Community gathers for Ferguson vigil and talk
Students and faculty gathered at Chapels Pond on Thursday evening for “A Night of Remembrance and Response: Brandeis Vigil and Town Hall.” The vigil was held in remembrance of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, MO. and other victims of similar incidents.
The vigil drew around 150 individuals to remember Brown. According to an Aug. 10 New York Times article, Brown was shot by a police officer after allegedly assaulting the officer, although Brown was unarmed. The ensuing protests and violence in Ferguson have sparked debates across the country on issues of police brutality and race.
University President Frederick Lawrence addressed the assembled crowd, saying that Brandeis students are “citizens of this campus but also citizens of the local, national and global communities.”
“There is no point in trying to make sense of what happened, but there are lessons to be learned,” Lawrence continued.
Dean of Students Jamele Adams delivered a spoken word piece addressing how he would respond if asked to react to the events in Ferguson. The path to peace, according to Adams, involves “seeing all humans as humane” and “deconstructing systems of oppression.”
After student representatives of campus groups, including the Men of Color Alliance, Women of Color Alliance and Brandeis Black Student Organization, as well as members of the interfaith chaplaincy Rev. Walter Cuenin and Rev. Matthew Carriker and Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan spoke, Carriker led attendees in an interfaith peace song. The vigil was closed with a candle-lit moment of silence, giving those who gathered a chance to reflect and remember.
Following the vigil was a town hall-style forum held in the Berlin Chapel. Lawrence moderated the forum, along with Profs. Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson (Heller) and Chad Williams (AAAS).
The forum began with an opening activity in which students were asked to stand if they agreed with certain race and safety related questions. Students then had the opportunity to answer questions and ask questions in return to the room as a whole including the moderators, such as how the events in Ferguson are relevant to Brandeis. Students responded with personal connections as well as general concern for the issues being raised.
An open dialogue was initiated, with students of varying backgrounds sharing their thoughts and feelings on the issues of race and gender pertaining to Brown’s story and their own experiences. Some students, like Erica Barnett ’17 brought some participants to tears with their stories and thoughts. Barnett expressed her surprise at the amount of students that attended the event but asked where the rest of the student body was. As a female African-American student, Barnett said that she feels automatically viewed as disadvantaged and that tragedies like this remind her of how much progress still needs to be made in terms of racial issues.
“I am happy that we had this conversation, and I am proud of the diversity of the people that came,” Barnett said in an interview with the Justice. “I’m still asking questions like ‘What now?’ that I don’t know the answers to. We first have to fix the problems at Brandeis, and that starts with forums like this.”
Hannah Reikes ’17 said in an interview with the Justice that she was surprised and moved by the reactions of those around her. “I don’t really have words for what I heard and experienced tonight,” Reikes said. “It can more accurately be summed up by the tears and tight hugs shared by good friends and complete strangers. The love and the sadness were quite simply overwhelming.”
In a phone interview with the Justice, Lawrence said that the vigil and meeting were incredibly important to the Brandeis community, as they were an opportunity to “[come] together both in a communal sense at Chapel Pond and in a study sense in the Berlin Chapel.”
Lawrence further elaborated on the events at Ferguson themselves, saying that “law enforcement holds the public trust, and that’s why they carry weapons and are permitted to use deadly force. When that trust is abused, it is a serious violation of constitutional rights and tear in the fabric of society.”
The faculty member attendees also said that they were impressed with the dialogue. Nsiah-Jefferson said in an interview with the Justice that students’ comments “were extremely intelligent, strong, forceful and very heartfelt.” She also made note of the diversity of the audience, calling it a “really good mix of students, as well as graduate students, faculty and deans.”
Although the conversation incorporated emotions and experiences, the discussion turned to possible solutions to the issues raised. Students agreed that actions need to be taken, beyond conversations.
“This is not the end,” Justin Cates ’17, one of the student organizers of the events, told the Justice in a phone interview. “A lot of people came together to make this project possible, and it’s something we’re passionate about continuing on this campus. This is a school that prides itself on social justice, and that is something that we intend to uphold.”
Cates further praised the community’s response to the events, noting that the vigil and meeting were publicized less than 48 hours before they occurred in a campus-wide email from the Department of Students and Enrollment. “To see that overwhelming response in such a short time was really powerful,” Cates said.
In an interview with the Justice, Aliya Nealy ’15, co-president of the Women of Color Alliance, said that the vigil and town hall meeting came from a request made by Adams to Cates and D’Andre Young ’15, who helped organize the events. This was augmented by numerous on-campus groups issuing statements in response to the events at Ferguson, which were included in the announcement email for the vigil and meeting.
Nealy further said that she and other students “knew that we wanted to do something before we came back to campus, because it was such a relevant issue.” While Adams had contacted groups about issuing statements immediately after the events at Ferguson, Nealy said that the “the immediate planning…had taken place over the past week and a half.”
Cates echoed this statement and further praised Lawrence for helping to organize the vigil and town hall meeting, saying that he was tremendously helpful by “contacting a lot of other offices, including Public Safety.” This was especially important for Cates, as he felt that “having the police department in cooperation was really important for our message.”
Williams also wrote in an email to the Justice that he was hopeful for future action on this issue. He wrote that the challenge is now “to take what we learned and channel the raw emotion into organized, collective action that compels the entire Brandeis community to confront the issues that were discussed.”
The event was sponsored by University groups including the Men of Color Alliance, Women of Color Alliance, Brandeis Black Student Organization, African and Afro-American Studies department, Society Organized Against Racism, the Intercultural Center, the University Police and the Department of Student Activities.