In the wake of the Ferguson case in Missouri and protests around the country, some MIT students, including many from the Black Students’ Union (BSU), were inspired to speak out themselves.
One of the earliest public demonstrations at MIT consisted of two banners that were hung in Lobby 7. They read “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” respectively, and were hung up even before the decision to not indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson was released on November 24th. Grace B. Assaye ’16, co-chair of the BSU and chair of the BSU’s Political Action Committee, said ‘All Lives Matter’ was included to “reject the idea we were being too exclusive.”
After the verdict, students replaced only the “Black Lives Matter” banner in Lobby 7 in an effort to emphasize that black people in particular were disproportionately affected by racial profiling and police violence. Within a few hours of the 9 p.m. verdict, students including BSU members, had also begun placing printed signs on bulletin boards around campus.
When some of the signs were later modified to say ‘All Lives Matter,’ this upset many of the students who put them up.
“Pride for blacks is seen in a negative light. Like we’re infringing” Ikenna P. Enwere ’15, a member of the BSU and its Political Action Committee, said.
Itoro S. Atakpa ’17 said, “Some people don’t understand the context of why we need to emphasize black lives matter” in particular, adding that it was likely this lack of understanding that caused people to modify the posters. “It’s more so people who refuse to see the racism. [Though they are] the minority by far,” she said, “there are people who are legitimate racists,” citing a racially offensive comment she saw on the MIT website ‘I Saw You.’
“It’s also sidestepping the issue at hand,” Pedro D. Polanco ’17, a member of the BSU, said. It’s “taking away from the fact that the value the U.S. [places] on black lives is lesser.”
President L. Rafael Reif wrote an email to the MIT community about the issue asking for “understanding and kindness.”
The email mentioned that “one of [the ‘Black Lives Matter’] signs was defaced in a very disparaging way.” Alyssa M. Napier, co-chair of the Black Women’s Alliance and member of the BSU’s Political Action Committe, confirmed that President Reif was referring to a particular instance in which a chalking in Building 32 had been modified to read “Black Lies Matter.”
Students told The Tech that it’s important to realize that Ferguson is not an isolated incident. Enwere said, “Another grand jury decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold by police in Staten Island. That situation is entirely on video, clear video of what happened… he was choked to death, no CPR.”
Atakpa pointed out that focusing on a single case “detracts” from the larger issue. “If people can convince themselves [Officer Wilson] was within his rights to shoot Brown… then people can come to the conclusion that there is no police brutality.”
Discussing the issue with The Tech, students said they thought that the Ferguson case might not have been covered fairly in national media.
“The coverage of the riots is very disproportionate, [suggesting] everyone is breaking into stores, starting fires, that there’s just this huge riot” said Atakpa, pointing out that “actually most of the protest is peaceful — it’s a very small fraction of it that’s violent.”
Napier said the language the media uses might be biased or inflammatory. “Why does he have to be called a thug?” she asked.
In order to do its part and try to help improve the situation, the BSU has been working on a project called “Ask a Black Student,” whose tongue-in-cheek name was meant to make people feel more comfortable, according to Enwere.
“We wanted MIT to have a discussion. We know that a lot of people are uncomfortable discussing race issues.”