Ferguson and Beyond: What Happened at CLS When the Media Wasn’t Looking

16164716617_4ccd33d30c_kProtesters at the Millions March. Photo by Saundi Wilson // Licensed under CC NC-SA 2.0

At the end of the Millions March protest last December, a group of Columbia Law School students simply kept walking. The streets of New York City had been calm, though filled with a larger and more diverse crowd than at previous protests, as the March’s lead organizers had hoped when they asked for a protest permit. Then, when the police permit no longer covered their route, these CLS students decided to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

As one member of the group, third-year student Nawal Maalouf remembered, police officers at previous protests had repeatedly blared into megahorns and arrested anyone who seemed to be a “ringleader,” even during peaceful demonstrations. On top of that, mainstream media outlets had criticized Columbia students’ actions, including a petition to allow some students to postpone exams. Now, the students were bracing for another round of confrontation.

And horns did sound, this time from the cars they were blocking. But as Nawal turned to see who the protesters were annoying, she saw instead some unexpected supporters.

“People in the cars were smiling at us, giving us high fives,” she said. “It made me really think, ‘the city of New York stands with us.’”

Michael Brown and Eric Garner

When the Ferguson grand jury decided on November 24 not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, waves of shock and outrage swept across the nation. And New York City was no exception.

That night, in Morningside Heights, small but vocal parts of the CLS community immediately joined these national voices to engage with the issue. Some students took to the streets of New York City to join other New Yorkers in the protests that had started immediately after the non-indictment. Others expressed their outrage on social media, in reading groups, in externships and clinics, and in blogs and publications. And by the end of the night, some students invited the CLS community to participate in a protest the next day, by having a day of silence for Michael Brown. The next day, more than 150 students participated by wearing tape over their mouths in the law school.

Although some faculty members and administrators said they would remain neutral, others decided to stand in solidarity with students by participating in the silent protest. Some professors also provided resources that were useful both to the CLS community and those outside the institution. For example, as students and faculty members prepared for Thanksgiving break on the afternoon of November 26, Professors Jeffrey Fagan and Bernard Harcourt posted a thorough fact sheet on grand jury proceedings, in which they stated, “[Q:] What was unusual about the grand jury proceedings in the Michael Brown shooting? [A:] Everything.”

When the CLS community returned from break on December 1, then-Dean Robert Scott and a few faculty members spoke at the Forum on Ferguson, which was organized by several students, faculty members, and administrators to provide a platform for community discussion on the non-indictments. Though many students felt that the Forum had provided an opportunity for students and faculty members to express their views, exchange information, and ask questions, others thought it was not enough.

“A lot was going on in the news, but it didn’t feel like a lot was going on in school,” said third-year student Amy Wang, who helped organize CLS participation in the Millions March.  “We mostly read cases in lectures, and there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the law taught in traditional lecture-style courses and the stories I’ve seen unfold in jails and courts through clinical and externship offerings.  They’re like separate and unequal worlds.” Amy said, however, that many criminal-justice-oriented professors did discuss Ferguson.


Events came even closer to home on December 3, when the Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner.

Protests immediately broke out across New York City, and, again, some CLS students joined in. That night, Nawal, for example, joined some protesters near campus, at 125th Street, where she saw several other CLS students. The police mobilized quickly and threatened to arrest protesters. At first, Nawal questioned whether she should continue protesting, knowing that she had a final exam the following Monday. But before she could come to a decision, the police grabbed someone, threatening arrest, and the protesters dissipated.

Students remained concerned about exams, but they started making bigger commitments for the cause. On campus, some students formed the Coalition of Concerned Students of Color. Students throughout the University, including some CLS students, participated in a die-in during the December 4 tree lighting ceremony on College Walk. Nawal herself joined another protest the day after the non-indictment, this time near Times Square, and got arrested for being a “ring-leader,” even though the protest was peaceful.


On December 5, students in the newly formed Coalition sent an e-mail with the subject line, “EMERGENCY ACTION: Petition to Postpone Exams”. The email described how recent events had been affecting students of color and their pursuit of their legal education: “We have been traumatized over and again by the devaluation of Black and Brown lives […] Recent events have unsettled our lives as students. […] We are now asked to use the same legal maneuvers and language on our exams this Monday that was used to deny justice to so many Black and Brown bodies.”

In correspondence with the Muckraker, Coalition members emphasized that the exam postponement was just one part of larger, ongoing issues. “”These were legal losses, and legal violence,” said Aurra Fellows, a member of the Coalition.  “We wanted the school to acknowledge it and address it, especially for students who … were questioning whether law really could be the transformative tool that it is valorized to be, and students who had been victims of police brutality, or look like the people who tend to get murdered by police.”

In response to the Coalition’s petition, then-Dean Scott sent an e-mail on December 6, listing several ways in which the school would respond to student concerns. Towards the end of the e-mail, Dean Scott said:

The law school has a policy and set of procedures for students who experience trauma during exam period. […] [S]tudents who feel that their performance on examinations will be sufficiently impaired due to the effects of these recent events may petition Dean Alice Rigas to have an examination rescheduled.

The Protests Continue

Throughout the weekend, protests ensued across the city. Residents of all five boroughs marched the streets chanting “I can’t breathe” and even conducted die-ins at venues such as Grand Central station. Later, some activists staged a Royal Shutdown at Barclay’s center, holding signs stating “the whole system is guilty.” These sentiments were echoed throughout the Columbia University community—by Monday, December 8, students were protesting at various locations throughout campus, including the Arthur Diamond law library.

Meanwhile, other New York activists prepared for a city-wide protest that was to occur that weekend, one for which they hoped to draw a larger and more diverse crowd of New Yorkers by obtaining a protest permit: the Millions March. Several students volunteered to spearhead CLS participation in the event–for example, the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA), at Amy’s suggestion, sent out a school-wide call to action for students to stand in solidarity with all communities of color against police brutality and racism by participating in the March.  Throughout the week, more than 180 students RSVP’d to participate. And on Saturday, December 13, the day of the March, dozens of CLS students, faculty members, and administrators, carrying a blue “Columbia Law School” banner, came together with the rest of the city to march the streets in solidarity.

At the center of student activism were concerns about the fairness of the legal system and its implications for the legal profession, even for people who don’t specialize in criminal law. “I don’t think it’s just going to be people who are going to be prosecutors or PDs or police misconduct lawyers,” said Professor Olatunde Johnson. She works on civil rights issues outside of criminal law, but believes that criminal law issues are relevant to many people. “The fairness of the criminal justice system, the use of incarceration, how it links to questions of inequality—I think a lot of students are interested in that.”

CLS in the Limelight

Seeing these many forms of student engagement at CLS, the national media found it all newsworthy for a different reason.

According to some reporters, when Dean Scott sent his December 6 e-mail, he had somehow altered the law school’s trauma policy to cater to what the reporters saw as a whiny group of armchair activists. Fox News, whose online commenters called CLS “Moscow on the Hudson,” posted a news article whose lede said “[t]his won’t prepare them for tough judges, unscrupulous clients or merciless partners at the law firms they hope to work for.” Mainstream publications such as the New York Times joined in, though they sometimes distanced themselves by saying that the policies already existed and that the school’s decision “quickly drew derision from some conservative websites” (emphasis added) rather than their own. But even these moderate reports painted an incomplete picture.

“I spoke to two reporters, one reporter from the New York Times, and to another who writes stories on the Yahoo! website, and had what I thought was a very good discussion with both of them,” Professor Kendall Thomas said. “I read the story in the Times … and my problem was not with the fact that she hadn’t quoted me or referred to me in the story, but that the issues I had raised with her that I thought were important issues for the story were not covered. I had another conversation with a reporter from Yahoo!, and to my knowledge, that story didn’t even get printed.”

According to Professor Thomas, these issues include the real pain that students, and even faculty members, felt because of the killings of Brown and Garner, as well as the prosecutors’ seemingly deliberate decisions not to take action.

As he recalled incidents when he was stopped on campus by police as a Yale Law School student, Professor Thomas said, “I would have been worried, actually, if [CLS students] hadn’t felt trauma, and the notion that somehow it’s reasonable for the institution to expect these students not only to sustain the injury of the legal system to fail to do justice, but also to do violence on themselves to pretend that it has no impact on how they operate as current students and future lawyers, was extremely dispiriting.”

Moreover, Professor Thomas said the media coverage ignored just how common it was for students’ leading emotion to be not trauma, but anger. “It was very hard for [the media] to see or to be willing or able to acknowledge the many creative responses that students, not only at this law school but at law schools and universities throughout the country, fashioned to educate others about our grand jury system, about the prison-industrial complex, about the policing and criminalization of communities of color, and the like,” he said.

Third-year student Chris Wilds took part in some of these responses by participating in a reading group and protesting the non-indictments.  “I was motivated by the desire to see a drastic change in the way that our country’s institutions operate with respect to people of color,” he said. “I hate to limit the need for change to interactions between police and minorities because the issue is much larger in scope; however, recent events involving police officers killing unarmed men and women of color captivated the attention of many people who otherwise might have been able to carry out their lives without ever having to deal with realities that many of us have become accustomed to by the time we reach young adulthood.”

Chris also said that the non-indictments highlighted the need for comprehensive, concerted action. “I could not help but think of Frederick Douglass’ quote that ‘power concedes nothing without demand,’” he said. “I would even add that power probably concedes nothing of substantial value without a very pressing need to do so.”

Even students living away from campus engaged in creative responses. Third-year student (and frequent Muckraker contributor) Tochi Onyebuchi, who has been studying in Paris this year, spoke about how he helped bring the protests there.

“On my Newsfeed were clips and photos of protests in Port Harcourt, Nigeria; London; and many others,” Tochi said. “Paris had been oddly silent, given its historical appreciation of the act of protest, so I and three other American expat students put together a demonstration at Place du Trocadéro. It hadn’t completely registered what we had done until professional photographers from France’s news outlets began showing up to take pictures. We gave speeches, conducted readings and chanted so as to be heard over the entire space. There was a bevy of tourists in the area, and we made the way onto their camera phones and Twitter feeds.”

Third-year student Stephanie Amoako said that media coverage ignored not just the many types of student activism, but also the depth of student commitment. “I don’t know who used the [exam postponement] policy or not, but I did see people pulling all-nighters working for the movement,” she said.  “I spoke to a 1L, who desperately wanted to participate in the protest activities but was torn because of the importance of 1L grades.”

Professors also expressed their support towards the law school’s decision to accommodate some students. “What Dean Scott did was the right decision,” Professor Daniel Richman said. “He said, ‘Our policy stands,’ and it’s a sensible policy.” Professor Jamal Greene agreed, and pointed out that law school exams are scheduled arbitrarily and have always been rescheduled in response to events in students’ lives.

Stephanie and Professor Greene also addressed the media argument that legal work cannot be rescheduled in a non-academic context. Stephanie said that “[p]ostponing an exam is not akin to postponing a legal filing or court date, which lawyers do all the time anyway for ‘important’ reasons such as vacation.” Professor Greene also said that deadlines and meetings are often rescheduled in legal practice and that, more importantly, law schools have a pedagogical responsibility to make sure that students are learning the material.

As Professor Richman said, “we’re not the outside world … we’re a community that cares about one another and makes allowance for outside commitments.”

There were also positive aspects to some of the media coverage. “At the end of the day, most of the coverage I saw was respectful,” Professor Johnson said. She gave both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal stories credit for their balanced and non-inflammatory tone, and said that a local Fox station (not Fox News) covered the issue well.

Even as the law school community came under fire, many students kept perspective. For example, Stephanie saw the protests as “an opportunity to stand up and fight against the ways that black lives—mine included—are devalued in our society. … [C]oming from a place of privilege, at Columbia Law School, I wanted to make a statement of solidarity with less privileged members of our society and say, ‘what happens to you, happens to me. What concerns you, concerns me.’”

Moving Forward: Continued Conversations and New Initiatives

In the new semester, students have stayed engaged. In addition to protests and reading groups, they have participated in teach-ins, taught at Riker’s Island, and have continued to participate in clinics, externships, and legal observation. Students have also been showing more interest in critical race theory.

Dean of Student Services Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin said that reading groups can be a particularly powerful opportunity for students who wish to continue engaging with social justice issues. In these groups, students have the opportunity to develop action proposals based on group discussions. For example, last semester’s Civil Rights Reading Group is currently discussing what its members can do in light of the non-indictments.

Chris, who participated in the Civil Rights Reading Group last semester, agreed that reading groups have potential. “I hope the legacy of the reading group is that it represents the beginning of a shift from the law school experience as a passive experience, to a more active, engaging one for students,” he said. “In many instances professors may feel just as limited by ideas of ‘the way law school is supposed to be’ as students are. But when students take the initiative to come up with something interesting and worthwhile, professors are more willing to devote their own time and effort to making it a success.”

In addition to the increased activism that several students and professors have seen, Professor Johnson said the non-indictments offered students an opportunity to engage with organizations and movements throughout the city, including the Vera Institute of Justice, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and events in other departments of the University. She also suggested the mindfulness reading group, saying “it’s important that as we think of ourselves and our role as lawyers and leaders in society, we think about taking care of our emotional places.”

Moreover, student services has implemented programs for students and faculty to talk about their experiences in the classroom, spaces to discuss diversity pipeline issues for faculty hiring, and engage with questions about the role of law and law students in bringing about meaningful change.

Students have also found outlets in their individual career paths. Amy, who is going to a big law firm after graduation, said she still managed to participate in the Prisoners and Families clinic and two criminal defense externships as an upperclassman. And no matter where students’ paths take them, many have found that last semester’s events have provided some needed perspective.

Stephanie said, “[Protesting] was an opportunity to continue the work of the civil rights movement, which never really ended, despite what we learn in grade school.”

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