A participant in last week’s protest of the Michael Brown verdict provides her account of the event and perspective on the Ferguson issue.
During my time at Penn, I have been privileged to take part in two marches to honor African-American men. The first time, I was an undergraduate student in 2009. Upon hearing the long-awaited news that Barack Obama had been elected the first American-American president, I rushed out of my dorm room to join a spontaneous march with other Obama supporters down to City Hall to pray, and to celebrate a momentous event we never thought would come.
Last week, I took part in a march for a much more harrowing and unfortunate reason. As I’m sure most of you know, the nation has been in an uproar over the events concerning the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri. Last Monday, SOUL (Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation at University of Pennsylvania) organized the Penn Walkout for Michael Brown. The walkout had the multipurpose of honoring Mr. Brown’s memory, peacefully protesting his violent death by a policeman despite being unarmed, and peacefully protesting the Grand Jury’s decision to not indict his killer, Darren Wilson. From our starting point at the W.E.B. DuBois dorm, we marched down Locust Walk to the beat of makeshift drums while chanting and calling upon other students, University workers, and Philadelphia locals to join us. Our march really picked up momentum when we burst into Huntsman Hall and continued our loud chants in the forum, yelling, “Hunstman, walk out for Mike Brown!” and “Hands up, don’t shot!” I could see pride, determination and camaraderie on the other students’ faces, all sending the message that young people aren’t afraid to take a stand for something they know is wrong.
Despite the negative reasons for the march, I saw something beautiful in it. When I took moments to look around at the ever-growing mob of protesters, I saw all types of faces. There weren’t just black people protesting the death of another black person. By the midpoint of our march, we were actually a minority in the group. As we marched through the streets of University City, I also saw many non-minority locals clapping their hands in support of our cause and joining in on our chants. And the most transfixing part was when we silently lay in the street at 34th and Walnut for four minutes to embody the four hours Mr. Brown’s body was left on the ground. In those moments, despite naturally backing up traffic, not one car honked at us to get out of the way. As corny as it sounds, it felt like the city of Philadelphia was behind us.
Without a doubt, the attack on Mike Brown and the associated verdict that was handed down a week ago are blatant reminders that racism is still a prevalent problem in this country. I’ll admit I don’t like to meditate on this fact, but it is a reality, nonetheless. As a nation, we have made great socio-cultural strides in a remarkably short period of time. A mere 150 years ago, African-Americans were seen as sub-human and valued like livestock. Today, we are an influential and proud race, whose triumphs are an invaluable part of American culture. However, violent actions continue impeding our progress to become a more progressive, tolerant and united nation.
Unfortunately, there is still work to be done. Daily acts of violent racism flood our media outlets. Another top story surrounds 43-year-old, unarmed, Eric Garner, who was being held under suspension for selling untaxed cigarettes. He was strangled to death, held in a chokehold, and a Grand Jury decided to not indict officer Daniel Pantaleo. Stories like these are so prevalent today.
Too much power lies in the hands of police officers and too many are abusing it. Something must be done to stop this madness. Thankfully, the walkouts occurring in communities across the country are showing there’s power and unity in numbers. Diverse people are choosing to stand up against these injustices, signaling that it’s more than just a black people vs. police problem. I think the Penn walkout helped to shed more light on these current events for the Penn community. As Penn students, we should be thankful for the privilege to study at such a prestigious institution, but not act like we’re in an impenetrable bubble, blind to impactful world events. Last week’s walkout was a fantastic demonstration of just that and I couldn’t have been prouder to be a part of another powerful march at Penn.