For four minutes and 30 seconds, a group of students held each other’s hands and laid on the ground in silence in the CFA lobby. Students, faculty, staff and prospective students and their parents filtered out of the Harbach auditorium as the Martin Luther King Day Convocation ended and watched in silence as the several student demonstrators completed their die-in.
Their actions echoed the earlier tribute from sophomore Jordan Hurst and juniors Catlin Watts and Nicole Hunter, who read stories of black men shot and often killed last year by police for four minutes and 30 seconds. The time stands for the four hours and 30 minutes 18-year-old Michael Brown lay dead in Ferguson, Mo. after being killed by police officer Darren Wilson, who in November was not indicted by the grand jury for the shooting. The time also represented solidarity with junior Ariyana Smith, who staged a solo protest in November at a basketball game in Clayton, Mo. and was initially suspended indefinitely for her actions.
“We want administration to come and take a stand … because we are not one community,” sophomore Rebekah Mahon said at the demonstration. “We’re supposed to be there for each other … Knox can’t take a political stand on things, but black lives matter. We’re getting killed out there. Yeah, we have our faces on the website, but that doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t going to respect what your students are saying. I criticize because I love. I know that Knox can do better.”
The students criticized the administration for not taking enough action to combat the racism they experienced on campus and for mistaking the full name for ABLE in a campus-wide email. They also called out fellow students on behaviors toward activists on social media and comments made about the black-only forum held last week, “Black Lives Matter.” Many of the students expressed their love for the college, but said that the college could and needs to do much better for their students of color.
“I understand that there are problems everywhere, but they happen here too and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight against it,” Mahon told the crowd. “And we shouldn’t be doing this alone. Knox is a good school, the education here is good. That doesn’t mean I should settle when I have people saying racist things to me, and bring it to the school that they don’t do anything about it.”
After the demonstration, students chanted “Whose school? Our school.”
“They were talking about having a safe space, and I thought it was great that they felt like this was a safe space where they could talk about these kinds of things with people who care about the cause,” sophomore Cheryl Cobbold said.
This demonstration signified a change in mood for years prior as Knox celebrated its 14th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day convocation. National attention has turned to shootings of black men and women around the country by police after Michael Brown’s death became widely publicized and criticized last summer. As 2015 marks 50 years since the the Civil Rights Act of 1965 passed, the convocation speakers each emphasized the need for greater change in race relations.
After the choir performed and President Teresa Amott and Dean of the College Laura Behling spoke, three female black poets stepped onstage and read off brief descriptions of black men shot by police in 2014 for four minutes and 30 seconds. Then they each told their own story. Hurst recited her poem “Chloe” about the meanings of the n-word to her, and her white friend’s casual use of the term. Hunter read “The Advice I’ve Gotten” about the contradicting advice she has received about how to protect herself from harm from police. Watts finished out with her piece “History Repeating,” drawing comparison between the civil rights movements of the past and present and criticizing hashtag activism. The trio received a standing ovation from a full Harbach theatre.
“It was my personal expression of what has been going on in the past couple of years with all the things that are happening, like Black Lives Matter and Ferguson,” Hurst, who had been invited to perform by Associate Professor and Chair of Gender Studies Magali Roy-Féquiére, said after the performance.
Professor and Chair of Africana Studies Fred Hord followed the students with a speech focused on the idea of ‘Separate But Unequal’ and how “it hasn’t been that long” since many historical events to fight racism occurred, during the lives of his grandparents, parents and himself. Noting the occasion, Hord said, “We sanitize King too much,” and forget that he died an enemy of the state, not a national hero. Hord pushed for continuation of the current protests, which are the second longest protests in American history after the Montgomery Boycott.
Associate Professor and Chair of History Konrad Hamilton concluded the convocation with a focus on police violence. Hamilton was instructed about how to act around police from his father to “survive the encounter.” He emphasized the damage violence against blacks has on America as a whole, throwing into question whether the country has a free society. He cited overwhelming instances of citizens and fellow police officers reporting officers where no action was taken against the perpetrator. Hamilton called out police officers who are ‘good guys’ but who do not openly condemn officers who abuse their power. He ended by urging the audience to get involved in the movement and educate their peers.
The convocation and subsequent demonstration was followed in the afternoon by a teach-in orchestrated by Burkhardt Distinguished Chair of History Catherine Denial. Denial said that the idea was brought to her by Hamilton and Roy-Fquire. She gathered together interested facilitators to lead ten group discussions about the subjects broached at the convocation, dividing attendees at random by giving them a number at the door.
Students and faculty spoke on issues they saw or faced themselves in a safe environment, where no thoughts and stories shared would be linked to the persons who spoke. Facilitators and attendees focused on creating localized solutions for Knox, which facilitators are communicating to one another throughout this week.
“The feedback that we’ve heard so far has been very positive,” Denial said. “People really liked the conversations … they would like to have them more often. People appreciated the ground rules we set out, and would like to see them used more universally in meetings and in classrooms.”
Denial and others hope to present possible solutions as soon as possible, to Behling, Amott or fellow faculty members. They may begin presenting these ideas as soon as the February faculty meeting, depending on what kind of solutions are discussed. Regarding interest for more teach-ins, attendees were interested in having teach-ins at least once a term, though no plans for a secondary teach-in are yet in place.
Some teach-in groups finished their sessions by asking each person to think of ways they could make change happen personally. This call for individual action was present throughout the day, heard from convocation speakers, student demonstrators and within the teach-in, a challenge for action to bring the meaning behind Martin Luther King, Jr. Day home to Knox’s campus.