The Lifecycle of Social Justice: “A Day of Silence for Michael Brown” at Columbia Law School – Stage II: We react

nycprotestProtesters in New York City. Photo by Christian Matts // Licensed under CC2

It is 9:50PM on Monday, November 24, 2014, and the Mike Brown indictment has just been released. Three student leaders of color face a shared google document. They are tasked with orchestrating a community-wide response to what feels like a devastating outcome. 24 hours later, these are their reflections.

Stage I: We hurt | Stage II: We react | Stage III: We strive

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
-Desmond Tutu, clergyman (b. 1931)

We debated our options regarding the structure of the protest, aware of the few hours available to plan. Someone suggested we wear all black, but we had done that already just the week before. It felt insufficient; it was insufficient. A sit-in or a rally would be too disruptive, not to mention impossible to plan and schedule on such short notice.

But what about silence? Covering our mouths with duct tape would allow us to protest peacefully. It would also enable our members to actively opt-in to participate throughout the day, whenever and however it was convenient for them. Most importantly, “A Day of Silence for Michael Brown” would embody our frustration with the grand jury’s decision. Because our voices were not being heard in the political or criminal justice process, we would also echo that silence in the classrooms and corridors of Columbia Law School.

Let me be clear: the act of self-silencing is a symbolic indictment of ourselves. It is not an effort to hide our opinions or to indicate submission. We are future lawyers, leaders, and agents of change. We might not be responsible for the landscape of racial politics today, but we will be 10, 20, 30 years from now. We are and will continue to be actors in this very system whether we like it or not. We are implicated in what happens next. We silence ourselves today to create an active silence. We choose to sit quietly in order to remember what happened yesterday, to mourn, to evaluate the shortcomings and how we were implicated, and to shape our role for tomorrow.

Student participation was overwhelming. We had more than 150 law students stop by the security desk in the JG lobby for tape to cover their mouths or place on their clothing as a badge. Some of us chose to write something over our tape in an effort to allow the writing to “speak” for itself. Examples of phrases used include “Black Lives Matter,” “Every 28 Hours,” “Why we can’t wait,” “Criminal (in)Justice System,” “Unequal Justice For All,” and “Keep Your Gas, We Already Have Tears.” Some were more personal, including a black female student wearing “I am afraid to have sons.” As a queer man of color, I chose to recognize that “I Could Be Next.” We also took photographs of our demonstration in order to immortalize our silence.

We were surprised, and heartened, to see that our message resonated beyond the student body. Many of the school’s staff members voluntarily stopped by, wanting to be a part of the silent protest. We had participation from administrative staff from the clinic office and the secretariat, mail room staff, the Office of Career Services, Social Justice Initiatives, and CU facilities. We were reminded that we are only one part of a larger community, and our actions touch so many others. Too often we roam the halls or the same building without acknowledging our common existence. Today we came together for a common cause. We drew strength from it.

We found support from yet another source—a couple faculty members were very eager to participate. They approached our table first thing in the morning for a piece of tape, even if they knew they would have to wear it as an armband or over their chest because they had to teach a class or speak at meetings. Other faculty members were more cautious, stopping by to explain they would not participate actively because they wanted to remain “impartial,” in an effort not to alienate some of the students in their class who were in favor of the indictment or against our protest. Still, several professors acknowledged the silent protest and the events that triggered it during class, in an effort to make students feel comfortable and to validate them as they exercised their First Amendment rights.

But we were not met by support from all. Sadly, some in this community were openly hostile. Several students returned to the security desk to inform us that they were belittled for covering their mouths with tape. Some of them were accused of taking a stand without fully knowing the details of the indictment, or of only choosing to participate to avoid being cold-called. We recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinion on what is unquestionably a contentious issue, but to attack and demean others for expressing their views—especially in an academic setting—is not only unnecessary and violent, but it is also cowardly. Hateful speech and refusals to listen to those who oppose one’s personal views only contributes to the larger invalidation of the victims’ experiences. It lets too many Americans  ignore the fact that the underlying problem exists, ensuring that it will continue.

Yet, notwithstanding this craven silencing attempt on the part of some members of the community, the beauty of our protest is that a “day of silence” has in fact started a conversation. Today that conversation begins with Mike Brown. Today we react. Today is our last chance to remain silent. Because tomorrow, whether we like it or not, we have no other choice but to face our own indictment.

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