As the St. Louis County, Mo. prosecuting attorney announced a grand jury’s decision that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the August death of teenager Michael Brown, about 40 students and University faculty members gathered in Tisch Hall to discuss the issues and watch the live television coverage together.
Martha Jones, co-director of the University Law School’s Program in Race, Law & History and an associate professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, organized the discussion between a panel of experts and students.
“We knew it was likely when the grand jury decision was formed we would want to create a safe place where faculty and staff and visitors could come and be together and continue the conversation,” she said.
In addition to Jones, the panel consisted of Matthew Countryman, an associate professor in the Department of American Culture and the Department of History; Rackham student Austin McCoy, a Ph.D. candidate in history; and Rackham student Kyera Singleton, a Ph.D. candidate in American culture.
After the fatal shooting of Brown, a Black teenager, in August, protests in Ferguson against police brutality drew national attention, conversations about the relationship between race and law enforcement at the University. On Tuesday evening, the decision to not indict Wilson resulted in riots in Ferguson throughout the night and into early Wednesday morning.
The discussion at the University Tuesday night was the second of two meetings. The first took place in October when Jones, McCoy and Singleton returned from visiting Ferguson, where they observed the Ferguson October weekend, an event that gathered people from all over the country traveled to the city to protest against police brutality.
Students said they found out about the event through tweets posted by Jones on Monday morning. She emphasized that these meetings are part of an ongoing conversation.
“What I am most interested in is listening to students,” she said. “One of the things we know about the movement in Ferguson is that it is a youth movement. It was time for us to hear from students.”
Earlier in the night, the group watched Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s press conference. Afterward, questions led to a discussion about the role the grand jury decision will play in the larger context of the protests in Ferguson, as well as the role social media has played and will continue to play in the future of Brown’s case and in shaping culture at the University.
“I’m really proud of us for taking time to talk about something we care about, to do it collectively and to wrestle with what are really hard questions not only with what’s happening in Ferguson, but what this says about the country and where we should go,” Jones said.
The space to promote conversation about the situation from both a legal and social perspective was unique, she said.
Concepts of justice and how individuals find it in the Brown case was a focal point of the discussion.
“We have to stretch ourselves to expand our ideas about where justice is and how we can call it into being. I think that we may not get it from the grand jury today,” Jones said before the announcement was made. “If there is no indictment people will be deprived even further of this sense of justice.”
McCoy, the Ph.d candidate in history, said he felt the need to return to Ann Arbor and start a dialogue after he spent time in Ferguson.
After the group watched the grand jury deliver the announcement, students were silent, reserving four and a half minutes of silence in Brown’s honor. Multiple students bowed their heads and cried.
After the four and a half minutes were over, the room remained silent. After 10 minutes, several students began to share their thoughts with the group. Some cried while they spoke.
Countryman ended the meeting by announcing a vigil on the Diag on Tuesday at 6 p.m. Students made a collective decision to wear black in Brown’s memory.
Before the group departed, one student reminded those in attendance to remain positive and not leave the room with their heads hung low.
“We will keep the conversation going, and look for ways to act,” Countryman said.