A steady stream of students began flowing through the doors of Swem Library just after 9 p.m. Thursday night. Some carried signs, but most simply held their hands just above their shoulders, palms facing forward.
“Hands up. Don’t shoot,” the students repeated in unison. “No justice. No peace.”
The demonstration was a part of a “die-in” organized by William & Mary student Korkor Koppoe ’16 in response to the treatment of black men in America by police and the justice system. The protest was one of many “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations that have taken place nationwide recently in reaction to grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Just before Thanksgiving, W&M graduate student Travis Terrell Harris organized a peaceful protest in Williamsburg in response to a grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer in the shooting death of Brown. Earlier this week, another grand jury in New York chose to not indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Garner. The William & Mary Center for Student Diversity offered open drop-in hours as well as two special discussion opportunities Thursday for students affected by those decisions and their implications.
“After the Mike Brown announcement came out, I found I was very upset, and, then, coming back on campus, I just felt there was a disconnect, that not everyone really understood what was going on, and I felt like this community just needed to be made aware of what’s really going on,” said Koppoe. “I just wanted to have a way for people to come out and really show their support and really bring awareness to this important issue.”
Although Koppoe wasn’t sure just how many people would show up for Thursday’s event, a crowd of more than 200 began filling the courtyard in front of Swem well before the 9 p.m. start time.
When the entire group made it inside the library, the participants filled most of the corridor between the computer stations in the center of the building and the entryway to the Special Collections Research Center. Once everyone was in place, the students lay on the floor for four-and-a-half minutes. The time was meant to reflect the four-and-a-half hours that Brown’s body reportedly remained on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, after he was shot and killed.
When the four-and-a-half minutes were up, the students began to disperse, some sharing hugs and greetings with fellow students, as well as faculty like Professor of Community Studies Anne Charity Hudley and staff members like CSD Director Vernon Hurte.
Yohance Whitaker ’16 spoke to a small crowd of participants who gathered around him.
“We aren’t asking to receive special treatment but only to be treated as equal, valuable and fair as God’s children, as citizens, as students,” he said. “Let not the present moment be lost. Go, agitate and get involved. We must work together as a community to develop a plan to move forward so that we can end the systematic devaluing of black lives. Here together today, we are saying that black lives matter.”
Taylor White-Welchen ’16 and Faven Russom ’16 said that they participated in the die-in to help raise awareness of the issues involved in cases like Brown’s and Garner’s.
“We talk about this with our friends but by doing this we also made other people very aware of it,” said Russom.
The two juniors said that participating in the event was empowering.
“It had an amazing turnout, and it’s just really inspiring to know that so many other people are passionate about this issue,” said White-Welchen ’16.
Koppoe was delighted to see how many people turned out for the event, and that the group included both black and non-black students.
“I really appreciate that because I know it’s harder sometimes when you’re not necessarily in the position, but I think it’s very important for us to have allies, and this has been a really great turnout,” she said.
Koppoe hopes that the event gave a new perspective to people who were not aware of some of the issues involved in cases like Brown’s and Garner’s .“And for people who were already aware of this issue, I hope that it kind of shows them a way that they can have a voice, that they can get active and inspire change,” she said.