On Monday night, Cemex Auditorium was filled with students for a panel discussion about Michael Brown and the events that happened in Ferguson, Missouri, over the summer surrounding his death. The panelists included hip-hop artists and activists David Banner and Tef Poe, Missouri state senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal and television personality and educator Marc Lamont-Hill.
The event was sponsored by the Black Community Services Center, the Stanford African and African-American Studies program, the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, the Stanford Black Student Union (BSU) and the Stanford NAACP.
Student groups and organizations on Stanford’s campus have been in talks about planning this panel since the summer. Michael Brown’s death occurred on August 9, and as soon as it happened there was an uproar in communities around the country. Even at Stanford, discussions about Ferguson have been taking place all school year.
The BSU worked with the NAACP to launch a social media campaign to raise awareness about the events in Ferguson. They took photographs of black Stanford students standing in front of iconic Stanford locations like the Hoover Tower, the claw fountain, and Green Library, to name a few, all with their hands up in a “Don’t Shoot” position, with the text “#BlackLivesMatter” overlaid on each picture. A slideshow of all of these pictures, in addition to slides containing pictures, names and ages of black Americans shot unarmed at the hands of police officers, was displayed at the start of Monday’s panel. The entire audience fell silent as they watched the presentation.
“Even though we attend such a beautiful school, we’re aware of the injustices that are happening in America,” said Jessica Reed ’15, co-president of the Stanford BSU. “Our degree does not protect us from these injustices.”
There was also an event on October 17 called “Black Plaza,” a yearly tradition at Stanford, although this year, organizers passed out T-shirts bearing the slogan “Survival is political,” in reference to Ferguson.
During the day on Monday, October 27, student organizers conducted a protest called “Moral Monday” to raise awareness about Michael Brown’s death and encourage student turnout for the panel that evening. Protesters stood all around the Circle of Death in a “disruptive demonstration” outside the clock tower, obstructing large parts of the street and holding signs that bore messages like “Slow Down for Michael Brown” and “No Justice, No Peace,” forcing bikers to slow down and take notice as they went through the roundabout. There were also protesters handing out flyers announcing and explaining the panel.
“The point of this was to make sure that Stanford students were interrupted in their day to day lives, as is what occurs when someone gets killed,” said Tianay Pulphus ’15, president of Stanford’s NAACP chapter and organizer of the protest.
The protesters stood for four and a half hours, the same amount of time Michael Brown’s body was left on the street after he was shot. Many reacted positively to the demonstration, but others were not so receptive.
“We’ve had a few incidents where people have been hostile,” Pulphus said. But student organizers were not put off by any detractors.
“We don’t expect everyone to understand or get it,” Pulphus explained, adding that the primary purpose of the demonstration was not to convince people who disagreed with the protest, but to promote active and engaged turnout for the panel.
Both the NAACP and the BSU encourage Stanford students to not just be aware of these issues, but to actively work to produce change. According to Reed, that can be as simple as just reaching out into the larger community. “I think sometimes we learn the most just by sharing our stories,” she said. “Being able to bridge gaps that way is a really impactful way to inform students who may not have been well-versed in these issues.”
The other co-president of the BSU, Shelby Sinclair ‘15, added that as a university, Stanford offers unique and unparalleled abilities to get involved with the issue of race through academics.
“We have an incredible ethnic studies program, a very robust African and African-American course offering, a very robust CSRE offering, and so many other courses that deal with intersections,” she said. “Finding ways to explore these topics can be a great way to help you understand your peers or understand some of the struggles that people face on a day-to-day basis.”
Pulphus also emphasized that Michael Brown’s death isn’t the first issue of its kind, but is representative of more deaths and larger systemic problems.
“This has been going on for hundreds of years,” Sinclair said.
Reed added that social media was an important tool in exposing the events in Ferguson and making Michael Brown’s death into a national issue, which does not always happen with other such incidents.
“I think people have more agency in terms of voicing their opinions about this issue,” Reed said.
Sinclair agreed, saying, “If you really frame social media as media, and think about the ways that people are putting their opinions out there, and the support that they garner, and the attention that people are able to get, I think it is something more powerful than we dismiss it as.”
Another reason Sinclair felt that Michael Brown’s death had become so pervasive throughout the country was due to his young age.
“I think a lot of activists and a lot of people who are very interested and invested in this issue have noted that the face of the movement is not just adults, but also children, high school students, and college students,” she said. “A lot of the people who were involved have pointed out that our children and our young people are hurting.”
The event at Cemex on Monday evening, which began with a spoken word performance from students in the BSU, IDA, NAACP, and the BSCS, followed by the panel Q&A, also moved the issue of Ferguson beyond one death. Tef Poe spoke about the deaths of other young black Americans at the hands of cops since Michael Brown’s, including another killed in St. Louis in the last week. Lamont-Hill also expanded the topic beyond Michael Brown, speaking more generally about police brutality as directed towards African-Americans, and how to battle it with a “reimagined resistance.”
“Do we want ‘hands up, don’t shoot,’ to be our moniker?” he exclaimed, the crowd murmuring in agreement. “Let’s not lose sight of resistance.”
Among other topics were issues of privilege, class and gender, and how that tied into injustice as a whole, especially in a racial context. But the common thread between each topic was the necessity of getting involved to make a change; the eradication of what Tef Poe referred to as the “casual revolution” in which people are aware that something is wrong, but do nothing about it.
The panelists believed that their audience that night had the power to do more.
“You know what your mission is,” Lamont-Hill said. “You choose whether to fulfill or betray it.”
For many attendees, the discussion was provocative, engaging, and ultimately eye-opening. The panel ended with a standing ovation.
“I was surprisingly ignorant about the topic,” said BSU member Gabby Daso ’18 as to why she attended. “I was lit up like the damn sun, forget the light bulb.”
Correction: The spoken word performance was from students in the BSU, IDA, NAACP, and the BSCS.