Unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in daylight by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. on August 9. In the days that followed, the tragedy evoked an onslaught of riots and protests within the Ferguson community and throughout the country. Many people viewed the incident as a manifestation of the racial inequalities prevalent in the United States today.
The USF community has been reacting to what happened in Ferguson through a series of different events. The Intercultural Center held a student-led discussion regarding police brutality on August 26. The event, titled “What Do You Talk About When You Talk About Ferguson,” intended to provide a space for students to gather and process their initial reactions after Michael Brown’s death and the events in Ferguson.
While the organizers of the event had hoped to attract roughly 30 students, the event packed the UC 4th floor with over 85 students.
“On one level it was exciting to see so many USF students engaged in a topic that they were passionate about,” said Alejandro Covarrubias, assistant director for the Intercultural Center, “and on another level it was really saddening because it felt [like] people were moved to participate because they were filled with such heavy emotions. I think we could all feel the heaviness in the room.”
Taylor Heath, USF’s Black Student Union (BSU) president, opened the dialogue by offering all concerned students a safe space at BSU to discuss and explore the larger injustices surrounding the issue. As students went around the room sharing their thoughts and personal experiences, they seemed to agree that Michael Brown’s death was a product of a highly normalized and institutionalized discrimination against African American males.
Various students pointed out that these injustices occur regularly not just to African Americans, but to a plethora of underrepresented populations in the United States. “Police brutality is not just a black issue, it affects the trans[gender] community and the Latino community all the time,” said Heath.
The Ferguson-inspired event was the first of many from the USF community. During the Involvement Fair, students held a moment of silence for Michael Brown.
About 50 people, mostly faculty and staff and some students, gathered in Privett Plaza at noon on Wednesday, September 3 for a memorial vigil was held for Michael Brown. The event, organized by the University Ministry, Intercultural Center, and Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach office, featured several moving speakers, such as Fr. Fitzgerald, Covarrubias, Michael Bell, Ja’Nina Walker, and students.
A student-led forum was held on September 4 after a Black Community Council Welcome Reception. Heath, BSU member Bria Temple, and Brother Connection President Neko Milton coordinated the forum in collaboration with African American Studies professors Dr. Candice Harrison and Dr. Ronald Sundstrom.
After a graphic compilation of videos demonstrating instances of police brutality, Milton said, “We’ve had the reflection piece, we’ve had the vigil, and now we need the action piece.”
The attendees, highly charged with emotion, began brainstorming about possible actions that USF students could take. Among many ideas, a new social media campaign was presented aimed at motivating USF students to take an active stand on these issues, and to challenge other Jesuit universities to do the same.
Another idea presented at the forum was to collaborate with USF law students to hold an event on campus aimed at teaching students safety measures that could be taken in the event that they are confronted by law enforcement.
BSU, the Intercultural Center, and other members of the USF community plan to continue to organize around issues of institutionalized racism and police brutality.