Standing Up and Standing Together: Students demand racial justice

January 15, 2015

“Your silence is suffocating. We, students of color, cannot breathe.”

So begins the letter issued by a coalition of Georgetown University Law Center students of color to the GULC administration on Dec. 6, 2014, two weeks after a St. Louis grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the killing of an unarmed, 18-year-old black teenager, Michael Brown. The letter criticizes the Georgetown administration for remaining silent amid the nationwide outcry for nearly four months.

“GULC students of color struggle to grasp at the ‘surreality’ of our role as change agents of Justice; we continually lose hope in our study of the law because we attend a legal institution that has neither openly acknowledged or denounced the current legal (in)justice system that oppresses Black and Brown people,” the letter reads.

Following the letter, Georgetown University Law Center, joining Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School, postponed final exams for students who wanted time to stand in solidarity with the grieving families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, another unarmed, black man who was killed by police officers this year.

The efforts of these law students have received national attention with reports from a number of media outlets, including The Washington Post and the New York Post. The GU Law letter, however, is only the latest in a series of instances wherein students have chosen to stand together in the name of racial justice since the death of Trayvon Martin. In fact, the statement followed months of Georgetown student activism protesting police treatment of black Americans and the inequities that follow them day to day.

For Walter Kelly (COL ’16), the deaths of fellow black men at the hands of law enforcement left him scared of the kind of society he lives in.

“Post Trayvon Martin, I feared for my brother. With the Eric Garner case, I feared for my uncles and my dad,” Kelly said. “But with Michael Brown, he was just a couple days from going to college. That was so real to me. I feared for myself.”

Kelly found an outlet for his concerns last summer, when he was approached by LaDarius Torrey (COL ’17) with an idea for a spoken-word performance project to give voice to black Georgetown students on issues that had come to the fore of America’s national conscious.

“I started thinking, ‘Could I be the next person to be shot dead simply for being a black male?’” Torrey said. “From that I started asking myself, ‘Am I next?’ more as a question for myself, and then I asked my peers and shared my thoughts. I found that our patterns of thinking were very similar.”

That kernel of an idea morphed into a full-fledged artistic endeavor.

“My living room table became the drawing board and we started spitballing ideas,” Kelly said. “It felt right to do it on campus. It was about the larger community of black men, but we wanted to show what the Georgetown male voice is.”

Kelly and Torrey gathered a group of like-minded students and filmed their spoken-word project, entitled “Am I Next?” on the steps of Healy Hall and across the Georgetown campus and neighborhood.

“The melanin in his skin labeled menacing, black boy is pulled over while driving while black. He is stopped and frisked for walking while black. He is pinned down to the ground for breathing,” Kelly recites in the video. Signs held by fellow students read, “Why must I feel fear every time I see a police officer, rather than protected?” and “Why do you think my intentions are to steal when I walk into a store?”

While the goal of the video was to engage students across the board in the broader dialogue, Kelly believes that its message is also particularly relevant at Georgetown.

“Georgetown is a bubble. Just going a couple streets or blocks down I don’t feel as safe. I definitely experience small microaggressions and smaller instances of violence,” he said. “We just wanted to make people aware of that—it’s not just specific to Staten Island or Ferguson. It’s also felt here.”

Kelly’s and Torrey’s work was just one of numerous protest movements that originated on Georgetown’s campus and drew inspiration from how relatively sheltered and homogenous the neighborhood is.

On Dec. 5, during the annual tree lighting ceremony in Dahlgren Quad, students held a peaceful die-in in solidarity with similar protests occurring across the nation over the decision not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the chokehold death of Staten Island’s Eric Garner. Garner’s last words—caught on tape—were “I can’t breathe.”

According Candace Milner (MSB ’16), who helped organize the die-in, the tree-lighting ceremony was chosen specifically for its status as a prominent campus event.

“This is a space that’s very visible, so we can bring awareness about what was going on in our country and try to hold people on this campus accountable in just being aware,” Milner said. “We knew students, faculty, and administrators alike would be there. A lot of students had experiences where a conversation on Ferguson or Staten Island or Eric Garner came up and their classmates didn’t know what they were talking about or they wanted to talk about it in classrooms and their professors didn’t know how to have those conversations or weren’t willing to have these conversations … That took a toll on many students, just the lack of awareness or acknowledgement about what was happening.”

Five days after the tree-lighting ceremony, on the Georgetown Medical Center campus, between 40 and 50 medical students participated in a “white coat die-in.”

Michael Pappas, a first year student at the Georgetown School of Medicine and co-organizer of the demonstration, said the goal was to raise awareness of racial discrimination among Georgetown medical students—what he described as a privileged group that is often removed from the realities that blacks in America face.

“Ultimately, in any action like this, I think it’s important that students recognize their privilege,” Pappas said. “I think that that’s one of the first things that you have to do in order to be able to truly work in solidarity with individuals who are affected by such oppression.”

Aya Waller-Bey (COL ’14) launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #BBGU, or “Being Black at Georgetown” in Dec. 2013. Waller-Bey was a member of the Black House, a Georgetown residence dedicated to fostering a community for students of color. Waller-Bey’s campaign was followed by a number of her classmates launching another hashtag, “Dangerous Black Kids at Georgetown University,” or #DBKGU, a photo initiative to challenge stereotypes surrounding black men and women.

In an interview with The Washington Post in May 2014, Waller-Bey credited the social media campaign for making a lasting impact on Georgetown and launching a deeper conversation.

“There have been alumni involved and there’s still a written track record of what people have said. I think that allows us as people to hold the university accountable and to understand, like, ‘Hey, this public shaming thing works,” Waller-Bey told the Post.

Waller-Bey and current Black House Alumni Coordinator Diondra Hicks (COL ’15) declined the Voice’s request for an interview. Olivia Holmes, Black House communications and outreach coordinator, and Nancy Hinojos, Black House resident director, did not respond to the Voice’s request for comment.

Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson (SFS ’14), who launched the satirical hashtag and phototrend #DBKGU, picturing black students wearing professional clothing while standing next to a list of their impressive accomplishments, felt that it was important to challenge stereotyping in the Georgetown community.

“I felt like it was important to send that message at Georgetown, but also to other places,” Corbin-Johnson said. “We don’t just [stereotype] at Georgetown. We do that in the U.S. and also in the world in general. I mean, things like that have happened to students at Georgetown.”

Corbin-Johnson said that police in Georgetown often stereotype people, especially black people, by looking at their clothing.

“I personally, myself, I don’t wear sweatpants,  and I don’t wear a hoodie, but I happened to be walking to CVS one day, and I happened to be wearing a hoodie because it was raining,” she said. “And the cops stopped me, and they were like ‘What are you doing in this area? You don’t belong here.’”

Corbin-Johnson believes that one area for change is Georgetown’s curriculum, which she believes allows students to tailor a comfort zone that prevents meeting different people with different experiences and ideas.

“The majority of Georgetown tailors their education to a comfort zone and is not learning about, in my mind, modern society. Not everyone is the same, so people should learn about who they’re going to interact with outside of the Healy gates,” Corbin-Johnson said.

At the same time, however, Corbin-Johnson acknowledged that making thousands of strangers form meaningful connections with students they don’t want to meet is a big challenge.

“Whether you’re white, whether you’re black, whether you’re Hispanic, whatever, you can tailor who you live with, you can tailor what you study, you can tailor everything to stay in a comfort zone all four years,” Corbin-Johnson said. “And that’s the problem. You need to get out of a comfort zone.”

At a university like Georgetown, where black students make up only 6 percent of the student body, according to Forbes, it was inevitable that the protests would also include largely wealthy white students. For Corbin-Johnson, that’s not a problem.

“If there’s a white person who wants to support a movement, we’re all for it,” she said. “One person approached me and said ‘I’m not black, but I really want to be a part of it.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, of course’… If someone wants to help the movement, no one is ever going to say no. They just have to know the reason behind the movement.”

Pappas agreed.

“A lot of these students at Georgetown have benefited in one way or another, myself included, from societal structures that create class inequality and suffering in our society,” he said. “I think it’s important to recognize that just because you were born into that privilege that is not necessarily a reason not to take part in such movements, but it’s a reason to recognize that and then work in solidarity with other populations.”

Following the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, University President John DeGioia emailed the Georgetown University community on Dec. 10, 2014.

“Recent events in our country have brought frustration and sadness, anger and despair, as grand juries in two different American cities have shined a bright light on the enduring fault line of our Republic—the persistent legacy of segregation, discrimination, inequality: of injustice,” DeGioia wrote. “The fabric that we think of as America seems to be fraying.”

Prior to DeGioia’s email, the administration organized a panel of professors in September to start a dialogue on the implications of police violence and community unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

The panel, which packed Gaston Hall to standing-room only, nonetheless struck Torrey as a sign of the Georgetown administration’s reactive nature and came across as mere lip service in the face of massive, national protest movements.

“They put together this all-star panel with Michael Eric Dyson, but the premise of putting together all these people was more to cover themselves,” Torrey said. “I think the ‘Am I Next?’ video may have threatened them, because it’s directed at Georgetown rather than broader American society… I feel like [the administration’s] efforts only serve to appease our community rather than truly address the sentiments of our community. It’s a reactive step to cover themselves.”

Paul Butler and Peter Edelman, Georgetown Law Center professors who sat on the September panel, both declined to comment on this story. Main campus professor Michael Dyson did not respond to the Voice’s requests for an interview.

Torrey echoed the thoughts of Corbin-Johnson and said that the university could dispel a sentiment of appeasement by changing the nature of classroom discussions.

“I believe more dialogue should be encouraged in the classroom setting and it’s just not,” Torrey said. “There are professors out there who are touching on these vital issues… I had a professor last semester who had a whole day dedicated to these issues, and one of the issues was stop and frisk. I had a classmate get up and say there’s nothing wrong with stop and frisk, that it serves its purpose and it’s effective. Just from that, you hear the ignorance.”

Most student activists expressed a similar sentiment: the end of ignorance is an increase in the knowledge base.

For instance, the letter addressed to the Georgetown University Law Center demands that the administration begin publicly addressing the issues.

“What does that persistent silence tell us, as law students of color, about our agency, our value, and our role at GULC?”

Dean of the Law Center, William Treanor, responded to the letter showing a willingness to cooperate and listen to students’ concerns.

“Thank you for your open letter. You have expressed important and troubling concerns about the experience of students of color at Georgetown Law and in the broader community, and you have shared thoughtful proposals about action steps the Law Center could take to address those concerns,” said Treanor. “My colleagues in the faculty and senior administration at the Law Center take your concerns very seriously and want to discuss them with you.”

After all the actions and protests, the long term effects of of black student protests at Georgetown remain unclear, especially in light of what protesters felt was lukewarm backing by the university.

Kelly, however, believes that there still remains a strong sense of community at Georgetown supporting the message he and other student activists are trying to promote.

“The fact that there were so many people supporting us was really great. It showed what a strong community we have here,” he said.

Corbin-Johnson agrees that the sense of community is changing.

“When I was at school, Aya Wailer-Bey started #BBGU, and she was really large in the black community, and I was also very influential in the black community,” she said. “But we were individual people who decided to take on things ourselves. And I feel like the black community now is more like an organization rallying.”

For Milner, at the very least, increasing a sense of recognition of how interconnected all students are with racial issues is the first step.

“When you talk about racial issues, especially black issues, even Latino issues, being in a place of privilege economically does not divorce or separate you from the issues that you face as a person of color,” she said. “I know people who have been asked, ‘Do you go to Georgetown? Do you belong on campus?’ I mean, we’re students here. We’re paying tuition, too… We don’t get a pass from that just because we’re in this place of privilege at Georgetown.”

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