Almost 60 years after Emmett Till, racism continues to claim the lives of black men and women in the United States. Terrifying images of Missouri police firing rubber bullets and smoke grenades at protesters have circulated widely since Aug. 9, the day Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was murdered by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Brown was unarmed but audio suggests Wilson still fired up to 10 times. The violent response by police to protests and their attempts to spread a false narrative of Brown’s culpability make this a particularly sickening tragedy, inspiring rallies and protests across the U.S., including in New Haven.
In solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson, we organized Yale students and New Haven community members for a rally on Aug. 19, marching from Beinecke Plaza to the New Haven Green. We met during lunch hour to welcome more people to the rally, attracting over 150 people in the end. When we reached the Green, we sat in a circle and held our arms up to chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Some have asked what the point of rallying at Yale is. They are concerned that these protests are motivated by students’ misguided sense of self-righteousness and self-congratulation. Some students worry that voicing their opinions so audibly may appear too radical or deepen racial divides instead of bridging them. It’s true — it is difficult for students, many of whom have never been directly affected by the violence in Ferguson, to speak up on an issue that so dramatically inflicts itself on black men and women. And it’s easy to create a bubble within Yale that ignores the fraught history between Yale and New Haven and pretends racial inequality doesn’t exist.
But conversations about race and structural inequalities are necessary. Criticism of protests at Yale and other privileged institutions makes an assumption about who is affected by Brown’s murder and what a meaningful response to the tragedies occurring around us should look like. The poet Claudia Rankine said last week about reactions to Ferguson, “There is an odd reality where people feel that ‘that’s not my problem.’ And, in fact, it is your problem, because you can see it, because we all live it. We experience it differently, but it’s all of ours … And then you have to decide whether you’re going to be silent or whether you’re going to stand in the corner and let things happen.”
Instead of thinking of the tragedy in Ferguson as a thousand miles away, we have to think of it as something that is happening to us, to our country. It is. It has and continues to happen all around us. Rankine’s correct to say we all live it. We have no choice about that. Our decision is whether or not to stay silent.
During our Aug. 19 rally, some protesters held up signs with the names of victims of police brutality. Names like Eric Garner in New York, Ezzell Ford and Dante Parker in California and John Crawford in Ohio. All of these men, unarmed, were murdered in the last month. One sign was for Oscar Santiago-Rivera, a New Haven resident who died following an encounter with the police in 2011.
At Yale, we should choose against silence and engage in constructive conversations about what transpired in Ferguson. Even if it means stepping outside of our comfort zone. As Rankine says, it is our problem. However imperfect, these rallies need to continue within and beyond Yale. The complexity of action must not become an excuse for inaction.
Henry Chapman is a 2015 student in the School of Art. Stacey Lawrence is a 2017 student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.