On Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson following an altercation in Ferguson, Mo. Brown had been a suspect in a nearby convenience store robbery, but was stopped due to unrelated circumstances. During a struggle between Wilson and Brown, the officer’s gun was fired, prompting Brown to run. After a chase, Brown turned toward the police officer and was shot at twelve times and hit at least six, including twice in the head. Brown was unarmed.
A massive outcry against police brutality and an unjust justice system followed suit. The people’s retaliation hit Ferguson with force as activists took not only to the streets, but also to the courtrooms and conference halls in order to make a change. The police response was aggressive, confrontational and heavily controversial as they militarized forces, bringing in riot armor, assault rifles and armored vehicles in order to suppress rioters. Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired at protesters and reporters. An overwhelming number of arrests were made, many of which were reactionary and unlawful.
Officers were routinely criticized for their violent actions toward protesters, such as officer Ray Albers, who was suspended for pointing a rifle loaded with live rounds and shouting “I will f****** kill you” at peaceful demonstrators. Other officers were found taking their violence to social media, posting disturbing status updates such as Matthew Pappart’s, who said, “These protesters should have been put down like a rabid dog the first night.” Others were caught on camera inciting riots as videos starting popping up of officers yelling at protesters to “bring a display of overstepping bounds and physical, as well as verbal, police brutality.” Professor Consuela Francis, Program Director of the African-American Studies Program at the College of Charleston, explained that these kinds of rapid, militarized and violent responses “should make us all appalled that people inside our country should have to live with that kind of police presence. We should all experience discomfort with how quickly they moved in with riot gear and tanks, how easy it was for the police to tear gas our citizens.” She then, addressed the issue of racial unrest by stating, “If we continue to create the space for poor black people to be policed in that way, what we’re doing is creating the space for the rest of us to be policed that way.”
Racial tensions continued to grow when the officer involved in the death of African-American Eric Garner was not indicted for his actions despite video evidence of him physically choking Garner to death in front of witnesses on a busy Staten Island street. The event occurred after officers persistently harassed Garner, who was suspected of selling cigarettes without tax stamps. After Garner pushed the officer’s hand away from him, he was put into a chokehold and shoved face first into the ground while screaming “I can’t breathe” upward of 11 times as four more officers moved to restrain him. Garner lost consciousness and stopped breathing, but neither CPR officers nor the responding EMT unit assisted him. Garner was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital less than an hour later.
In response to Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the police force, Francis stated, “If police in broad daylight on the sidewalk of a major American city can choke to death an American citizen and get away with it, then it should be of concern to all of us no matter who we are.” It seems too often that Americans relegate these instances of police brutality, and by extension, the continued aggressions against our constitutional rights, to the back of their minds as if they were taking place in some foreign, far-off war zone instead of right here in the country.
National organizations such as #BlackLivesMatter and the Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition have been created to fight for change by demanding the demilitarization of police forces and bringing the officers responsible for the killings to justice. As these organizations continue to grow and spread through social media, word of mouth and demonstrations around the country, it is no surprise that their goals have become synonymous with the organizations on the College of Charleston campus that are fighting for equity as well.
Karla Dunlop is one of the many concerned students taking a stand here at the College of Charleston. As Senior Advisor for the Black Student Union, Dunlop uses the BSU as a means of reaching out to African-American students by promoting black awareness and “encouraging the meaningful connections between minority students, their peers, professors and other staff members.” These connections are incredibly important as racism is an institutionalized concern, meaning that it is often casualized through ignorance and unawareness. Education through activism is one of the many ways organizations like the BSU can combat these issues.
On Feb. 11, the BSU conducted a #BlackLivesMatter demonstration in Cougar Mall here on campus. Members donned all black garb and wore duct tape over their mouths with slogans such as “#icantbreathe” while they held their hands in the universal “don’t shoot” position. This, however, was not without difficulty. “During our silent protest in Cougar Mall, a group of guys who were tabling for another event decided it was alright to start playing hip-hop artist Gucci Mane and slow clapping and that really offended some of our participants,” Dunlop explained. This paints an unsettling reminder that people still look at the problems plaguing our country and the African-American community as non-issues, diminishing them into a series of offensive jokes and failed attempts at humor.
This type of behavior is all too alive and well in communities around the nation. The media spins a narrative that characterizes protesters as looters and troublemakers instead of those who are legitimately concerned for the safety of their lives and families. Dunlop, who volunteers regularly with disadvantaged youth and other members of the black community in Charleston said, “I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of young black men and many of them fear for their lives. I’ve had kids eight, nine years old tell me they’re afraid to go outside because they feel like they’ll be shot.”
Consuela Francis echoes this sentiment, advocating that we begin to take demands from these communities seriously. Francis said, “The people involved in the Ferguson movement are thinking very hard about what could bring peace and normalcy to their communities.” It is increasingly more difficult for these communities to be taken seriously because they are often looked down upon for speaking out or ignored completely, left on their own and then admonished when taking action into their own hands – an all too common pattern.
Despite these often caustic and acrimonious reactions to the conversations addressing the plights of the black community, it is important to remember that things can get better. For years, organizations have fought to bridge the racial gap, ushering in an era of peace and equity never seen before. Today, following in their footsteps are #BlackLivesMatter and Dunlop’s BSU program, which use education as a tool to beat back ignorance. Though it is hard and oftentimes considered fruitless, it is important to remember that every agent of change, from the individual to the community, has the power to take the necessary steps to make this nation a safer place.
“I think it’s important to remember that change is possible,” Francis explained. “The fact that you and I can sit in this building on the College of Charleston’s campus talking about race, which is a conversation between a white guy and a black female professor, is something that nobody on this campus imagined would be possible 40 years ago.
“Change is absolutely possible.”
This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of The Yard.