In light of the Ferguson, Mo. grand jury decision on Monday, Nov. 24 not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, members of the University community are organizing an open discussion about the current situation.
The conversation will take place in the Vanguard Lounge of the Center for African American Studies on Friday, Dec. 5 at 6:15 p.m. Moderated by Dean for Diversity and Student Engagement Renee Johnson-Thornton, Dreisen Heath ’15, and Armani White ’15, the discussion will cover the specifics of the case as well as strategies for moving forward.
“The ultimate outcome of this discussion is for it to be only the starting point for a series of conversations that the community of Wesleyan publicly [partakes] in regarding the pandemic of police misconduct, themes of racism, the worth of black bodies, and what it takes to combat institutions of oppression,” Heath wrote in an email to The Argus. “We would like people to leave educated on the specifics of Ferguson and the larger topic of police brutality. We want to offer a space where people can come together and process the injustice of America in one place.”
The three moderators organized this discussion along with Monique Siaw ’16 and Jasmine Mack ’16.
Immediately following the grand jury decision, University students moved quickly to establish a space for grieving, solidarity, and conversation. At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 25, students in Usdan and in classrooms participated in a moment of silence.
From the late morning to the early afternoon, students in Usdan painted these statements and many more onto green and pink posters. At the foot of the stairs leading to the dining area, students stood in a silent line, each holding a sign of their own. Outside the building, it took two people to support a large banner: “Black Lives Matter.”
Christopher Caines ’16, who assisted in organizing Tuesday’s events, said that there was a lot of discussion among people on campus about an appropriate response to the jury’s decision. Students are planning a more in-depth conversation on Friday, Dec. 5, but in the meantime, they wanted to foster a space for reflection before Thanksgiving break.
“People were up all night doing this, trying to get everything together, trying to make it an inclusive thing,” Caines said. “It’s too easy for the campus to get swept up into, ‘I’m going on Thanksgiving break. Yeah, it’s really sad that that happened and whatever, but I’m going to go get turkey.’ And while this is just a token, not a super substantial thing, it’s something.”
The students organizing Tuesday’s events decided to focus on reflection rather than any specific action.
“We felt that mixing grieving and action in the same space could present some challenges,” Caines said. “We were a little bit uncomfortable with it. We’re taking email addresses, and we’re going to create [an email list] that we can plan future events from.”
Siaw, who also helped to organize the grieving space, participated in a moment of silence during her African American Literature class on Tuesday morning.
“We were in a large circle in front of PAC just for [about] four minutes, in complete silence,” Siaw said. “A few people said some words while we were in the circle, basically stating that this is something that people have to deal with on a regular basis. Even if you’re not a person of color, this is something that you need to understand that people of color are going through on campus, and this could have easily been someone’s brother, cousin, family member.”
Caines stressed that Tuesday’s grieving space arose from a collaborative effort.
“It’s very much a random collection of individuals who have come together to make this happen,” he said. “There’s no individual student group behind it or anything like that…. We’re trying to have everybody speak for themselves in the best way possible.”
Amy Zhang ’15 added that she felt it was necessary to provide a place for people to use writing as a tool to express their thoughts.
“Some people found it hard to come up with the words, which is so understandable,” Zhang said. “For some people, writing comes a lot easier. It’s definitely not the only way to express how you’re feeling about the situation, but I think it’s nice to have…. It’s going to represent a multitude, not the multitude, but a multitude of voices so people can feel like they’re having a part in expressing something. I think that’s helpful for people to take all of these internal thoughts and cast them out.”
Siaw said that she hopes this time for reflection will spark further conversation.
“It was a moment for people to just listen, which I think was important, and hopefully the conversation doesn’t end there,” she said.
Several attendees expressed their emotions regarding the grand jury’s decision.
“When I first heard, or read, [I] just felt a lot of anger,” Talia Baurer ’15 said. “Not really surprised, just anger. It kind of took a while to come down from that, especially knowing that this is not really my lived experience, this isn’t my reality, and understanding I can be angry, how people are actually feeling who actually live this is totally beyond what I can even begin to testify to understand.”
Baurer added that she appreciated having this space to express grief and solidarity.
“The system has failed everyone and this is just a space to understand that and be able to mourn,” she said.
Taina Quiñones ’17 also conveyed her frustration toward the situation.
“I definitely wanted to get involved because I am Puerto Rican, and I’m from the Bronx, and I know a lot of people who have to deal with [and] struggle with police brutality,” Quiñones said. “I’m already really passionate about it and then just hearing the news last night, I was just completely heartbroken. I felt a complete loss of faith in humanity and our country…. I’m feeling a little bit better with all the people who came out today, who are holding signs. I think this is a really powerful thing and definitely necessary. This is an issue that concerns everyone, not just black people, not just people of color.”
Zhang recalled that as she awaited the decision, she felt that she could already tell what the verdict was going to be. Still, she was surprised Wilson was not, at the very least, indicted for negligence.
“The moment [Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch] started speaking, I knew that from his tone and the way he was talking about the incident he would not be indicted because he never once reprimanded the officer,” Zhang said. “It was never even like, ‘The police force messed up, we’re going to now dig deep and try to fix those problems.’ It was like, ‘Oh, he acted on an instinct, and he’s going to walk free because of that.’ There was no recognition that the system failed.”
Caines said that, based on history, he was pretty sure that Wilson would not face charges. Still, he noted that the decision was a blow nonetheless.
“I think that growing up as a black American, you kind of have an idea that your life is a little bit de-valued, but when instances like this slap you in the face, and you’re not able to separate yourself from this and live in ignorance, when it comes right at you, it’s too much [to] be ignored,” Caines said. “I’m not saying it’s not always on our radar; it’s just when certain instances like this come up, there’s a raw emotion that you feel a draw to do something. Hopefully this is that something, or at least a start to that something.”
Quiñones further spoke to the importance of taking action.
“I think with stuff like this you can’t keep quiet, you can’t do it on an individual basis,” Quiñones said. “You have to make a statement, and I don’t think there’s any better place to do it than in the one place where every student comes throughout the day. I think this is the most powerful way we could go about getting our voices heard because a lot of people have the privilege to just go on with their lives without having to face that this is an issue. By putting it in the way of people’s lives, we’re making them realize what’s going on.”
University President Michael Roth asserted that he was grateful to see students responding and expressing their feelings.
“Regardless of what one thinks about the decision of the Grand Jury, there are enormous issues of injustice around the incarceration of African Americans and the police tactics used for people of color in this country,” Roth said. “When I saw students lined up outside with their hands up, my first impulse was to join them, which I did. But afterwards someone said, ‘I didn’t want to be there with you,’ because I’m an authority person on campus…. I realize that when I say something I’m not just speaking as Mike Roth, Class of ’78. On the other hand, I do think we have an obligation to investigate what many people here would call structural racism and patterns of injustice.”
The discussion on Friday, Dec. 5 will focus more directly on a response to the decision in Ferguson.
“We will be talking about the historical elements of this case,” Siaw said. “How do we move on from here? What do we do next? What can we do?”
Caines added that next Friday’s discussion, like Tuesday’s grieving space, will invite a variety of perspectives to the table.
“I think that, generally speaking, most people have similar goals in mind of equality and just very different ways to get there,” Caines said. “Having open dialogues and talking about feelings and experiences are really valuable ways to get there. I’m not going to say there’s one fix-all remedy because there’s not. When you have a system of oppression that’s been in place since the start of time, you’re not going to change everything overnight.”
Additional reporting contributed by Gabe Rosenberg .