Some 70 students participated in a symbolic die-in outside of the Student Activities Center on Wednesday, Oct. 19 to raise awareness of police brutality in black communities and to honor the 122 black American deaths, as of July, from police violence in 2016.
The demonstration assembled in the SAC plaza at 1:21 p.m., many students holding signs honoring lost black American lives – lives taken by the bullets of guns owned and carried by American police officers. One minute later at 1:22 p.m., the students dropped to the ground for a total of 10 minutes. Many held hands in a show of unity. Others reflected with their eyes closed in the 84-degree heat.
The event, organized by junior health science majors Courtney Lall and Jamie Abudu-Solo, was inspired by Syracuse University’s student die-in on Oct. 5. Syracuse’s event highlighted a different statistic from The Guardian: the 201 black American victims of law enforcement violence. Still, the message was the same. Lall and Abudu-Solo found that 122 black Americans had been killed from The Washington Post’s police shooting database. The current statistic, which is continually updated, from The Washington Post says 776 people total have been shot and killed by police this year in the United States.
“You know, we’ve heard several stories about people wrongfully being executed by police,” Lall said. “I even know some friends and family personally who have been wrongfully accused. These stories touch our hearts even if it’s people we don’t know, and Jamie and I are always talking about it and we wanted to do more than talk about it.”
The duo decided to take action after hearing about Syracuse’s die-in, noting the effect it had on the campus community.
They chose to hold the event at 1:22 p.m. during Campus Life Time to drive the statistic forward, but also because of the high volume of students and staff that walk across campus at that time. Through a Facebook page, word of mouth and other forms of social media, Lall and Abudu-Solo organized the event.
“We had 122 names printed in bold on people’s chests with the reasons of why they were killed from various years,” Abudu-Solo said. “But the point was to really get those 122 names on 122 people in the middle of campus where everyone could see at such a productive time, to say this is real. This is happening.”
The signs Abudo-Solo used had the names of 122 individuals who died over the past few years, not just 2016. Demonstrators also gained the support of university faculty and administration.
“Student activism is the cornerstone of higher education institutions, so we’re really thrilled that our students are letting their freedoms and their thoughts and their concerns be known,” said Dean of Students and Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Timothy Ecklund.
Ecklund first heard of the event through the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.
“I think our students are expressing their connections with national events, and I think that elevates our conversation around those national events,” he said. “And it’s important for us to see how things nationally affect our students on campus. I look forward to working with the students and hearing more about what they hope to accomplish with this event.”
Ecklund stayed for the duration of the event, as did University Media Relations Officer Lauren Sheprow. Assistant Chief of Police Eric Olsen also attended.
In a Facebook message sent hours before the event, Abudu-Solo told participants, “We also wanted you all to know that we’ve been in contact with President Stanley and Dean [Jarvis] Watson and they’ve set up undercover security so that if anything were to happen or if anyone tries anything, we’re all safe.”
It could not be confirmed whether undercover police attended the event, but protesters were not met with any violence or opposition.
In response to the event, President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. released the following statement: “What is happening around race relations across our country today is having a galvanizing effect on our students – as it should. I am proud that our students are engaged and involved in this important, timely conversation, and the university is working closely with them to make sure that their on-campus experience is supportive and safe.”
A collection of passersby developed around the circle of fallen students, many taking pictures and shooting videos on their phones. Curious whispers could be heard inquiring about what was going on, why so many students were lying on the ground. Some even chose to join the movement.
Still others looked on in awe.
“This is our generation,” said junior psychology major Areeba Babar. “We’re bigger than the baby boomers. We’re going to make a difference if nobody else is. Our generation is too educated. We’re too independent. We know what we want and we’re going to reach out for it. So if all the older people who are supposed to be looking out for us, they don’t want to help, they don’t want to change laws, we’re going to go out and petition. We’re going to peacefully protest. We’re going to do all these things that are important to make change in a safe way.”
Shehran Uddin, a junior political science major and international relations minor, participated in the event with members of his group, Students for Justice in Palestine.
“The problem here that we’re protesting is extrajudicial killings,” Uddin said. “That’s the same problem we’re seeing in Palestine. A lot of these kids, they’re being accused of something that they didn’t do. And they didn’t even make it to the courtroom. The police officer acted as the executioner, the jury, and the judge,” he said.
Uddin said that when an institution is so reluctant to correct itself and condemn its actions, the whole entity becomes at fault – that is, the entire police organization carries the responsibility.
“It’s a colonial order that’s acting as a police force, acting as a military force,” Uddin said. “Just looking all over us and not really looking out for our interests, just looking to either suppress our rights or make life harder.”
Uddin’s sign read the name of Oscar Grant, one of the 122 black Americans killed. Grant was shot and killed by police in 2009. His life was detailed in the movie “Fruitvale Station.”
“That’s someone’s baby. That’s someone’s whole world that someone else just took away just because that’s their job,” Uddin said in response to Grant’s death. “Their job is to assess the situation and use violence as a last means of force. But that was the first means of force used and that’s why people are so angry. They just took away someone else’s child. And they didn’t need to.”
Jesse John, a fifth-year doctoral student studying geoscience, said the ultimate motivation behind the demonstration and similar movements is to show solidarity and raise awareness.
“Our goal is just to see if there was a campus pulse for this sort of activity,” he said. “We all have signs about people that have gone through tremendous tragedy. And I think that these tragedies are overlooked by the sheer amount of them. So if someone walks by and sees a sign and it draws reference to what has happened in the past, I think that’s great – just to keep the conversation going.”
John said he hopes that one year there will be no signs and that he will not have to lie down. Until then, he and countless others will continue protesting, petitioning and speaking out for the rights and equality of Americans everywhere.
“Listen, as long as there is injustice in the world, we’re going to keep fighting,” Uddin said.