After finishing a mock job interview on the afternoon of Nov. 24, History graduate student Austin McCoy received big news: it was the day the world would know if Darren Wilson would be indicted for killing Michael Brown. McCoy and his interviewer, Associate Prof. Matthew Countryman, along with other faculty and graduate students, quickly pulled together a student viewing of the announcement. Their hope was to give students both a place to watch and a way to understand the historical context of Ferguson’s upheaval — a topic McCoy had spoken about before.
“My first four years, I would consider myself, you know, just a successful grad student,” McCoy said, reflecting on his motivation to get involved as a student activist. “And then Trayvon Martin happened.”
The decision not to indict Wilson brought familiar deflation for McCoy, who felt himself profoundly changed when Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was found not guilty in 2013.
“Many of us are only one cop or one vigilante away from becoming a hashtag,” McCoy said. “It’s like, OK, I don’t have any choice right now but to get involved, because it’s that serious.”
Serious is certainly one way to describe McCoy’s work: a combination of grassroots organizing, racial justice education, and potentially groundbreaking research on Midwestern cities in the seventies and eighties.
But if the urgency of these topics has hardened McCoy at all, you wouldn’t get that from talking to him. Dressed in a purple sweater, shiny blue tie, and pristine white Nikes, McCoy often wears the kind of bright color that his consistent smile and loud laugh bring to a conversation. McCoy has the confidence of a man six years into his Ph.D., and the unabashed optimism of an activist.
At the University, McCoy’s scholarship, organizing, and personality have commanded the respect of both students and faculty, engaging in wide-ranging work but rarely advertising it. McCoy has been a key voice in the United Coalition for Racial Justice, which last year organized an all night speak out on issues of race, attended by almost 1,000 students. Along with #BBUM, the UCRJ has shifted both the conversation on campus and the attitude of the administration when it comes to race.
“The reason people have so much respect for his leadership in the community is he never extends beyond his role,” said Countryman, who also co-chairs McCoy’s dissertation committee. “He’s trying to bring voices that are not his own into the process. The irony of it is he gets propelled further into leadership because he’s so principled about not reaching beyond where he stands.”
This year, McCoy has been at the center of students organizing against racial profiling and police violence, the reverberations of his and others’ work being felt throughout Ann Arbor.
On the night of the grand jury announcement, McCoy sat in silence with others watching President Barack Obama speak, a split screen showing tear gas pour into the streets of Ferguson. Earlier that fall, McCoy marched through those same streets, a helicopter overhead. The next night, he felt himself back in Ferguson, hearing the propellers of a helicopter as he faced a massive crowd on the Diag.
“I remember just looking up, and I couldn’t see anything but people,” McCoy said, recalling his speech at that night’s march. “I had done a lot of public speaking, I had never spoken at a march or anything like this, with this many people.”
Blending his scholarship and activism, McCoy told the crowd that the decision felt like a provocation for action, that the failures of the justice system were not independent of America’s other debts.
“I remember as soon as I was finished, I just started crying, I was just bawling,” McCoy said. A grin came on his face, and he laughed describing how he fell into the arms of a nearby protester. “I was done … emotionally I was just spent.”
But he wasn’t alone.
Hundreds of demonstrators shut down the streets of Ann Arbor, the march propelling the activist group Ann Arbor to Ferguson. Naturally, McCoy has been involved there as well, raising awareness about local policing issues like the shooting of Ann Arbor resident Aura Rosser.
Somehow, McCoy has found time to work on his dissertation, which he hopes to complete by next winter. His studies focus on the economic decline of cities during the seventies and eighties and the response by progressive activists. Countryman believes the research will be “a major contribution to the history of the 20th century in the Midwest.”
And what comes next for Mccoy?
“Any predictions would be limiting,” Countryman, his professor and interviewer, said.
McCoy said he plans to enter the job market sometime next year, with a tenure track position as his top priority. But, McCoy pivoted with a laugh, “I don’t know if I will ever not be able to be an organizer or an activist.”