Students, faculty reflect on the #BlackLivesMatter movement

by Rachel Favors | 2/12/16 12:55am

Emerging in 2012 from a social media hashtag, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry for larger issues related to police brutality, racial injustice and structural oppression that many feel disproportionately affect black communities. Many Dartmouth students, faculty, and staff have answered this rallying cry, participating in protests and demonstrations to stand in solidarity with the BLM movement and against alleged institutional oppression at the College.

Community organizers Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors co-founded the BLM movement after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. In response to Zimmerman’s acquittal, Garza penned an online letter to the black community saying, “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” Cullors then responded to the post with the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter”. From this post, a new organization and movement was created.

BLM later expanded to become one of the most prominent activist groups during the Ferguson protests in response to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a police officer. Overall, the BLM movement has received both praise and criticism, especially in regards to its tactics, as it continues to spark national conversations on race relations and racial injustice in America.

The movement provokes discussion on the racial inequality that is present in this country. The rise of the BLM movement speaks to the advent of social media where people are able to instantly mobilize around a particular issue, vice president of the Men of Color Alliance Darnell Marescot ’18 said.

“Young people have grown tired of police harassment and brutality that have ended in death,” associate professor of history Derrick White said.

White said social media has allowed people to make connections between events and realize that the state has no respect for African-American lives. Although the counternarrative to this is black-on-black crime, the issue is not simply about intraracial crime. It is about crime from the state, represented by the police force, against black communities. Instances where there is “state-sanctioned death” serve as a “stark” contrast to the Obama era where young people have been told the narrative that racism is over, White said.

Interim associate director of the Academic Skills Center Alphonso Saville said that black student protest related to the BLM movement is part of a historical cycle tied to the violent oppression of black people. In this historical context, the BLM movement is similar to every other “black freedom struggle.” Fundamentally, the black student experience at the majority of universities has been the same since legalized desegregation, he said.

NAACP executive board member Mae Hardebeck ’18 said campus protests related to the BLM movement affirm that students of color at Dartmouth live “inherently different college experiences than other students on campus.”

Campus activist Geovanni Cuevas ’14 said that the current resistance and protest occurring at Dartmouth is part of a strain of activism that has existed since black people have attended this institution. However, Dartmouth does not have “the real BLM movement” that is seen in larger cities because formal activism has been stigmatized at the College, he said.

Last term, Cuevas, along with other members of the Dartmouth community, met with the Winter Carnival Committee to change this year’s theme “The Cat in the Hat Comes to Winter Carnival” to “Snow Justice, Snow Peace,” in order to center the weekend around conversations of racial justice and the safety of students of color on this campus, he said.

This conversation revealed the superficial defense of keeping the current theme — people did not feel it would be fun to have a racial justice theme, Cuevas said.

Although the committee said they were open to modifying the theme to incorporate racial justice, Cuevas said they never received word from them about it. Instead, he said he and a group of students are planning to have a conference sometime this term on issues of racial justice and history of students of the color at the College as a continuation of the “snow justice, snow peace” idea, Cuevas said.

Chinedum Nwaigwe ’19 said she uses her campus radio show, “The Roundtable,” to address national and politicized issues including conversations on racial justice. She said she started the show following the November protest, to give students a platform to discuss polarizing topics and learn from each other’s experiences.

“I wanted people to be able to talk about issues that they shy away from and I wanted to give a voice to people who have been silenced on this campus,” Nwaigwe said.

Dartmouth faculty have also contributed to campus conversations on racial issues with the introduction of a Black Lives Matter course last spring, dedicated to considering race, structural inequality and violence in both a historical and modern context. The course will be offered twice over the next four years.

Geography professor Abigail Neely, who coordinated the BLM course along with English professor Aimee Bahng, said that the course was a great opportunity for this “historically and presently white institution to use its resources to have a sustained conversation about this movement and its broader historical, political, economic and geographical context.”

However, the course was never meant to be a “catalyst,” it was meant to be a part of a larger conversation, she said. The rhetoric of this “Dartmouth bubble” often does not recognize Dartmouth’s ties to other places and the importance of considering those connections and broader implications, Neely emphasized.

At the College, opinions on the BLM movement, its tactics and the actions of student activists in campus protests are divided.

Marescot said it is important to try to put the emotions from protesters in perspective. Emotions in protests, as in BLM protests, result from being in a space where people feel they have no agency. Ultimately, everyone wants to feel that if they have chosen this place and believe in the dream that this institution provides, then this institution should invest in their general safety and active inclusion, Marescot said.

“Emotion comes from the sense that you are no longer invisible, but visible in this group that is asserting their power by expressing their grievances,” he said.

Specifically referencing the allegations of physical and verbal assault by protesters in last November’s Blackout demonstration organized by Dartmouth’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Jack Mourouzis ‘18 said that it is difficult for many students to support a movement that receives so much negative press.

Joshua Kotran ’18 said that clear incidents of racism and discrimination were committed by protesters, which undermines the movement’s objectives. Even if protesters do not think that their comments were racist or discriminatory, other people are seeing those comments and forming their opinions of the BLM movement based off of those comments, Kotran said.

Kotran said that he does not agree with some of the events that sparked the BLM movement, but he does believe that there is a broader national issue of racial inequality with data supporting it, especially regarding the criminal justice system.

However, the BLM movement has been “overextrapolated” on the collegiate level, he said. Although discrimination exists at Dartmouth and on other college campuses, it is not always easy to see what the particular concerns of campus BLM activists are, he said.

“I think that if members of the Black Lives Matter movement were more open to productive dialogue and more specific when voicing their grievances, we could make significant strides towards improving race relations at Dartmouth,” Kotran added.

For Mourouzis, the movement follows a “very heavy-handed ideology” that does not facilitate open discourse or acknowledge other perspectives, which generally leads to an “us versus them” mentality, he said.

Mourouzis also said that he does not that think that protests at Dartmouth have the same “merit” as protests in larger cities because we all are in “the Dartmouth bubble” and are privileged to be here.

Nwaigwe said although she believes that everyone is privileged to attend this institution, the notion that racism does not exist once black people have earned their entrance into a “white space” is one of the “largest misconceptions of our society.”

Broadly looking at the commonalities in the list of demands of students at many universities, Saville said that the main stated goals are the desire for greater representation of underrepresented groups in faculty and staff and wanting significant financial contribution towards the “creation of intellectual and physical space on college campuses that promote healthy and intellectual engagement with black culture and history.”

“The need or appropriateness of the Black Lives Matter movement is substantiated by its presence here,” Saville said. “If black students feel that the spirit of the movement, the goal of the movement, and the values of the larger movement speak to or reflect part of their experience here at Dartmouth then that justifies the need for its existence.”

Campuses across the nation have become “fertile ground for activism” because students are tired of the administration’s crisis management responses to racial issues on campus, Nwaigwe said.

White said part of the activism also comes from frustration from the unfulfilled expectations of an inclusive culture that Dartmouth and other universities have sold to its students. Underrepresented minorities are expected to assimilate into these norms while the mainstream culture is not expected to do anything or to ever be made uncomfortable, he said.

“The reason there is protest is because there has not been any institutional will to implement those goals, despite there being a lot of rhetoric about diversity and inclusivity,” White said. “These institutions will continue to face protest because the language, the rhetoric and the reality don’t mesh.”

Ultimately, the changes at Dartmouth must start from the “top-down”, Cuevas said. Until people at the higher echelons of the College leadership can address and explain the systemic challenges of students of color with the appropriate language, he said he cannot expect the average Dartmouth student to engage and understand the concerns of students of color.

To improve the effectiveness of campus activism and engage more of the Dartmouth community, there should be more open discourse on racial issues, Mourouzis said. In the past, discussions and protests seemed to create “a hostile atmosphere for conflicting opinions,” Mourouzis said. Currently, people do not feel comfortable calling into question many of the issues the BLM movement is brings up, he added.

Marescot said that past panels on diversity relating to the BLM movement have been hostile to contradictory perspectives.

He said everyone wants control and agency, and for many white students, these protests and discussions may have been the first time that they did not have control over their environment, which can be a very scary experience.

Marescot said students who care to engage in these conversations, but feel uncomfortable in attending these discussions or participating in protests, should attend Afro-American Society events and interact more with black students and black culture. However, it is a “fundamental problem within itself,” if students do not wish to engage, Marescot said.

White said many students at the College try to find ways not to engage. He said Dartmouth’s “ethos” is that one comes to the woods to endure peace and partying before starting your career and no one wants to disturb that. Activism upsets that ethos and “placid culture,” White said.

He said campus activists have tried to have discussions and meetings on these same issues since 1965. Students run out of patience of having these discussions and many feel that protest and direct action are the only way that their voices can be heard, White said.

Referencing a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail,” Nwaigwe said that the “white moderate” feels it can dictate for the black community the time and manner that they can address racial inequality issues. BLM co-founder Opal Tometi has also referred to King’s quote to say that the BLM movement has run out of patience with working in the existing structure of politics and the “acceptance of order at the expense of justice.”

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