Student demonstrations and faculty forum engage with Ferguson tension
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Racial tensions in the United States were thrust into campus dialogue yesterday when a number of students held a silent demonstration before and after chapel. Demonstrators hoped to promote discussion about the recent deaths of African American men Eric Garner and Michael Brown in skirmishes with white police officers.
The student-led protest also aimed to promote a forum co-hosted by the Provost’s Office and the Office of Student Life, which took place later that evening in the Founder’s Room.
So many students attended, that forum was standing-room only.
Around 10 a.m., demonstration coordinators Julianna Carlson and Olivia Heath, both fourth-years, shared their vision for the protest as they sorted through pre-made posters on the lawn in front of Murchison Gym.
“I want to be very clear about this: I am not doing this because of a political issue. This, for me, is not about partisan politics at all. It’s a human issue,” said Carlson.
“This is so uncommon for Westmont,” she continued. “I think it’s good to set an example for action and not being apathetic.”
Both coordinators expressed the need for more student-initiated activism on campus and awareness of national and global issues.
“By not involving faculty [with this demonstration], we make this a student movement,” added Heath. “We really want to encourage our peers here at Westmont to care about racial injustice, and justice at large in our society. We don’t want it to seem like it’s something that’s coming from the professors.”
Heath continued to contextualize her rationale for being a part of the demonstration. “I think that it relates to Christian history and evangelical history in this country,” she said. “It’s seen that we are supposed to proclaim the gospel, meaning that Jesus Christ died for our sins. [But] not larger societal change. But from the Bible, we can see that God does care about what our society looks like. And so, we want that feeling that the gospel doesn’t include societal change to shift toward activism and speaking for justice on our campus.”
The demonstration began at 10:15 a.m. as students began to file in to chapel. Roughly 20 demonstrators held signs and passed out flyers explaining the purpose of the protest. Signs read slogans associated with the national movement in protest of Garner and Brown’s deaths, including “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words uttered by Garner before his death.
Campus Pastor Ben Patterson reacted positively to the demonstration, emerging from the gym several minutes after students picked up their signs. He nodded and gave students a thumbs up as he stepped up to the lawn.
“I appreciate what you guys are doing,” Patterson said. “I’ll be saying a prayer in chapel.” True to his word, Patterson addressed the demonstration in the service a few minutes later.
“I’m so thankful for the demonstrators this morning,” he said from behind the pulpit. “Thank you guys for standing up and reminding us of some things that we need to pay attention to. Your love for justice is an inspiration to me, as it should be for all of us.”
Later that evening, The Founder’s Room filled to the brim with students, faculty and staff for a forum titled “Seeking Understanding Together.”
Featured panelists were Sociology Department Chair Felicia Song, College Counsel Toya Cooper, Communications professor Greg Spencer, and former Armington Resident Director Joshua Canada, now of the United Way.
Students resorted to crowding in the back of the room sitting on the floor between round tables and scattered chairs to hear the panelists’ comments.
Edee Schulze, Assistant Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students, began the event with a chronology of the violent protests in Ferguson, Mo. that took place after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. A grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for Brown’s death on Nov. 24, sparking fervent protests that evening across the nation, some of them violent.
Provost Mark Sargent then moderated the discussion. He asked general questions to the panel, followed by written questions from the audience.
General themes included the reconciliation of racialized America within evangelical Christianity.
“I like how we talked about the issue at large rather than about each individual case,” said first-year attendee Cole Newcomb. “Each professor had their own view. I thought that was enlightening.”
Panelist Felicia Song equated the conversation on race in America to: "that awkward family meeting, where everyone is just sitting there and knows what happened, but no one wants to talk about it. And it's just awkward."
She continued, "There are histories and brokenness between people."
Song further referred students to a work called “Divided By Faith” by Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson, which discusses evangelical tendencies towards individuality as a barrier in church unity across races in the United States.
Canada and Cooper offered valuable insight into the African American experience and the effects of Ferguson on their lives.
Cooper wondered aloud: "I wonder if this is another watershed moment that we may miss...we have conversations about [race], but I wonder if we'll talk about it differently now."
Spencer, a white professor, admitted to feelings of helplessness and alienation as a white male. "How can suburban whites begin to understand what's happening and how to respond?" he said.
As one who did not have much exposure to diversity in his upbringing, Spencer admitted that conversations on race make him immediately think: "I've got a lot to learn."
First-year attendee Sean Hughes commented: “I identified a lot with Dr. Spencer, being white and feeling like I don’t really know where my place is [in the conversation].”
After the event, students had mixed feelings about the discussion that took place.
“I wanted to see what the professors had to say and how it was going to be handled by the school. I had the urge to gain more perspectives for the whole situation. It just seemed like the natural thing to do,” said Newcomb. He left the event feeling confident that he had gained such perspectives.
Third-year Sarah Gowing felt differently. “I was disappointed that there was really only side presented,” she said. “Although I agreed with what they said, I wish that they could have chosen panelists who disagreed with each other so that we students could watch how Christians can disagree with love and respect.”
Gowing, an active member of Intercultural Programs and participant in the morning’s demonstration, critiqued the school’s general approach to controversy on campus. She called for engagement with all views present, not only those that agree with one another.
“Westmont needs to improve how we address controversial issues, both in that we need to discuss them more often, as well as acknowledge that not everyone agrees,” she concluded.
The Horizon will continue coverage of this development as it unfolds in the Spring Semester.