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There was silence.
Dignified, mournful, resolved silence. Yale community members, from freshmen to faculty, stood up from their seats in seminars, lectures and meals across campus at 12:01 p.m. on Monday. They walked out in tens, and then hundreds, onto Cross Campus. The attendees, who gathered before Sterling Memorial Library, were from many demographic groups.
There was no yelling, there were no screams. A powerful resonance rang in the air, punctuated only by exclamations of hope.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom … we have nothing to lose but our chains,” said Alexandra Barlow ’17 to a crowd of roughly 300.
Barlowe quoted Assata Shakur, a freedom fighter in the 60s and 70s. After the rally on Cross Campus, students marched to City Hall to demand justice.
The Black Student Alliance at Yale with support from members of the Afro-American Cultural House organized the event — Hands Up Walk Out — in response to a recent grand jury decision that shook the black community at Yale and across the world.
On Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old teenager, was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was black. Wilson was white.
On Aug. 20, 12 grand jurors assembled to adjudicate whether to indict Wilson for a crime. In the American judicial system, a grand jury has the power to indict defenders by evaluating the “probable cause” behind a crime. To indict Wilson, nine of the 12 jurors would have had to agree that enough evidence existed to bring him to trial. They did not.
On Nov. 24, it was announced that the grand jury elected not to indict Wilson on any charges.
THE FURY THAT FOLLOWED
“It was one of those situations where you will always remember where you were when you heard the news,” said Dara Huggins ’17, a black psychology major concentrating on law and social justice.
Huggins said that she had been following the case since day one, like many in the black community. That night, she was at the movies watching “The Hunger Games.”
“I knew it would be coming out at 9 p.m., so as soon as I came out of the film, I was constantly refreshing the feed,” she said.
When she saw the verdict, Huggins stopped in her tracks, in the middle of the street. Her heart dropped.
Travis Reginal ’16 was having dinner with his girlfriend’s family when the announcement came on the television. The complex case became one of the first discussions he had with her family.
Following the Ferguson decision, many Yale students came together in their concern for the grand jury’s verdict. A majority of students interviewed said that they were upset but not surprised.
David Rico ’16, who goes by Campfire David and who is of Native American descent, noted that he has experienced many negative interactions with the police, possibly due to his ethnicity.
“I do not know the African-American experience, or what it is like to be an African-American in this country, I just know how it feels to be discriminated against from the police,” he said.
Rico gave the example of the disrespect he was shown when policemen approached him while he stood outside, phoning his parents. The police did not believe he was a Yale student.
Yale student groups have taken to social media to raise awareness about the issue. On Wednesday, the Yale College Black Men’s Union released “To My Unborn Son,” showcasing black-and-white photos of members holding whiteboard signs with messages to their future sons.
“To my unborn son, the world is not yet ready for you, so I will hold you close and make it ready to love you,” reads one. Another simply says, “To my unborn son, I love you.”
The Afro-American Cultural Center has also played a crucial role in shaping the campus response, providing an open space for grieving and reflection.
“All it takes when something like this happens is an email to someone as opposed to reaching out and having to start a relationship. You have hung out with them, had study breaks and also had conversations about police brutality before it happens,” said Micah Jones ’16, president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale.
“I am impressed with Yale’s response … It sends a good positive message about unity,” said President of the Greater New Haven Branch of the NAACP Dori Dumas.
Dumas said that she was impressed with Yalies’ eagerness to work with the New Haven community to protest and emphasized that she did not think that Yale voices would drown out the experience of black New Haven residents.
“[I like] the idea that people are really wanting to engage these really complicated issues and are trying to do it in a public forum — that’s what a university should be about,” said Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway.
Still, Yale students are not of one mind. Some aren’t sure that the grand jury’s decision was unreasonable, or that the shooting was necessarily a matter of race.
Adelaide Goodyear ’17, a white student, agreed that racism plagues relations between the police and the black community, but said that the decision “is not about getting away with murder — it’s that it’s hard to find evidence in cases like this.”
Goodyear explained that the grand jury’s verdict was not an assessment of guilt, but an evaluation of the available evidence. She added that although Michael Brown’s death was a clear case of police misconduct, murder charges require large amounts of evidence to go to trial.
Christopher Taylor ’18, who is also white, agreed with Goodyear, saying, “This is definitely a problem with legal procedure.” He noted that police brutality against blacks is a large problem but that police officers are rarely indicted by grand juries.
Other students went further, noting that Brown’s death may not have been motivated by race.
“I think that people overreach and think that it’s an act of ‘the system yet again’ … A lot of people, especially at Yale, don’t even consider that there might not have been probable cause,” said a right-leaning independent student who wished to remain anonymous. “They think they know more than they do.”
Beckett Lee ’18, who is white and identifies as conservative, called for students to remember Wilson’s humanity. He added that police officers are killed on duty more than people realize and that Wilson could have been in survival mode.
“It is almost impossible for a human being to weigh all of the potential ramifications of what they are going to do,” he said of the shooting.
Still, students holding views sympathetic to Wilson appear to be in the minority.
Goodyear suggested that policemen wear cameras to provide evidence in ambiguous cases. Goodyear’s suggestion echoes that of Brown’s family.
However, the Eric Garner decision — in which a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who, in a videotaped encounter, killed a black man in a chokehold — on Wednesday prompted many students to question why no action was taken, even with what they described as clear evidence.
Yale students will continue to question the Brown and Garner decisions. Three separate events are scheduled for today — a die-in at the law school, an artistic demonstration on Beinecke Plaza and a #ThisEndsToday event on the New Haven Green.
“My brother is turning 20 next month, which means that he is solidifying his presence in a demographic of young black men between the ages of 19-25 in the United States who are disproportionately targeted by police brutality,” Karleh Wilson ’16 explained. “I worry about [my brother’s] safety under the hands of the law. My brother should feel safe among the presence of policemen, but he does not, and this is the same for all men of color his age in America.”