ones to plan and just have the administration be there as support, and also help organizationally, but not in terms of the way everything gets set up.”

Additionally, Hernández said none of his professors mentioned the verdict or offered support for their students, adding that one of his professors did not support his leaving class early to attend the rally in Philadelphia.

“She was like, ‘I’d prefer if you didn’t’ and I told her I was going anyway,” he said. While he was disappointed in his professors’ responses, Hernández said he was unsurprised.

“I wouldn’t expect them to [bring it up],” he said. “I wish they would. I wish I could expect them to.”

The reason for this, he thought, was that professors separated Swarthmore from the real world. “It’s very much a movement that is being led by the youth,” he said. “It’s very easy to say ‘this is happening in the real world, but this is the classroom and therefore it doesn’t apply’ when there’s not really a difference.”

Still, many students of color said they felt supported, if not by their professors or the administration, then by their fellow students.

“I’ve also received text messages and emails from community members as far as Bryn Mawr and as close as Phi Psi,” said Brooks. “So even if they couldn’t be there it’s good to know that this is on their minds and there’s a larger sense of community.”

Hernández was glad so many Swarthmore students attended the protest in Philadelphia, saying he thought about 200 students attended. He and many other students took SEPTA into the city.

“I think it was a very good turnout,” he said. “I think it was especially comforting, walking down the street having a bunch of cops staring at you, to have people there who you know.”

The rally began with a march from City Hall at 3 p.m. to the corner of Cecil B. Moore Ave and Broad St., next to Temple University’s campus. At 4 p.m., protesters marched towards the police station where several people had been arrested the day before. Hundreds of policemen lined the streets on bicycles and on foot, while dozens of police cars followed the protesters. Protesters held signs with slogans such as “Young + Black + Unarmed. Am I next?”, “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice no peace no racist police” and “This whole damn system is racist!” They chanted phrases including “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” and “Who are we? Mike Brown.”

Galvis-Rodríguez said she had never been to a protest on the scale of this one before, and was shocked by the police presence.

“I just remember walking down the streets of Philly and all I could see were people running to catch up to the march and all I could see was police lights and all I could hear was helicopters,” she said. “The police officers, some of them were ok, and then one of them rammed his bike into my back to get me off the sidewalk.”

The protest ended at a police station in North Philadelphia, where leaders of the rally read aloud a list of demands, both locally and nationally targeted, and others who were moved to speak addressed the crowd through a megaphone.

“The only thing that can bring peace is peace,” said one speaker. Another addressed the issue of allyship.

“To all of our allies, we don’t need you to lead us. We need you to have our backs. Understand and check your privilege. We want you here, but as support, not as leaders.”

Hernández expressed a similar view.

“In the same way that allyship has to be talked about in terms of how men can support feminism, it also needs to be examined this way, because it can’t be something that is again led by, taken over by, people who aren’t necessarily directly involved,” he said.

Many students of color who helped with the collection and with organizing transportation to the rally expressed hope for future community actions.

“I think that as long as a core group of students continue to keep it alive then I think Swat will do something, I think the administration will do something. I think that we’ll collaborate,” said Murray-Thomas. Brooks thought the collection was a good first step towards community-wide involvement.

“I think it’s important that these discussions and these conversations occur and that people don’t go through their lives not engaging with this,” said Brooks.

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