Students Walk Out for Ferguson

By Joe Flaherty

Students, faculty and staff walked out of classrooms and offices on Monday, Dec. 1 to stand in solidarity with Ferguson, Mo. in light of the recent grand jury decision not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The crowd of approximately 100 people gathered in front of Mead Chapel to listen as Rubby Valentin Paulino ’18 read the names of victims of police brutality, including Brown, Tamir Rice and others.

Paulino said, “1,100 miles. 1,100 miles away a black boy was murdered. 1,100 miles from Ferguson, here we stand. 1,100 miles away from Ferguson, here I stand. Just as brown, just as young, just as dangerous to America.”  After a moment of silence, the crowd raised their hands in the now-famous “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture.

The walkout took place at 1:01 p.m. and occurred in conjunction with other walkouts happening on college and university campuses across the country at 12:01 p.m. Central Time, the time Brown was shot. A week before the walkout, on Nov. 24, a Missouri grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. The jury’s decision was the impetus for the demonstrations across the country on Monday.

The mood was somber throughout the event; however, smiles broke out at one point, when Paulino told the attendees to hug the person standing next to them.  

“Take the time to look at those around you. Come on, give someone a hug! These are your friends and allies,” Paulino said. “Look to each other for places of comfort and unity. Look to each other for change. We can rewrite our own history and you being here today gives me no doubt about it.”  

The walkout on the College campus comes amidst several other events designed to facilitate discussion and raise awareness of the issues in play with the Ferguson decision.  On Oct. 22, over 50 students and several faculty members walked across campus in a silent march against police brutality to mark the National Day to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation, which held particular significance given August’s events in Ferguson. On Nov. 25, Assistant Professor of Sociology Jamie McCallum and Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Rebecca Tiger held a discussion on the grand jury decision in the Brown case.  

“The discussion on the 25th was to allow people space and time to allow people to share their visceral feelings about the non-indictment verdict. There was no agenda planned,” McCallum said. “Many more people came than we anticipated and we had a good discussion. At the end of it there was some productive planning that happened, but ultimately it was a meeting to come and share thoughts and sentiments.”

Although the walkouts on Monday were the initiative of the national Ferguson Action Network, the event held at the College was not a part of any student organization. Paulino said the event emerged organically. Thanksgiving break did not leave much time for reflection on the grand jury decision, according to Paulino, and he wanted students to have a chance to mark the occasion upon their return to campus from break.

“I wanted to do more for my community,” he said.

Word quickly spread through social media over the weekend. “I invited 10 people and by the end of Sunday night there were 800 invites and 150 people who RSVP’d, so that was powerful,” Paulino said. “The most powerful part for me was watching people put their hands up. I directed everyone to use the time to reflect, look around and be in that space.” He said asking attendees to hug was intentional to emphasize the human interaction and collaboration needed for any movement or activism.

Paulino said the members of the College community who attended were not just students, which came as a surprise but a happy one nonetheless. “I walked up to the scene and basically thought, ‘Oh my God, there are adults here,’” he said.

A challenging and sobering part for Paulino prior to the event was sorting through the list of black victims of police brutality to create a list to read in front of Mead Chapel.

“There were a lot, and how do you pick which names to use?” Paulino said. “There is a sea of people. There is a website that lists black murders by police and specifies that they were unarmed cases — they update it every time somebody dies.”  

Rod Abhari ’15 said he would not typically attend a walkout or protest, but that the events surrounding the Michael Brown decision made Monday’s event different.

“I realized that joining people here in solidarity is important for my own spiritual sake, realizing that we as a part of something larger can take action into our hands,” Abhari said.

He approached his professor to inform her of the walkout beforehand and was surprised by the response.

“When I talked to my professor about it, she actually proposed it to the class and our entire class walked out, a seminar class of 10 people,” he said.

Another walkout attendee, Aashna Aggarwal ’16, said that as an international student, the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown showed a different side of the U.S.  

“When I first heard about the decision, I was really shocked — I’m from India and every time we talk about or hear about the U.S., it is the country where you want to be or the country that’s got it right,” she said. “I went to the meeting on Tuesday, and then I went to Burlington for the protest. I feel this is something we can change and have an effect on. I’m happy to show my support in whatever way I can.”  

David Fuchs ’16 attended the walkout and said that he wanted to be there because he fit the typical demographic of the College’s student population.  

“I’m a white kid from the suburbs from an upper-middle class family, and I feel that everything about my identity and my life experiences is built on a historical system of privilege and oppression that has created the spaces that I’ve lived in and created the reality that I was told to see. I feel that that reality is just as implicated as any other in this struggle,” he said. “So it’s important for someone like me to be here because it shows to other people who might identify with me and my demographic that they are just as implicated in this, too.”

When asked if the death of Michael Brown had opened eyes to police brutality for college students, McCallum said, “I think a lot of people grow up believing that we live in a place in which police aren’t allowed to kill people and get off without a trial, and that’s not true. I think students experience a moment of cognitive dissonance when they grow up thinking we live in a democracy, and this seems like an instance of failed democracy — what does it mean for them as students, American citizens, and young people interested in social justice?” 

McCallum was not teaching a course at the time of the walkout, but said he talked to several faculty members who, like Abhari’s professor, gave permission for their students to attend the walkout.  

A walkout’s significance, according to McCallum, comes from the disruption to the normal routine, whether one is an employee or a student. “The way people have power is to withhold their contribution to society, whatever that is. If you’re a worker, it means withholding your labor. If you’re a student, it means withholding your obedience or the ordinary course of your day to promote business as usual,” he said. “A walkout is a disruption of the ordinary life that is otherwise apathetic. And as a disruption, therefore, it has some power.”

The discussions will continue with a Ferguson deliberation event on Thursday, Dec. 4 at 4:30 p.m in the Warner Hemicycle to plan future action on campus.

“We began this semester with the tragedy of the shooting. We end the semester with the tragedy of the non-indictment and the ongoing police violence in Ferguson,” McCallum said. “So I think and hope this forum on Thursday will be to help people process the last three months of the issue.”