Before winter break, several Sarah Lawrence students took a break from their busy conference week schedules to march alongside 50,000 New Yorkers angered by the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury verdicts. The “Millions March” was by far the largest of the series of nationwide protests that took place over the past few months.
Demonstrations began in July, when footage surfaced of the death of African-American Staten Island resident, Eric Garner, at the hands of white NYC police officer, Daniel Pantaleo. Garner's desperate last words, as heard in the footage of the incident, were adopted by protesters as a chant: “I can't breathe.” The video was shared widely through social media.
Tensions heightened in August when the police shooting of 18-year old African-American, Michael Brown, sparked large protests in Ferguson, Missouri. On Nov. 29, a grand jury announced that Darren Wilson, the officer implicated in Brown's death, would not be indicted. Less than a week later, a Staten Island grand jury announced Daniel Pantaleo would also not be indicted.
This tragic series of events has spawned a massive movement demanding justice for Brown and Garner. Rallies and marches, largely organized via Facebook and Twitter, have been occurring consistently and are intensifying throughout the country. Somewhere in the midst of the immense crowd at the Million’s March, a small but lively group of SLC students added their voices to the roaring chants.
On the day before the Millions March, students gathered at Common Ground to paint banners and hold an informal discussion about race politics. Student organizers worked with the Diversity and Activism Programming Subcommittee (DAPS) to fund and provide transportation for the contingent, securing four vans and several MetroCards for the occasion.
“The school was really responsive and positive,” commented Maria Snellings ('15), who helped coordinate the joint effort with DAPS. “They said they wanted to be behind this, to support the students, and give them the money to go do this.” Snellings found out about the event through a friend in the city who helped plan the march. Though she was pleased with the administration's support, she sees room for improvement in terms of the broader student body's involvement – “We organized the banner-making session so that we could get a sense of community among the students that were interested by discussing the meaning of the march and our rights...We want the students to ride together, to get to know each other, because a lot of times our campus lacks in that.”
Some students who intended to participate in the march made the commute by their own means. Lilah Dougherty ('17) and Arlen Levy ('17) took an early Metro-North train into the city soon after finding out about the event through an Instagram post. Both expressed a belief that the Brown and Garner cases reflect broader social and political issues. Dougherty said, “The issue goes deeper than just the cops shooting people, its about a racist society.” Levy commented on the Garner case and the social media effort that has helped the movement grow: “This stuff happens every day, its just finally coming to light because there's a platform for it. We couldn't have this kind of mobilization without it.”
Harry Barrick ('17), who rode the van to the Millions March, has strong thoughts on the role of social media in political movements and 'network-based' activism. “Nowadays we're seeing more of a kind of coalition politics, in which people revolve around moments, projects or people. So you'll have a bunch of smaller organizations that work together around certain issues, and social media has helped with that...there's more of a chance to build broader coalitions,” they said.
Aminta Dawson ('15), also present at the march, expressed some ambivalence when discussing social media-based activism: “In some ways it’s a new platform that the Millennial generation is using to their advantage; but at the same time it does distance people. What I've been seeing a lot on Facebook is that people will post an article or 'black lives matter', but then that's it...There's a lot of distancing and theorizing and not realizing that there's people on this campus that are actually affected by these issues.”
Common Ground space-manager Imani West ('16) was also skeptical about the effectiveness of new media in coalition building, saying, “I feel these social media platforms are just a way to get the information out there. They don't in any way guarantee commitment (…) In that way I feel its not that beneficial, because there's a detachment.” Dissatisfied with the amount of SLC students who attended the march, she draws a link between social media-based activism and what she sees as a lack of commitment from the student body: “So many people are afraid of making mistakes and having to own those mistakes. The internet gives you some anonymity, it lets you distance yourself from them. But when you actually have to do that in real life and actually interact with people, you can get your feelings hurt, you can hurt other people. You can't be afraid to be uncomfortable, because as people of color we have to deal with being uncomfortable all the time.”
Months later, the Black Lives Matter movement persists, though we have yet to see mobilization of the same scale as the Millions March back in December. As the semester drew to a close, the general consensus among the SLC activist community seemed to be a mix of frustration and hopefulness. Dedicated organizers are still planning actions throughout the country, and SLC’s activists are continuing their efforts as well. The cold winter winds will test not only the SLC campus’ commitment to racial justice during a time of crisis, but the entire nation's.
Maria Snellings offered some final words of encouragement to her fellow students, hoping to see more students contribute to the cause: “Even though I helped and contributed to organizing and making this possible for us to physically be there for the march, its not about 'who did this' and 'who did that.' All the students that participated this saturday– they're all leaders. Because they stepped out of their dorms, because they made the decision for themselves to come out (…) All of us can be leaders.”
By Martin Blondet ‘16