Carl Lindskoog, a history professor at Raritan Valley Community College, stood with 25 other protestors in the middle of RVCC’s courtyard on the cold afternoon of Dec. 11. Behind him were two banners that read “#WeCantBreathe” and “Stop Police Brutality”—references to the grand jury decision not to indict an NYPD officer in the killing of Eric Garner.
One protestor answered that the incident involved a black person and a white officer. Another added it was a dramatic response to a minor offense.
Lindskoog agreed, but said the best response he had heard to that question came from a student in one of his classes.
“It’s about history…If you know the history of black people in this country, since its origins in slavery…and into the post-civil rights era, with the war on drugs and mass incarceration, the system quite often has a racial bias. Why is race important to talk about here? Because that is something embedded in our history, and we’re still dealing with that legacy.”
Speak. Think. Act.
Using non-violent “teach-in,” “speak-out” and “die-in” tactics, students and faculty protested police brutality, systemic racism and the Eric Garner case on that chilly December afternoon. These tactics, according to Lindskoog, have been used throughout American history to deal with racial issues.
During the “die-in” part of the protest, participants lay on the concrete and chanted, “We can’t breathe” 11 times. Their bodies were then outlined in chalk to symbolize people who they believe have died without justice.
The “speak-out” and “teach-in” part involved students and faculty educating each other by talking about their own experiences with systemic racism. During this part of the protest, Richeleen Dashield, Dean of Multicultural Affairs at RVCC, said that the Eric Garner grand jury decision reminds her of a worry she has for her son.
“One of the things I have to teach him is perception threat. So as a young African American, as he begins his college career, perception threat becomes an issue for him every day. That is something he is going to struggle with, and that is something as a mom I’m going to have to struggle with, too, as well.”
One RVCC student told the crowd that the first time he had contact with a person of color was in the 6th grade. He said that most people growing up in that situation would have a biased view of people of color. “You don’t realize subconsciously what is going on in your mind when your only preconception of another race is what you see on TV, film, movies and history books. A lot of it is inaccurate.
“I feel like a lot of the officers are raised in a similar light. They have a gun and a badge and think anyone who is dark, predominately teenage males especially, is somehow a threat. They pry before they even say anything.”
Another student said she went to a high school with only five black students, and often saw them unfairly singled out during drug raids.
“Drug dogs would come through every three months because someone would call in with a bomb threat because they didn’t want to take a test that day. Every time I would see state troopers come up to them (the black students) instead of the white students, when probably 60% of that school was smoking weed and probably 20% had it on them…instead of coming up to the kids that were actually put in rehab, were actually arrested before for selling drugs and selling heroin…But it wasn’t ever questioned.”
Many of the protestors also spoke about racial bias in the media. One RVCC professor used the recent coverage of Ebola as an example.
“We would think from the media coverage that this was the first time this has happened. There were two epidemics of Ebola in Zaire and Sudan in the 1970s. But only black Africans were killed. This time we have white nurses and doctors killed, and all of a sudden it becomes a real problem.”
Igor Candido, an international student from Brazil, said, “In my country it’s the same. Police abuse black people systematically, even worse than here. The media shows us only what they want. So how do people know what’s happening?” He then pointed to the sign in front of him: “Speak. Think. Act.”
Origins and response to protest
After waking up upset the day after the Eric Garner grand jury decision, Andrea Vaccaro, an instructor of ESL at RVCC, proposed the idea of the protest through an email blast to faculty members. Although some faculty politely declined the invitation to protest, others were enthusiastic about helping, many of whom participated in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” demonstration one week prior.
Three of these professors—Charlie Bondhus, Carl Lindskoog and Karren Gaffney—took part in an interview alongside Vaccaro after the protest.
“The protest is ultimately about justice,” said Vaccaro. “I think students want to understand. But they don’t always have the tools to put it together, especially when the media isn’t front and center with a nice clear critique on systemic racism.”
“Racism is not just a person to person problem,” Bondhus added. “All that arises from a system.”
“A lot of people don’t understand what is going on,” said Karren Gaffney. “If you don’t understand what’s going on, you’re vulnerable to messages from the media that racism is not a serious problem and people who are complaining about it are wasting their time. Students and faculty not thinking about it critically are vulnerable.”
The professors noted some negative responses to the protest. Many flyers advertising the protest were ripped off of walls or had negative messages written on them. One student emailed Vaccaro asking, “Why are you supporting this criminal? You’re teaching people to be a sheep.” Several faculty asked Vaccaro, “Why are you doing this during exam [period].”
“I think it says the college is uncomfortable with social action right now,” said Vaccaro.
Many people outside the college are also uncomfortable with these types of protests. Even before the assassination of two NYPD officers on Dec. 20, some have viewed the nationwide protests as stoking animosity toward police officers.
Lindskoog said that one way to bring the college together on this issue could be a democratic social-action coalition—an idea that came as an epiphany during the end of the protest.
“Student clubs are very specific,” said Lindskoog. “We need something to bring the clubs together. We don’t want to compete with them…Education has to be the priority, but not just to students, to faculty as well. We need to continue this discussion to show that faculty, students and administrators at community colleges care just as much as Ivy League colleges.”
“Historically, colleges had a relationship with the communities that surrounded them during the civil rights movement. The college was a focusing point for this activity,” said Bondhus. “I think that could also be very powerful here."
Contributor: Pauline Theeuws.