On Nov. 25, in the wake of the nighttime announcement that a grand jury failed to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, hundreds of members of the Vassar community engaged in peaceful protests both in Main Building and outside of the Dutchess County Jail. Utilizing various forms of social media and working in conjunction with such local activist organizations as Community Voices Heard and End the New Jim Crow, students rallied with Poughkeepsie residents and in unison with nationwide actions. Despite the substantial showing of students and staff at the events, some in both the Vassar and the rest of Poughkeepsie community question the motives of some participants and can only hope that students will remain engaged in these discussions in the coming months.
While reports had swirled for days predicting the potential date of the decision, the Poughkeepsie protesters almost universally registered the same response. Kevin Lozano ’15 recounted, “I was doing my radio show and I stopped it early. I told everyone who’s listening at around 11:45 that they should come to this.” This loss of words was also found in Darielle Gadsby’s ’15 initial response. “I couldn’t speak anymore. I have no more words for it. I am absolutely not shocked and thoroughly saddened by it,” she noted.
The news also gave Tré Artis ’15 pause. He wrote in an emailed statement, “I believe I was in the library working on a homework assignment when I first heard the grand jury decision to not indict Darren Wilson in the shooting of Mike Brown. I can’t say that I was surprised, but I was very disappointed.”
Co-Vice President of the Black Student Union (BSU) Raquel Jackson-Stone ’16 wrote in an emailed statement, “I was in a meeting with BSU trying to solidify our mobilizing efforts in response to the decision. I was saddened by the decision because it shows once again that black lives don’t matter in this country.”
Residents of the Poughkeepsie community had similar responses. Poughkeepsie resident and participant in the evening rally outside the jail Jeanine Johnson recalled, “[I was] hurt but not shocked; that’s always the decision.”
However, not all residents focused on the validity of the jury’s decision when receiving the news. Poughkeepsie Police Captain John Watterson, who was on duty during the Dutchess County Jail rally, explained that, due to the conflicting narratives and his distance from the case, he formed no opinion about the ruling in Ferguson. Instead, his automatic reaction was focused on the community response.
“We started to thinking about events like this where we have to start planning for things like this,” Captain Watterson said. “As a police officer, especially as a captain, I start thinking ‘What could happen now?’ and planning for protests and dealing with any sort of aftermath.”
While the police almost immediately began planning for protests, activists began organizing and advertising events responding to the decision.
The use of social media was critical in the planning of both events. An email written by BSU board member Kayla Fisher ’17 was sent around campus via the Vassar Student Association (VSA) and other students, first alerting students to the evening rally. A Facebook page and virtual conversations led to students’ offering to provide transportation to the rally and publicized another event happening hours earlier outside of Main.
“I heard about the protests in and around the country including Vassar mainly through social media; it really is a powerful tool for spreading the message and bringing attention to pertinent issues,” Artis noted.
Dressed in black, carrying signs with the trending hashtags “BlackLivesMatter” and “ShutItDown,” as well as copies of artist Dread Scott’s collection “Wanted,” students, administrators and at least one professor gathered around Main Building. Distributing flyers, the group of more than 50 individuals started by standing outside of the front entrance to Main before separating into additional groups standing on either side of the College Center amid the Tasty Tuesday crowds.
Hundreds of Vassar students then attended a rally outside of the Dutchess County Jail starting at 6 p.m. The rally remained entirely peaceful, as the Poughkeepsie Police Department expected. Over the course of several hours, the crowd of roughly 500 community members and Vassar students listened to a pastor, marched to the Sheriff’s Office, held up a variety of signs and chanted phrases such as “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.”
The large crowd and the mixture of students and Poughkeepsie residents left many participants proud of the community. Johnson said, “I am very happy with the outcome tonight. I didn’t think there was going to be this many people. [I am] very happy with Poughkeepsie, with this.”
Gadsby also observed, “I think this is amazing. I think I expected Poughkeepsie community to really come out and show their support, but this is unbelievable. This is more than I could imagine.”
Although prompted by the grand jury’s decision in Missouri, protesters consistently explained that this ruling and the circumstances of the Michael Brown shooting cannot be separated from the realities in Poughkeepsie. Johnson explained, “We are going through the same situation and it hurts. It could have been my son.”
Chapter Organizer of Community Voices Heard in Poughkeepsie Blair Goodman argued, “There’s real problems like there’s everywhere with racist administration of justice. There’s three times as many black people arrested in Poughkeepsie as there are white and there’s not three times as many black people in Poughkeepsie. It’s just not right.”
He continued, “Our members have sons and daughters in this place right now; there have been young men of color killed in this town.”
Member of End the New Jim Crow and the American Civil Liberties Union Tracy Givings-Hunter explained that this latest decision warranted a response particularly from student activists due to their potential association with Michael Brown. She remarked, “What happened tonight was amazing. Why? Because the End the New Jim Crow in Poughkeepsie has been protesting out here in front of this jail for months and to see all these kids come out and finally realize that any one of them could be a Mike Brown, and that they need to step up and be involved.”
Artis agreed with this more systemic view of Ferguson’s national importance. He wrote, “I wanted my fellow students who interact with me every day, some of which consider me a friend, classmate and someone they’ve known for years…[to know that these issues affect] me and people like me.”
He stated further, “I felt after the decision no more than ever that on any given day, I or someone like me, can be murdered in broad daylight and there would be no accountability and it would be considered just under the law.”
Jackson-Stone noted, “My motives in bringing this protest to the Vassar community was that as a black woman on this campus who has faced racism and discrimination, and have seen countless instances of this injustice gone unpunished, I felt I had an obligation to myself, other students of color on campus, and the Poughkeepsie community to present this opportunity to stand in solidarity.”
Despite the positive responses of students, some remain more skeptical about the motives of some of the protesters. “I felt that at the protest outside of the Sheriff Department there were many white people trying to show solidarity but it felt a little insincere. I felt that it’s more white guilt than anything,” Artis observed. “Now the spotlight is on white people and they feel the need to show public support but I wonder if the same holds when the light is no longer on them. I didn’t feel connected to them then and I don’t now.”
A sense of connection between the Poughkeepsie community and Vassar students is something that the evening rally organizers hope occurred to students. Givings-Hunter remarked, “Vassar is part of the community. They want to be able to come off that campus and walk the streets and to do that you have to be part of the community. They cannot live behind those walls and expect the community to be open arms with them.”
She continued, “They need to come out, [and] they need to be involved in what’s happening socially in the area that [they live in]. While they’re here, they are living here and they need to know what’s happening around the neighborhood.”
BSU Executive Board Member Emmanuel Odei Ntow ’17 said, “I think we all know that we can’t sit back at school and think things will go fine if we don’t show some action after the announcement of the indictment. I think everyone who came out here has the same purpose and knows that they have to show other people and to themselves that they are not going to let stand…and that something must change.”
He went on to explain, “It can only change by action and by doing something and by putting our bodies out there in the forefront where action needs to be taken.”
Both town residents and students alike remain hopeful that these rallies will resonate and inspire further action and change. End the New Jim Crow hopes to transfer the energy and activism around this issue to their attempts at stopping the controversial prison expansion passed in the last year. “What Vassar needs to know is Dutchess County is getting ready to build a $200 million [prison] and, if we work together, we can get them to take that money and reinvest it for people to go to college, for people to get jobs, for homeless people to get someplace to sleep, for people who are starving to get some food, for people to get training,” Givings-Hunter noted.
The sense of optimism around the continued engagement of students remains mixed. Artis explained, “It’s probably too early to tell if the peaceful protests will have an impact on the campus in the coming weeks.”
Meanwhile, Jackson-Stone said, “Yes, there are many more actions to come. So keep on the look out for ways to get involved.”