Campus activism after lack of action on black men deaths

Two grand juries’ decisions not to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men have galvanised students around America, creating important teaching moments for law students on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and calls by anthropologists and sociologists for non-violent social action.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The decisions not to bring charges against the officers involved in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, have prompted a flurry of ‘die-ins’, among other forms of protests, and panel discussions led by black student unions and multicultural student groups.

Their challenge, the organisers say, is to sustain the momentum after students, already focused on finals, leave for the winter break.

Student learning opportunities

For law students interested in social justice, the controversies presented hands-on opportunities to get involved.

Dozens of law students at Harvard University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Pennsylvania, Fordham University and other campuses converged on the St Louis area for last month’s grand jury announcement after the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee, a coalition of volunteer lawyers, issued an emergency call for legal help.

Working with groups including the National Lawyers Guild, the students kept an eye out for what they called police abuses and visited jailed protesters.

Among the observers was Nicholas Klaus, a third-year law student at Wayne State University who spent five days in Ferguson and St Louis after the grand jury announcement.

Wearing the National Lawyers Guild’s trademark neon-green baseball cap, he wove in and out of the crowd of marchers, shooting video and dictating notes into his cell phone. “We were recording interactions between police and demonstrators, keeping an eye out for First Amendment violations,” he said.

After the police fired teargas at protesters entering and trying to leave a St Louis coffee shop, Klaus and another observer ran out into an alley to see if the coast was clear, only to be met by a round of rubber bullets, he said.

Along with his video footage, he dropped off teargas canisters and spent rubber bullets with guild lawyers to use as potential evidence in court.

Many of the students returned to their campuses and staged protests, including 'die-ins', in which students lie down, pretending to be victims of police violence, and block traffic, said Alana Greer, a public interest lawyer from Miami who helped organise volunteer legal observers in Ferguson.

“It’s important for law students, at a time when they’re forming their professional identities, to witness these police actions and understand their role as lawyers to stand up to oppression,” she said.

A break from exams

The protests have been happening at a time when students are preparing for final examinations, a fact that prompted Columbia University Law School to offer stressed students a break, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The law school’s interim dean, Robert E Scott, wrote in an email to students last weekend that those "who feel that their performance on examinations will be sufficiently impaired due to the effects of these recent events may petition" the school’s head of registration to reschedule their exams.

Scheduling protests around finals was also a challenge for undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, where a dozen or so students marched through frigid temperatures in a loop around the campus at noon on each of five days last week to coincide with a weeklong march in Missouri, organised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, from Ferguson to the state capital, Jefferson City.

Afterwards, the Whitewater students met to discuss strategies they could continue next semester, including arranging informal opportunities to get to know campus and community police officers.

Connell Patterson III, a junior and former president of the campus’s Black Student Union, sent out an email to campus email lists on 1 December, urging people to assemble for a photograph in solidarity with victims of police violence.

Several recipients objected, he said. “They saw me as an angry black male.”

The message was better received when the department of philosophy and religious studies sent out an invitation to participate in marches and talks. Patterson was grateful for the support, but he said he plans, after the winter break, to work towards efforts to hire more minority faculty and staff members.

On Monday a group of black professors sent out an "Open Letter of Love" to students, like Patterson, who were feeling frustrated and misunderstood.

"In our mostly white classrooms we work with some of you, you who tell us other professors don’t see, don’t hear you," the letter reads, in part. "You, who come to our offices with stories of erasure that make you break down. They don’t see me, you say. They don’t hear me. We know and don’t know how to hold your tears."

In West Lafayette, Indiana, protests spilled into the streets near Purdue University last Monday, according to local news reports, as about 180 students and faculty and staff members lay in the rain on the pavement while university police blocked traffic.

Expressions of outrage

Academic associations also are weighing in. At its annual business meeting on 5 December, the American Anthropological Association’s members unanimously passed a resolution expressing outrage over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, as well as other recent incidents in which police officers have killed people who were black and unarmed.

The resolution, composed by the Association of Black Anthropologists, describes the killings as "representative of a broader US history of systematic anti-black violence”. It calls on the US Justice Department "to review the use of force by police and to make a commitment to working for the eradication of racism and racialised state violence".

Meanwhile, dozens of faculty members and students at Columbia University’s School of Social Work last week signed a statement protesting the grand juries’ decisions not to indict police officers in the New York and Missouri cases.

The statement urges people connected with the school to engage in "non-violent social and political action" and to give people closest to such efforts "immediate and sustained meaningful support".

In the weeks following the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson case, the schools of social work at both Smith College in Massachusetts and Portland State University in Oregon issued statements urging people at their institutions to engage in non-violent social and political activities to bring about change.

“As a school for social work with an explicit commitment to working against racism, we aim to expose the forces of structural oppression and injustice that result in violence and dehumanisation across all relationships," says the Smith College statement, which was signed by Marianne R Yoshioka, the school’s dean, and members of a panel focused on combating racism.

The National Association of Social Workers last month issued a statement urging government agencies to take steps to prevent unnecessary police shootings, such as training police officers not to be biased and making body cameras standard police equipment.

Patrick Gallagher, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, issued a letter to students, alumni and university employees in which he expressed outrage over the two verdicts but urged people wishing to protest them to do so peacefully.

He said violent demonstrations over the cases "may make the papers, but they also grow the mistrust and fear that can stand in the way of real progress”.

* Peter Schmidt contributed to this article.