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

FullSizeRender (21)Illustrated by Minji Reem

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

So how do we move forward when we find ourselves at our wit’s end? How do we plan our next steps when the sting of injustice cripples us? How do we imagine a better tomorrow when clouded by the trauma of yesterday? That’s the thing about the struggle—it demands that we lick our wounds and press on, because falling back would destroy us.

In situations like this, it would be commonplace to suggest that we simply continue to hope for a brighter future. That we continue marching to that Promised Land. But one can’t help feeling that words like hope, progress, and change are cruel jokes. How do we keep hope alive when we are haunted by their names: Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, John Crawford, Aiyanna Jones, Oscar Grant, Tarika Wilson? We are dealing with a dream deferred.

Of course, we have questions that have no answers. These are the kinds of questions those before us have asked themselves when contemplating this American nightmare. However, we urge everyone to consider that these questions have weight – and that weight remains with us whether we are in the classroom or on the streets. While engaging in theoretical conversations about extrajudicially murdered Black people, we recommend keeping these weighted inquiries in mind. They don’t exist in the abstract. They have real-life implications for students at our school, and implications for their families and their communities.

Still, we can imagine means for continuing this conversation and fighting for justice. And frankly, we must – by now we know that it is not if, but when another Black life is extinguished by police enforcement. So we lift ourselves up and do the unimaginable: continue to hope, while knowing that our hopes will be compromised again. We strive, we remain resilient. We do more than dream.

As Members of the CLS Community

As members of CLS and the broader legal community, it is up to us all to create a larger slate of conversations around these issues.

To start, there are measures we can take as students. The silent protest organized by the Black Law Students Association, the Latino/a Law Students Association and Empowering Women of Color is an example of how we can engage these issues. Moreover, several student groups showed their support of the silent protest – the Midwest Society cancelled their 1L jobs panel in solidarity, and the Morningside Muckracker delayed its upcoming issue in order to include this timely section. Their support has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. Whether you organize or support the next protest, your participation in the matter is not insignificant.

Some of you may have attended today’s Forum on Ferguson. Luis Gabriel Hoyos, Aurra Fellows, Debbie Jang, and I teamed up with several faculty members and administrators to stage this community discussion, where Columbia Law School faculty provided their perspectives on Ferguson, including the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson on any charges. This was a powerful opportunity for faculty, students, and administrators to express their sentiments, and to ask critical questions regarding Ferguson. We hope this forum will inspire how we, as students, can partner with faculty and administrators in the future when addressing virulent police abuse in communities of color.

There are also a number of upcoming events and initiatives at CLS that you can participate in. Next semester, EWOC, LaLSA and BLSA hope to host teach-ins on other incidents of state-sanctioned violence (such as those toward Eric Garner and Rekia Boyd, among many others), where we will analyze their respective legal proceedings, and commission subsequent fact sheets. In addition, there is a developing student initiative to create a community Twitter feed, which will be coordinated and curated collectively by CLS students who are keen to circulate social justice and critical articles. Discussing Ferguson on this Twitter feed will be a given. If you are interested in joining this initiative, feel free to reach out to me directly.

Faculty, too, have been engaging in this discussion in various effective ways. For example, Professors Bernard Harcourt and Jeffrey Fagan, the nation’s leading criminal law scholars, have created “Questions and Answers for Columbia Law School Students about Grand Juries,” a fact-sheet dedicated to understanding the disappointing Ferguson decision and dispelling many media instigated myths. This critical document was created, with student involvement, to give our community the tools and language to legally discuss Ferguson. The document also includes information on possible further legal proceedings such as: a subsequent grand jury, a specially appointed prosecutor, and U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights investigation or civil wrongful death lawsuit.

Several professors have voiced their opinions on the Ferguson decision – The African American Policy Forum, led by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, issued an official statement expressing their bitter disappointment at the failure to indict Darren Wilson; Professor Patricia Williams was featured on in an extensive interview covering the grand jury’s decision, Wilson’s testimony, prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s strategy, and race and the justice system in 2014; and forthcoming are a number of faculty editorials by Professors Katherine Franke, Jeffrey Fagan, and Bernard Harcourt, which will be featured on the newly created Forum on Ferguson microsite. We encourage you to actively follow these publications, and to share them widely.

These are only a few examples; there are so many options, and it is our duty to take advantage of all of them.

Beyond CLS

There are also measures we can take, outside our roles as law students, to act in solidarity. For example, there are nationwide protests being organized. Look into them and take part. Join the Unified Statement of Action to Promote Reform and Stop Police Abuse, created by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Exercise your social media muscles and speak out. Don’t remain silent or complicit because you don’t have anything “profound” to add to the conversation. Your support, your participation alone has the potential for being a profound contribution. In the words of Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Or in the words of a recent blog-gone-viral, “Say that you want to live in a country where the American Dream is afforded to all. Say that you are afraid. Say that you are hurting. Say that you are angry. Say that you don’t understand, exactly, but you’ll try to imagine it. But…say something.”

Above all, use this moment as an opportunity to inform yourself – not as an excuse to resign yourself to inaction. Taking to the streets is not for everyone (we get that), but educating yourself is an easy request. Ferguson didn’t happen over night, and it is not an anomaly. Understanding the grand narrative is crucial to thoughtful engagement. As suggested by The Root contributor Janee Wood in her outline for Ferguson engagement, some ways you can inform yourself include: (1) learning about the racialized history of Ferguson and how it reflects the racialized history of America; (2) rejecting the “He was a good kid” or “He was a criminal” narrative and lifting up the “Black lives matter” narrative; and (3) diversifying your media.

To Wood’s third suggestion, I recommend reading websites such as The Root, Colorlines, Feminist Wire,,,, and MSNBC to name a few. Consider following journalists and editorialists: Brittney Cooper, Melissa Harris-Perry, Jelani Cobb, Kiese Laymon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Tim Wise – all who have contributed powerful pieces on Ferguson and the broader issues of Anti-Black discrimination. On Twitter, follow the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #Ferguson, and considering following Twitter influencers @Blklivesmatter, @DreamDefenders, @ColorofChange, @Nettaaaaaaaa @millenialau, @brownblaze, @ProfessorCrunk, @elonjames, @mychalsmith, @Moore_Darnell, and @MillionHoodies. This list is not an exhaustive list; rather, it is a starting point. In the next edition of the Muckracker, we are creating a more detailed primer on how to follow this movement – stay tuned.

For those taking up this call-to-action, you’re guaranteed to have some friends turn into haters. So for the trolls you’ll encounter – online and offline – when talking about Ferguson, I offer you all of the aforementioned resources and these additional two things: one, this helpful guide; and two the words of John Stewart: “Race is there; it exists. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how exhausting it is living it.”

And a word of caution: when engaging in conversations around these issues, I urge you to ask questions, to listen, and to consider the heavy hearts of those dedicated to this struggle. Above all, exercise empathy before judgment. Thoughtful humanity is an awesome starting point.

Finally, if you can’t muster empathy, then meditate on this from Akilah Hughes, “What it feels like to be black in America in 2014,” featured on “If you don’t feel anything about this Michael Brown case, please note that privilege. It is a privilege to not have to fear for your life, or the life of your family. It is a privilege to not have to critically think about race and oppression. Some of us may never be that lucky.”

Moving Forward

To say this holiday season has been difficult would be an understatement. On my mind have been the families of all those lost and the empty seats at their Thanksgiving tables. The climate is heavy – and the weight is bearing down on our minds and our hearts.

On our end, it is so difficult to imagine how we can move forward emotionally. Since the shooting death of Mike Brown, four Black lives have been unjustly killed by police violence. 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by Cleveland police on November 23rd for carrying a BB gun. Recent video footage shows that police killed him 1-2 seconds after arriving at the scene.

Tanesha Anderson, a 37-year-old mentally-ill women from Cleveland, died after officers slammed her head on the pavement as they attempted to take her into custody. Officers were called by Tanesha Anderson’s family, who sought assistance in getting her to the hospital for an evaluation.

Aura Rosser, a 40-year-old Michigan woman, was killed by two police officers who were responding to a domestic violence call. Aura Rosser’s death is the first police-shooting death in Ann Arbor since the 1980s.

And Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old Brooklyn resident, was shot in his apartment stairwell by a nervous rookie cop. The NYPD officer was startled by Mr. Gurley, who was taking the stairs with his girlfriend after they decided not to wait any longer for a slow elevator.

Again, we already knew it isn’t if but when more Black lives will be ended by police violence. As this vicious cycle continues, I encourage you to please share the stories of Tamir, Aura, Tanisha, and Akai,  and don’t stop following them. A full piece focusing on their stories is also forthcoming in the Muckraker’s next issue.

In this article, I have outlined a few ways that you can get involved. But if you take one thing from this article, let it be this: We ask our fellow classmates, at the very least, not to be the salt in our profound wounds. There is a time for theorizing, and a time for empathizing. We are in the latter time.

Aurra, Luis, and I have said a lot, because we certainly feel a lot. But sometimes, our words are not enough, so we lean on those of others who can animate our trauma. So we leave you with words from another who has helped us lick our wounds and press on.

“We are undone. I am undone. This is what American democracy coming apart at the seams looks like. Our frayed, tattered edges are showing. The emperors are the only ones who can’t see it. Where can we begin so that we don’t end up here?

Is anyone else tired of wandering in this wilderness? Surely this land of broken promises isn’t what Dr. King had in mind for us.  Hopefully, from the fiery furnace of Ferguson, the floating embers will spark and spread and blaze us a new trail – up out of this madness.”

– Professor Brittney Cooper, “I am utterly undone: My struggle with black rage and fear after Ferguson” featured on

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