Photo provided by Luis Gabriel Hoyos
Following Michael Brown’s death on Saturday, August 9, unarmed and with his hands over his head, protestors gathered to express their outrage about the incident. They marched peacefully, and yet they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets on Wednesday night of the same week. Several journalists among them were also arrested despite their peaceful efforts to cover the story.
The response raised concerns about police brutality and threats to all citizens’ First Amendment rights. As students at one of preeminent law school with a responsibility to social justice, as conscientious citizens, and as communities of color, the leadership of the Black Law Student Association (BLSA) and the Latino/a Law Student Association (LaLSA) felt particularly tasked with the need to evaluate and bring thoughtful attention to these issues.
We decided to take a photograph with our hands up, in solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson, and with all citizens who wished to assert their right to peaceable assembly and a free press. We would follow in the footsteps of the BLSA group at Harvard Law—which had taken a similar photograph a couple days earlier—only ours would be bigger and better. Over the course of a weekend, the executive boards of BLSA and LaLSA organized the event, sending emails to the student body and our members, coordinating with Student Services to find an appropriate time and place for the event, and reaching out to faculty for support. Turnout was expected to be small, around 20-25 people, given that it was the first day of orientation for the 1Ls, and many of the 2Ls and 3Ls had not returned from summer break or were in the midst of callback interviews.
Despite the last-minute planning and conflicting events, the photograph took place in front of Jerome Greene Hall at 10:15 AM on Monday, August 18. Much to our pleasant surprise, by the time 10:00 AM rolled around, we had upwards of 100 people crowding the corner of 116th and Amsterdam! The outcome far exceeded our expectations, given the short notice and time constraints.
We had the support of the faculty and the administration, as was obvious when our photographer—none other than the Director of Academic Counseling and Student Outreach, Yadira Ramos-Herbert—stood on an escalator, struggling to fit the massive crowd into her camera’s frame. With Yadira’s call to “please raise your hands in solidarity with Michael Brown and the Ferguson community,” people from across our community had the honor of taking part in a photograph that has now become infamous in social media outlets all over the country.
It is our duty as law students and responsible citizens to challenge and take action against injustice. That is why BLSA and LaLSA commit to focus our advocacy efforts this year towards addressing police brutality and abuse of power against people of color and other minorities. We will host several events throughout the year on these issues, and we invite the entire Columbia Law community to join us.
BLSA started off with two events this month: a rally titled “He Was No Angel: The Re-Valuing of Black Life” on September 15, 2014, and a town hall meeting titled “Now What? The Role of Millennials in the Aftermath of Ferguson” on September 17, 2014. LaLSA is working on organizing a “Know Your Rights” workshop later this semester, and we have been in touch with faculty and law students at Washington University in Saint Louis to see if we can host a joint event with members of their community who have experienced some of the events in Ferguson first-hand.
Before the photograph was taken, we held a brief rally during which BLSA President Aurra Fellows reminded the crowd that “the meaning of your participation is up to you. It can be an expression of mourning for anyone who has been killed due to police brutality, it can be a show of support for the enforcement of the Constitution, it can be a show of solidarity with protestors in Ferguson, it can be an expression of fear, outrage, disbelief, or uncertainty.” Regardless of each student’s personal motives for showing up, that day we gathered peacefully to make a commitment.
We are tired of seeing law enforcement abusing their power to criminalize members of our communities. We are tired of seeing our brothers and sisters being brutalized and slaughtered without regard to due process and human dignity. We are tired of idly watching how they trample on the core values and civil rights embedded in our Constitution. This is not the nation our founding fathers envisioned. This is not the nation sought by many of our families when they fled their homes abroad in search of the land of the free and the home of the brave. This is not the nation we want for our children.