Stanford students and faculty came together on Friday to honor the Black lives lost to police brutality and racial violence, call attendees to act against racial injustice and reflect on the strength and resilience within the Black community.
More than 2,500 people tuned into the online vigil as protests continued to spread across the country in the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The campus-wide online vigil was sponsored by the Black Community Services Center (BCSC), Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the Office for Religious Life and Ujamaa, Stanford’s Black theme dorm.
For members of Stanford’s Black community, the past weeks have been especially difficult, as they grapple with lives lost too soon and the community trauma they and their loved ones are facing, in addition to protesting for justice in their communities and finishing the online quarter.
“Racial justice for me as a Black woman is intertwined into every aspect of my life,” said Rosalind Conerly, the associate dean of students and director of the BCSC. “I can never silo this into my home life and my work life. This is common for many of my colleagues on campus and this is why many of us have been even more emotionally exhausted in the past week.”
Conerly encouraged students to visit Stanford’s new Black Lives Matter website, which is being updated with resources to learn about racial justice, places to find emotional support and organizations to donate to.
Students and staff read the names of some of the Black people who had died as a result of police brutality and racial violence: naming Floyd, Taylor and Arbery along with Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and dozens of others. Afterward, Conerly held a moment of reflection for 2 minutes and 23 seconds, symbolizing the date of Arbery’s death, Feb. 23. During this time, she invited participants to type the names of friends and family members who have experienced racial violence and to say these names out loud.
Incoming Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) President Munira Alimire ’22 reminded attendees that Friday would have been Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday. Alimire spent time reading Taylor’s Twitter posts; she said Taylor reminded her of her sister and her cousins.
“When our people become hashtags, the world forgets that they have stories, that they were anything more than their death,” Alimire said. “They were people with families and dreams and so much more. How do we even begin to memorialize them? Just asking for justice for them is not enough.”
ASSU Senate Chair Michael Brown ’22 shared a letter he wrote to his future self, where he included a conversation he had with his mom this past Monday.
“She maybe now understands what I’ve understood since I was a kid, when kids at my high school were calling me Ferguson,” Brown said. “I understand that this country was built on the backs of slaves and anti-Black racism. The forces that we see today have worked since the beginning to maintain systems of racial oppression in this country.”
“There are days on end where I can do nothing but cry as I watch my Black brothers and sisters being killed with no justice,” Brown added. “My work on campus is rooted in justice and community. And the work I do now does not stop when I leave college. Trust me, this is the beginning. We’re here to tear this up.”
Kimya Loder, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, reflected on how her personal response to trauma contrasts what is expected of her as a scholar.
“The strongest urge that I’ve had over the past few weeks is to simply cry and ugly, deep cry,” Loder said. “Nevertheless, I held it in. I tried to be present for classes and research. I tried to stay aware. I tried to find the strength of my ancestors. I remained diligent until I couldn’t anymore, until I broke and had no choice but to come to terms with the rage, despair, depression, hopelessness, helplessness and the lack of purpose that I felt.”
Loder shared the words of Lucille Clifton, who ended her 1969 poem “Won’t you celebrate with me” with the lines “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.”
“I came to the conclusions that if nothing else, I could celebrate my survival, our survival, and though they are lost, embody the spiritual survival of all the Black lives that we mourn,” Loder said. “We celebrate through processing, through actively finding joy and all of its forms through burning, through rebuilding, and finally, through continuing to envision a better future in spite of the past and present.”
Following the student speakers, the organizers played a musical performance by Jessica Anderson ’13, after which Black Stanford faculty members spoke.
“The most deeply hurtful component of what’s going on now is not the pain. I’ve known this pain for a lifetime,” said Bryan Brown, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education. “It is watching young people rediscover and experience the pain that I’ve seen, year after year.”
Brown encouraged students to mentor other students and also connect with mentors to build a strong community. Bryan Thomas, associate director of the EDGE doctoral fellowship in the Office of the Vice Provost for Education, spoke on the recent Black deaths and how they relate to systemic racism.
“We ought not romanticize suffering,” Thomas said. “What we see now is that black people are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Thomas called for change in codified inequalities that disproportionately harm Black people in terms of physical and mental health, unemployment, incarceration and places of power.
“Now is not the time to shrink,” he said. “Keep that same energy, so we can create the world we desperately need.”
CAPS psychologist LaWanda Hill said there is a need for self-care during these times.
“This is not new,” Hill said. “The reason why we’re exhausted is because the reality of it is this is supposed to be a relay … And we’re supposed to be able to pass the baton. So often, we can’t pass the baton, because there is no one to pass it to.”
“My hope is that we’ll have somebody to pass the baton to, but if not, we will often do as we have always done, we will return to the community, we will celebrate our Blackness,” she continued.
To non-Black allies, those wishing to become advocates and allies and those otherwise underinformed, Hill exhorted self reflection and acknowledged the reality of the white supremacy and anti-Blackness this country and this University was built on. She also suggested two resources: “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, as a sociological and historical backdrop to systemic racism in America, and “How to be Anti-Racist” by Ibram Kendi to motivate against complicity to racism.
Jan Barker-Alexander, Ujamaa’s resident fellow and the assistant vice provost of Student Affairs, Centers for Equity, Community, and Leadership, shared closing words for the vigil, offering support for Black students and urging everyone in attendance to think about the history of the University.
“Students, you are not alone,” she said. “I come to you all on this call as a descendent of slaves.”
“As a mother, as a sister, as an auntie, and as a tia, every time someone walks out of our household, even in Palo Alto, we are concerned whether that child will come home,” she added.
Stanford has a history of racism, Barker-Alexander said. She quoted Leland Stanford’s remarks in his acceptance speech as the Republican Party’s gubernatorial candidate in 1859, where Stanford said that he said that he “preferred free white citizens to any other race.” She asked the participants to repeat after her: “White supremacy is alive and well. Racism is systemic. Black brilliance and Black strength scare America to this day.”
“If this made you feel unincluded, please reflect and ask yourself the question, ‘Maybe I might be the problem,’” she said.
To conclude the vigil, Barker-Alexander led the audience in 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, which was how long the police officer pinned his knee into Floyd’s neck before Floyd died. At the end, Barker-Alexander said that Floyd cried for his mother, who had passed away.
“I ask you to think about how long 8 minutes and 46 seconds is,” Barker-Alexander said, before the moment of silence began.