Participating in a national movement concerning police brutality and racial profiling, more than 200 students, faculty and community members gathered in the center of the Diag Wednesday afternoon for a “die-in” protest, mirroring demonstrations across the country.
For 45 minutes, protesters lay silently on the ground in front of the Hatcher Graduate Library to represent part of the 4.5 hours Brown’s body was left on the street after his death.
The event was initially organized by three University freshmen who are not students of color. Final implementation and planning for the event was completed by the University’s chapters of the Black Student Union and NAACP at the students’ request. The Black Law Students Association and the Department of African and Afroamerican Studies also supported the event, according to the description on Facebook.
Similar protests have occurred in cities and on campuses across the country in recent weeks, prompted by a Missouri grand jury’s decision in November not to indict a white Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Black teenager Michael Brown. The protests were heightened by a second grand jury’s December decision not to indict a New York police officer following the death of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by the officer.
Kinesiology junior Cap Kendall, BSU secretary, thanked participants prior to the start of the die-in, which was accompanied by some particularly frigid weather.
“It is cold out here, and you’re still here,” Kendall said. “Which shows that you sympathize with me, and for that, I appreciate each and every one of you.”
Kendall told participants that they were allowed to come and go as they pleased. Though not everyone stayed for the duration of the protest, for each person that left, another joined.
“Even though Michigan has its issues, you cannot say that at any time on our campus that there’s not some type of student protest making national headlines,” Kendall said after the protest. “We are always one of the leaders at the forefront trying to make a difference for a different community. And I think that today just manifested that. It showed exactly why we are the leaders and best.”
Roughly 1,600 people joined the Facebook event, but LSA junior Imani Gunn, BSU political actions chair, said the number of attendees was not the only measure of accomplishment.
“Over the past few weeks, it’s been hard for me as a Black woman, just seeing everything that’s going on, and so it’s been a frustrating time,” Gunn said. “I’ve felt hopeless at times, helpless at times. And so seeing this today was just like a bright light.”
“If someone feels how we feel, and feels like it deserves their time of day, during finals week at that, in the cold, then I’m happy,” she added.
Wednesday’s protests are not the first campus events to focus on police brutality and the grand jury cases in the past few weeks. The demonstrations followed a rally last month, another die-in protest at the Law Quadrangle last week and a vigil at the Ross School of Business Tuesday.
A separate die-in protest also occurred Wednesday afternoon. In the Chemistry Building, the Black Medical Association held two consecutive “white coat die-in” events. The protests were 4.5 minutes each, and also protested police brutality.
University Medical School student Jasmyne Jackson said it is important for the medical community to get involved in this issue.
“This is not just a law enforcement issue,” Jackson said. “This is a public health issue. This is an American issue. (This regards) the devaluing of the Black body.”
Similar white coat die-in events were held at more than 60 medical institutions across the country, with over 3,000 medical students participating. Though the University participants were entirely medical students, the event took place on Central Campus to engage as many students as possible.
LSA freshman Jessica Liu, who participated in the die-in on the Diag, said she attended to demonstrate solidarity and respect for Brown, Garner and others impacted by similar cases.
“It’s all around the country, and the thing is, there’s so much recurrence that it’s something much larger,” Liu said. “These are not singular cases. Black lives matter. That’s why I’m here, to show solidarity for that cause, for something to be changed in the system.”
Nursing junior Kayla Jones, who also participated, expressed a similar sentiment.
“I don’t do a lot, because people yap on on social networks and do all this stuff, but actually being somewhere and making a point, spreading the word instead of just talking, just jabbering to get attention — this is getting attention in a good way,” she said.
Some attendees carried signs as well. One student touted a poster with a quote from spoken word poet Andrea Gibson that read, “White folks, ‘If you feel no grief, a murderous system owns your humanity.’ ”
Another member of the crowd waved a white flag inscribed with, “Who do you protect?”
Art History Prof. Jennifer Nelson carried a sign that read on one side, “Black lives matter,” and on the other, “Don’t be complicit with evil.”
“I think at a place like this, and what I’ve experienced from teaching here, sometimes it’s hard to know where you fit in if you’re not directly impacted by ‘evil’ events that have happened, like in Ferguson and Staten Island — two examples among many,” Nelson said.
“It’s probably reassuring for people who aren’t directly affected or don’t necessarily know how directly affected they are to know that there’s a way to not be complicit and to show solidarity with resistance,” she added. “Hopefully this is just the beginning of something.”
After the die-in portion of the protest, several speakers — University students, alumni and representatives of the NAACP and BSU — addressed the crowd. They spoke on several themes, reading poetry about the experience of being Black in the United States and also encouraging attendees to continue advocacy efforts beyond Wednesday’s events.
Gunn noted after the protest that Black students were outnumbered on the Diag, but added that the volume of attendants spoke to the strength of their plight.
“Obviously, and as I expected, Black people were a minority in this because Black people are a minority on this campus,” Gunn added. “But it was so important to me to see those allies — other minorities and white people — who aren’t necessarily directly affected by it that still sympathized with the movement.”
Kendall said the protest provided a glimpse of larger efforts to come in the near future. She said the BSU has discussed several issues on the University level, including potential changes to the Race & Ethnicity requirement.
“I think we’re on the verge of another civil rights movement,” Kendall said. “And it’s extremely hard to think about, because my great-grandmother lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and she’d tell me about all the stuff that she went through and now I’m sitting there like, ‘This is happening to me. In 2014. This is crazy.’ And I’m excited to see what the future holds, and I’m glad that we’re all making strides to make a better tomorrow for everyone. Because even though there are Black and brown people being killed, a lot of these issues aren’t Black and brown issues.”
Daily Staff Reporter Irene Park contributed to this report.
The story has been updated to include additional interviews from event participants and reporting from the demonstration sponsored by University medical students.