In the wake of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Charlie Bondhus, a professor of English at Raritan Valley Community College, felt he had to speak up.
“It hit me really hard. It really got me angry,” Bondhus said.
Then he saw that Fergusonaction.com—a website created in the wake of Brown’s killing to promote an “end to all forms of discrimination”—was encouraging people around the country to hold demonstrations in support of the organization’s vision.
Inspired, Bondhus contacted several faculty members and Stanley Asiegbulem, the president of the Black Student Alliance, to organize a demonstration on Dec. 3. They called this demonstration “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
Witnesses disagree on whether Brown had his hands up when he was shot. According to a PBS Newshour report, 16 of the 29 witnesses said he did have his hands up.
Despite this, Asiegbulem said the goal of the demonstration was not to argue whether Brown’s hands were in the air, but to address larger issues surrounding the shooting.
“The purpose of the demonstration was to start a conversation within the community on current race relations in this country and also to create a safe space where people can voice their opinions on racially charged current events,” said Asiegbulem.
The demonstration began at the Welcome Center, where Bondhus handed out protest signs. According to Asiegbulem, about 50 people participated.
From there, demonstrators walked to the Ray Bateman Center for Student Life and Leadership, shouting chants such as “Black lives matter! All lives Matter!”
“The first thing I wanted [students watching the protest] to ask was the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’ What’s going on, and why are they doing this?” Asiegbulem said. “Because that answers back to how can we solve this problem. And that’s by informing these people.”
Bondhus said another reason for the demonstration was to empower people who might feel helpless in addressing racially-sensitive issues.
“We want them to say ‘wow, there are people who are doing something and standing up. There are people this matters to. Maybe this is something we should be talking about.’”
Demonstrators react to the shooting
Eleven of the demonstrators spoke at the Ray Bateman Center for Student Life and Leadership about their reaction to the Ferguson shooting.
Bondhus, who opened the discussion, said, “It is not just about Mike Brown. It is about justice for all living beings. We are all affected by injustice. Some more than others. But this is about our common humanity today.”
Dante Jefferson, a black nursing student at RVCC, said, “These tragedies are not a black problem. They are an American problem…So harm done to me affects me and my family just like it would affect you, because I am peers and friends with a lot of you guys. So black lives matter, all lives matter.”
Angela Bodino, professor of English at RVCC, said, “A major principle in teaching writing is the power of culture. If we are not taking this seriously, we are not understanding the power of culture.
“We can think about Germany and the things Hitler said that a whole country accepted, included and integrated in laws that everybody thought was legal. How could that be? It’s the influence of culture. If we think there is a whole group of people that should be imprisoned more than whites for the same felony, then we are giving into the power of culture.”
Bodino has lived in Bridgewater since 1968. She said that since then, and despite the problems of racism that still exists, she has seen much more diversity and acceptance in a community that once wouldn’t let blacks live in certain neighborhoods.
Jacqueline Drummer, director of laboratory services at RVCC, said, “Race is a social construct. It was constructed so the privileged group could continue to gain all the economic wealth and so they can marginalize, criminalize, disenfranchise and oppress people of color.
“When this country was founded, black people were brought here enslaved but were not the first indentured servants. White people were the first indentured servants. How this whole racist thing started was if we have a group we can identify as servant because of the color of their skin, we can marginalize that group and oppress that group. But genetically, we are all the same…So when you think about the people standing next to you, we are all the same.”
Ronald Tyson, professor of Englsih at RVCC, said, “One of the things the media has glossed over in the whole issue with Mike Brown is the idea that the judicial process has carried itself out. There are two assumptions there. That the judicial process is just and that the process is carried out.
“There are questions on how the grand jury was instructed and how the case was presented to them. That part of the fight isn’t over because a grand jury doesn’t acquit, a grand jury just decides it doesn’t want to pass down an indictment.”
Tyson said that there is an old saying from where he grew up in Harlem: “If you hang around the barbershop long enough you’re going to get a haircut.” That applies to the conversation about Ferguson, he said, because of the increasing militarization of the police.
“What happened is that our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan started winding down, they started sending [weapons] to local police departments. If the local police departments recieve that military equipment, they are going to use it.” (Local police departments receive weapons from the military through the 1033 Program.)
He then talked about an incident in Georgia where, during a drug raid, a SWAT team threw a flash bang into the house with an infant inside. The flash bang landed in the infant’s playpen, and the infant suffered third degree burns. A grand jury declined to return an indictment. “The point is you can’t throw a flash bang if you don’t have a flash bang.”
The discussion ended with Asiegbulem reading the poem “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown" by Danez Smith and Jefferson reading 46 names of unarmed black men and women who have been killed by police officers and vigilantes since 2012. Four and a half minutes of silence followed.
Discussing the larger issue
In an interview after the demonstration, Bondhus said that in order to end the killing of unarmed people of color by police officers, “We need systemic change. We need to change the way we view black people. To do that we need to educate people.” Both Bondhus and Asiegbulem support police officers wearing body cameras.
“Very few people would say, ‘I am a racist and I actively hate a particular group,’” Bondhus said. “But we’ve been programmed to assume certain things. There is a great African American psychologist, Beverly Daniel Tatum, who said we breathe in smog. And it becomes part of us. We may not be the ones polluting the air, but it becomes a part of us.
“It’s the same thing as racism. We may not be creating the racism, but we’re taking it in and making it a part of ourselves…We need to examine those things and not be defensive. I myself have even struggled throughout my life and had to push back against how I’ve been programmed. I think everybody does.”
Bondhus encourages people to “examine yourself compassionately. Don’t judge yourself and think that you’re a bad person because that is just going to lead to a dead end and resentment.”
Asiegbulem said responses to the demonstration have been mostly positive. However, he still has received his share of criticism, such as people asking, “Where is the demonstration in support of Darren Wilson?” and, “Why are you supporting a criminal?”
Asiegbulem said that many groups of people are marginalized in this country, but he believes that because of the recent high profile shootings of unarmed black people by police officers, “black lives matter” needs to be emphasized.
He summarized this issue by explaining a Twitter exchange he saw. A white girl had tweeted, "If all black lives matter then let’s stop abortion in the black community." (The Center for Disease Control has the census for abortion rates.)
“The black girl's response was satirical, highlighting the ‘If,’ thereby reinforcing the idea that it's still something of a question to some people, hence it being a slogan for this current movement (among several other reasons),” Asiegbulem said.
“The purpose of the rally wasn't to cause controversy or to bring any negative press to the college…However, race relations being the giant elephant that it is, when discussed truthfully, especially in a diverse community like RVCC's, controversy is inevitable.”