More than 1,000 students and community members gathered in solidarity on the Diag Tuesday night following a grand jury decision Monday not to charge a Ferguson, Missouri police officer with the August shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.
The vigil, which occurred in conjunction with events across the country, was intended to create a space for healing as well as increase awareness of the case and broader issues on race relations nationwide.
Student organizers said they hoped to hold a vigil for Michael Brown and others that have been subject to police violence across the nation. Student organizations supporting the vigil included the Black Student Union, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality and the Student Union of Michigan.
LSA sophomore Noor Ahmad, an event organizer, said she saw the situation as an opportunity to inspire discussion and catalyze change.
“Since so many people feel so helpless in these kinds of situations, we wanted to have an open, peaceful forum for people to talk about it and to come together as a community to do something,” Ahmad said. “People are so upset, and this is something to get everyone even more fired up to really want to make a change.”
The grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson followed three months of heightened tensions in Ferguson. The decision drew crowds near the city’s police station, where thousands of people gathered peacefully. Despite calls for calm by the county prosecutor and President Barack Obama, arson and looting damaged local businesses as the night went on. By the end of the night, law enforcement reported at least 61 arrests.
Movements to address race relations and campus climate are not unfamiliar to the campus community. The University’s Black Student Union and the organization By Any Means Necessary have held events and protests in recent months, largely in response to stagnant minority enrollment at the University.
LSA junior Imani Gunn, BSU political actions co-chair, said the discussion of Brown’s death goes beyond issues of race.
“I think it’s really important to make people aware of the Mike Brown decision,” Gunn said. “It is our goal to make sure people know we are not OK with this decision. Our voices need to be heard, and I think if you want to look at it as a race thing you can, but also as a human rights thing. Someone deserves to be held responsible, so I think that’s why a lot of people are finding a personal reason to be involved in this cause, no matter their race.”
Members of the BSU also painted the rock at the corner of Washtenaw Avenue and Hill Street Tuesday afternoon black with red letters reading “Black lives matter” and “Be the change.”
LSA senior Geralyn Gaines, BSU vice speaker, said organizers hoped to draw attention to the Brown case.
“I think our reason for painting the rock tonight was the first step in trying to raise awareness around campus and how those repercussions will effect our day to day interactions with one another on campus,” she said. “Looking back to the Trayvon Martin trial, for this to happen again is really crazy at this point.”
The group later marched to Ann Arbor City Hall, blocking traffic on East Liberty Street.
Community members in attendance chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “These racists cops have got to go.” Ypsilanti resident Tony Morgan spoke to the crowd, saying justice must come from the people, and it is their voices and actions only that have the power to change institutions.
“We have to get the blood off of our hands,” he said. “We have to understand that this is about human rights. It’s 2014, and we still don’t have equal rights. Some of you understand that there is a chance the system may not work for you some day, and it’s not just the cops, because they are just the ones on the ground. They are doing the dirty work, but a lot of the time, those victims look a lot like me and you. For every Mike Brown and Treyvon, there are a thousand more.”
Attorney General Eric Holder has initiated a federal investigation, despite the grand jury’s decision, and the Justice Department is nearing a decision on whether to press federal charges.