VCU students and Richmond locals convened on campus at the historic Crenshaw House last Thursday night in a display of solidarity with social activists and residents in Ferguson, Missouri.
VCU Students for Social Action hosted an art show and slam poetry performance honoring Michael Brown, the unarmed 19-year-old African-American who was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in a Missouri suburb earlier this summer. The gathering was in light of the Ferguson grand jury’s pending decision regarding whether to indict Wilson for Brown’s murder in August.
“It’s not just about one man being shot by one cop,” said VCU sociology professor and Students for Social Action faculty advisor Jesse Goldstein. “It’s part of a bigger social problem … It’s important to figure out how to plug into issues bigger than you and not get stuck supporting people who only look like you.”
Brown’s death sparked national fervor and discussion about police militarization and systemic social inequality. This national reaction was amplified by news outlets and firsthand accounts on social media depicting police with military-grade weapons and armor responding to outraged residents.
Last Thursday’s gathering on campus was intended to mirror the protests in Ferguson and accross the country which have largely remained peaceful and demanded social justice from political figures, police departments and fellow Americans.
“When we started working on this event earlier this semester, we noticed the attention to Ferguson was dissipating,” said Students for Social Action president Madison Woodruff. “We wanted to raise more awareness and get everybody to continue thinking about what’s going on.”
Earlier this month, the parents of Brown testified to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. The U.N. committee has also included concerns over global police brutality and other governmental human rights abuses. After the initial events unfolded in Ferguson this summer, Amnesty International declared that several human rights abuses had taken place by police during the protests.
Now, as many anxiously await the grand jury decision and whatever reactionary demonstrations may arise in Ferguson, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared another state of emergency and requested the National Guard be on standby this month as well.
Goldstein said racism still thrives today under the guise of “colorblindness,” which ignores institutionalized differences for people of color around the country.
Referencing the number of systemic social inequalities in the American criminal justice system, Goldstein said historical context makes it difficult to not consider such complaints legitimate.
“It’s hard to not see a direct connection back to the policing of bodies that were considered slaves, Jim Crow and racial lynchings,” Goldstein said. “It’s hard to not see a connection to this very long history of being anxious about violence against black and brown men and women.”
Students who took part in Thursday’s event were also encouraged to place a handprint on a large banner bearing the words, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” The phrase was originally adopted by Ferguson protesters to symbolize the unarmed Brown allegedly surrendering to Wilson before being shot to death.
Participants were also asked to write letters of encouragement that would be sent to protesters in Ferguson. Screen prints of Brown on T-shirts and cloth patches were also sold, with 100 percent of the proceeds being donated to a fund for the legal defense of protesters who may be arrested during potential demonstrations following the grand jury decision.
Rob Gibson, a VCU alum and founder of VCU’s nationally recognized poetry organization, Slam Nahuatl, performed two poems with two other members of the group. Each of the young African-American poets recited original pieces reflecting on the events from this summer and other instances of historical violence perpetrated against people of their racial identity.
“It’s easy to push somebody and say, ‘Oh, you’re not being an activist,’ but if I don’t even understand what that is and don’t feel it fits my technical or active role, then what can I do to spread awareness about an issue that speaks to me?” Gibson asked. “On a basic level that’s what my personal activism is; the model for Slam Nahuatl is to uplift the community through creativity.”
Gibson said those who’ve been even remotely affected or moved by the events in Ferguson should think about who they consider part of their community and what defines that distinction.
At the event’s conclusion, local activist Stephen Loughman asked visitors to continue following the news coming out of Ferguson in the next few weeks.
“It’s likely that if there’s a decision to not indict (Wilson) there will be people outraged,” Loughman said. “Regardless of whatever happens, indicting him won’t necessarily solve anything. This is just a node which people are coming around and discussing larger issues that are intersecting.”
According to Loughman, who said he is unaffiliated with any specific group or organization, there are tentative demonstrations planned for the day after the grand jury decision. Those interested in showing solidarity with Ferguson protestors are encouraged to gather outside the John Marshall Courthouse Building at 400 N. 9th St. at 4 p.m. the day after the decision.