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Students protest Ferguson events

The day after the St. Louis Grand Jury’s decision on Monday, Nov. 24 to not indict Police Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, Grinnell campus community members joined together to support the protesters in Ferguson, Mo. and for members of Brown’s family. The solidarity rally was meant to create a space to deal with the events that began in August of this year and would have taken place regardless of the Grand Jury decision.

The student organization Rise Grinnell organized a rally and sit-in in front of the Dining Hall, which drew somewhere between 200 and 300 people.

“[Rise Grinnell] went to Ferguson for a sit-in over the weekend of Oct. 13 and … we felt like we needed to bring some of that movement back to campus,” said Jacob Metz-Lerman ’17, one of the organizers of Rise Grinnell.

Students attended a sit-in in the JRC’s main lobby to protest the events surrounding Ferguson, Mo. Photo by Stephen Gruber-Miller.
Students attended a sit-in in the JRC’s main lobby to protest the events surrounding Ferguson, Mo.
Photo by Stephen Gruber-Miller.

Organizers and attendees said they were thrilled by the turnout.

“There was a lot of energy that other people brought … I thought it was a nice show of the Grinnell community,” Metz-Lerman said.

The event began with the reading of a list of over 200 unarmed people who have died at the hands of police, most of whom were young and people of color. The floor was then opened up to the attendees so people could share their anger, sadness and solidarity.

“The general mood of the rally was a combination of anger and sadness. I guess people were mourning the decision not to indict and the lives that have been lost in the last few years,” said Rebekah Rennick ’17. “It was really interesting to hear all of the thoughts across the board … I don’t want to say it wasn’t productive, but it was hard to feel like we were getting anywhere or doing anything because we’re so far away.”

“It was very powerful,” said Katy Oldach ’16, “but I think it’s just a first step.”

Several attendees felt refreshed that so many gathered, but agreed that Grinnell cannot stop here. Quinnita Bellows ’15 said one moment in particular stood out to her when asked about students’ roles.

“Then one student said, ‘Look, we cannot be thinking about Grinnellians. The fact of the matter is we should be focusing our attention on Mike Brown and what this means.’ He said we had to be careful about making this about Grinnell as opposed to about the systemic problems that target poor people of color,” Bellows said.

Earlier in the day, Professors Katya Gibel Mevorach, Anthropology, and Kesho Scott, Sociology and American Studies, had an impromptu mega-class that was open to more than just their usual class attendees. Since their classes met at the same time and Scott had planned a class dedicated to Ferguson, Gibel Mevorach thought it would be useful to combine their two sessions.

The class began with newspapers and opportunities for questions and opinions to be expressed. Gibel Mevorach stated that the most important part of the teach-in was that it wasn’t structured.

“In an impromptu decision to do what we do as academics, which is to teach and find teaching moments and not to be stuck and imprisoned by a syllabus, the main point then is that we could decide to do this and let it go where it would,” Gibel Mevorach said.

The mega-class attendees were engaged and utilized the open forum to its fullest.

“I can only say what I took away … [which] was to introduce the notion of class, that we need to discuss class hierarchy,” Gibel Mevorach said. “That the experience with violence, and the experience with being targeted, and the experience of living in environments that foster more criminal activity and the confrontations between police and people is both very often gendered and aged.”

Professor Carolyn Lewis, History, and several other faculty members organized an event in Mears as a safe space for attendees to engage with the topic of police brutality and the non-indictment.

“[When] the news came that the grand jury had failed to indict … I remember feeling overwhelmingly alone and the more I thought about it, I thought I could either allow myself to be overwhelmed by that feeling or I could reach out to the other people in this community who must be feeling equally outraged,” Lewis said.

Lewis immediately contacted two colleagues, asking if they would be interested in organizing an event. When she received a positive response, she tweeted that she was trying to organize an event and “things just sort of came together very quickly. There was no plan to it, it was just, ‘I’m going to reserve this room and create this space and that’s what it’s for, it’s to bring people together,’” she said.

Nine students, six faculty members and Lewis’ 10-year-old son all came to the Mears Cottage living room.

“We talked a lot about feeling rage and what to do with that. We also talked about feeling helpless and isolated and far away. We brainstormed about what sort of things we would like to see done here at Grinnell, both to continue this discussion and trying to find some issues to focus on” Lewis said. “The faculty wasn’t there to teach, the students weren’t there to learn. It was a different kind of dynamic in the room.”

In the week that followed the event, students, faculty and community members have expressed curiosity and concern about what the campus will do next as the conversations surrounding the deaths of unarmed black people continues.

Earlier this week, on Wednesday, Dec. 3 another police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted for the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City. Lewis voiced interest in what the campus would do or plan in response to this news event.

Rise Grinnell held an event on the night of Thursday, Dec. 4 to discuss what would be taking place following the news about Eric Garner’s case and the events in Ferguson.

“We are planning to have a walk-out at 9:30 a.m. on Monday [Dec. 8], we are encouraging people to leave their classrooms and sacrifice a bit of class time in recognition of people who have lost their lives without justice. We will then be participating in a die-in following that walk out as a visual at the sun dial,” said Brigid Carmichael ’17, another Rise Grinnell organizer. “We are also developing a list of things we want from the school.”

“We’re planning several actions moving forward, including cooperating with people in the town, people at Grinnell High School and local churches,” said Eli Shepherd ’18.

The rally, the mega-class and the Mears Cottage event all created spaces for people to participate with what has transpired since this August with the first protests in Ferguson. However, Gibel Mevorach believes the campus community needs to continue to engage more with what is happening and needs to distinguish the differences between activism and awareness.

“It’s not that they’re completely separate, but given the parameters of this institution, which is a liberal arts college that does exist in a fairly secure bubble geographically … we have the opportunity for faculty and staff and students to come together and get a better education and understanding of why crises erupt. And activism of the type that took place last week is crisis mode,” Gibel Mevorach said. “This gives the people involved a sense of involvement, so everyone walks away and feels good. In terms of long standing understanding of what leads to certain events, these fundamental, underlying social, political and economic clauses, [require] a different kind of attention.”

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    ArafatDec 9, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    There is nothing written in the US constituion guaranteeing a “civil right” for young black males to steal, assault and disobey law enforcement. The only civil rights that were violated were those of Officer Wilson. This man’s life is now in shambles because he did his job. He can no longer work as a public servant, nor can he even show his face in public. Officer Wilson is portrayed as the bad guy, while the family of Michael Brown is shown on national TV encouraging destruction of the community with no public reprimand.
    The most disturbing and sad aspect of the whole situation is the ignorance of not just the black activists, but also the white liberals. Justice was served long before the grand jury made a decision. Michael Brown made the decision, not the grand jury. His parents should be outraged because their son was not the “gentle giant” they thought he was. Unfortunately, situations like this will surely happen again. It was a tragedy that a young man lost his life, but the real tragedy is the lack of common sense, morality and indivual accountability in the black community. The law was followed and a decision was made. Deal with it, move one and rise up against the thugs who are destroying our way of life, not those who are fighting to protect it.
    As for the protestors across the USA, where is the line drawn between making a point and causing criminal acts? Blocking highways and intersections to protest civil right violations causes gridlock, inconvenience and anger. Protesters are violating the rights of those who wish to travel freely. How is this acceptable? How does inconveniencing the general public help your cause? The level of ignorance surrounding this entire matter from day one is sickening and unbelievable. Protests such as those that we’ve seen are pointless and will only serve to work against those trying to affect change.
    Protesting will not solve the problem. We need parents to teach respect, morals and values to our children. We must teach our children to do the right thing, not to find fault with what is wrong. This is only a matter of race because black activists make it so. What if it had been a black officer and a white victim? What if it were an Asian or a Hispanic? Does it really matter? A crime was committed and a police officer who was sworn to protect and serve the community did his job. There is a system in place to ensure justice. The system worked. And now, for those who choose to use this as reason to cause violence and destruction, you too will find out how the justice system works when you are arrested and removed from society.