Campus Life fight for freedom

Newbury Street shutdown

Starting a discussion on race at MIT

Where Newbury Street becomes the Boston Public Gardens, a large crowd of people of various ethnicities, genders, nationalities, colors, and ages began to march. To the brunch-eaters who paused mid-bite of quiche to try to make out what we were chanting; to the annoyed trio of girls whose path to Urban Outfitters we blocked with the incessant stream of bodies; to the tourists trapped between a fence and our anger with no choice but to hear our message: I do not apologize.

Since August 9, when a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri killed an unarmed teenager, I have argued with people who use the marijuana in his system, the angle of the bullets in his body, and the bagginess of his pants as justifications for why Michael Brown deserved to die. I have no idea how to convey what seems like an obvious point to me: regardless of the picayune details, a child was murdered. Eventually, I stopped trying to have conversations about this issue, because having to constantly prove that his life matters only says to me that by default his life does not matter. To know that the dehumanization of Michael Brown in the media may cause people to think that his killer was justified in his actions makes me want to cry. To avoid tears of frustration, I kept silent.

Until Saturday. On Saturday, I was able to scream until my voice was hoarse. On signs thrust into the air by the crowd surrounding and supporting me were words that I had previously only been able to say to my journal: “WHITE SILENCE = POLICE VIOLENCE. DON’T FIRE BULLETS, FIRE DARREN WILSON. STOP KILLING US.”

The organizers of the Newbury Street Shutdown, from a group called Black Lives Matter Boston, planted the seeds of inspiring chants among the group. I shouted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!” I roared, “They think it’s a game; they think it’s a joke.” I declared, “We want freedom!” Because in this system, where a Black life can be lost, besmirched, then forgotten, we do not have freedom. With me were a hundred other voices in agreement that what happened in Ferguson is indicative of a society that does not care about Black lives.

This narrative of police brutality against innocent Black lives is not new. A little over two years ago, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was chased through the streets by a neighborhood watchman. He did not make it home. On August 5 of this year, police officers, called to the scene by shoppers, shot 22-year-old John Crawford in a Wal-Mart. He looked threatening because he was carrying a gun, which turned out to be just a toy. His last words were “It’s not real.”

Last year, 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell sought help at a nearby home after a car accident. The police were called and immediately began firing. Ten bullet wounds killed him. His hands were up, but he was still seen as a threat. In a similar situation, Renisha McBride, 19, knocked on the door of a home in Detroit after an accident only to be killed by a single shot through the screen door. The judge who sentenced McBride’s killer said, “I do not believe… that this case had anything to do with race. I do believe that you acted out of fear, but an unjustified fear has never been an excuse for taking someone’s life.”

The problem with that statement is that the “fear” the judge mentioned has everything to do with race. In this segregated country where the majority can go decades without interacting with people of color except through media caricatures, Black people are not individuals. We are an over-sexualized, less intelligent, lazy, and dangerous stereotype. When Black people, feared and suspicious, are seen by reflex as the enemy, it is very easy for defense to become offense.

And when a Black life is taken, the media makes sure its audience understands that a Black life was taken. A thug who earlier in the day stole from a convenience store, who had marijuana in his system, who was physically abusive to the police officer, who could have just allowed the police officer to stop him and avoided this whole mess if he had been smart and cooperative enough, who may have been going to college next year, but it was only a community college.

By slanting their portrayal of the facts this way, the media and the police force in Ferguson, Missouri want you to get lost in irrelevant details so that you are assuaged into thinking that a child’s life was a life worth losing. When you hear “Black male,” you think “Black stereotype,” you think, “He was probably doing something wrong,” and the status quo can continue. When I hear “Black male,” I think, “my brothers,” and I’m scared because I can’t protect them from those who dehumanize them.

My frustration comes from the fact that I don’t know how to convey what seems so intuitively obvious. I can see the humanity of people regardless of the statistical truths of their situation, but others use their statistical truths to explain why they deserved to die. I don’t know what makes a life worthy, if it is not that they are human.

So I withdraw to places and groups where I do not have to prove my and Michael Brown’s worth as an individual. On Saturday, a large group of members of the MIT community, including students, professors, and alumni, gathered in the Black Students’ Union (BSU) Lounge to travel to the march together. There, we were able to have a healthy discussion about the role that race plays in our lives. Our experiences ranged from micro-aggressions, to blatant racial slurs, to subtle systematic and institutional racism.

In the BSU Lounge, I can talk about race both with people of color and with White people without our being in opposition with each other. MIT as a whole, however, is not a safe place for this discussion. MIT is silent about race because we like to perceive ourselves as a complete meritocracy that is above discrimination.

This ignorance suffocates me when I can’t talk about how it feels to be Black because very few people are comfortable having this conversation. My feelings are dismissed as being as outdated as the Emancipation Proclamation, and my experiences are chalked up to “always making things about race.” These injustices build up within me, until I find outlets in BSU events or public demonstrations held by people who are just as fed up.

So on Saturday morning, I unapologetically pressed my sign against the windows of restaurants. I chanted to the rhythm of the band that accompanied us. And I will continue to make noise until I am no longer afraid of seeking help because an ingrained fear of my race prevents empathy for me as an individual.

As we held hands in a circle at the end of the march, we cried out: “It is our duty to fight for freedom. It is our duty to win. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

24 Comments
1
Ed Bertschinger over 3 years ago

I was proud to march with you and others from MIT down Newbury Street to protest the racist dehumanization of young black males. In King's words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." We might turn that around to say Injustice is here -- yes, here, at MIT -- so here we must seek justice.

I want MIT to be a caring community that acknowledges and corrects injustice. We cannot be silent when any of our community members are discriminated against or made to feel less welcome than others. I join you in calling for an end to silence about racism, about privilege, about discrimination of any kind. I call for community members to listen to each other with, in President Reif's words, "sympathy, humility, deceny, respect, and kindness."

2
Anonymous over 3 years ago

When I read this article, I was completely baffled. I kept saying to myself, didn't this happen weeks ago? How did I possibly miss a second protest? It wasn't until I finished it, that I found at the very bottom of the (print) page in the caption of the photo the real date of the protest. The article refers to it as "Saturday" like it just happened. That was just confusing.

But it leads me to the bigger question, of why did this take 3 weeks to publish? How does that help the momentum that this movement needs? Ferguson has all but fallen out of the public eye by now, and at a glance, this headline could be about a traffic problem, not a very real, important issue that needs so much more attention. It felt like the article proved its own point. We don't talk about race at MIT. We wait three weeks and give it a headline that could be mistaken for a traffic problem, rather than confront race head on. The piece is good, and calls the issue out, certainly, but I felt like the Tech could have done it more justice.

I'm glad to see the Newbury Street Protest being talked. It didn't get enough attention, before or after. So that's good. But really, its been three weeks. What should we do next?

3
Anonymous over 3 years ago

This article is absolutely disgusting and shameful. You complain about the rhetoric used by the media, but then abuse rhetoric yourself in exactly the same way.

"A little over two years ago, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was chased through the streets by a neighborhood watchman." Yeah, that's not at all what really happened. Like, not even close. Your description of the Ferguson incident is also filled with factual inaccuracies and the same kind of flowery rhetoric that you decry.

Most bafflingly, you talk about fear of the black community, yet you participated in a "protest" that you yourself describe as being quite frightening. What exactly were you hoping to accomplish, besides reinforcing that very fear?

4
Richard Ni over 3 years ago

While it's possible to take issue with some portrayals of what's happened, it's astounding to me that anyone would call the article "disgusting and shameful." Equating the abusive media portrayals of black people, which have contributed to several people losing their lives and overall desensitivity, with the rhetoric used in this article is what's really disgusting and shameful.

What are you implying by putting "protest" in quotes? Based the description this appeared to be a completely nonviolent public demonstration. I encourage you to examine your own prejudices through something like the Harvard implicit bias study https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

I didn't know the BSU was doing this but I'm glad they did. It would be good for MIT students, myself included, to have a greater awareness of problems faced by people that aren't strictly related to science and engineering.

5
Luisa K. over 3 years ago

2: Why didn't you write an article then? Criticizing those who take action for not taking enough action is not productive.

3: That actually is exactly what happened to Trayvon Martin. He was 17 years old, and he was followed by a neighborhood watchman who continued to follow him against the orders of the dispatcher he had called. In what way is that not being chased through the streets? He was walking away -- in the street -- and being followed aggressively by a neighborhood watchman. These are facts.

Also, when did she describe the protest as frightening? Since when is peacefully walking down the street chanting "frightening"? I assume you're referring to "the tourists trapped between a fence and our anger" -- as a participant in the protest, I can clarify that they were not threatened or intimidated by any of the protestors -- we simply walked by them on the sidewalk, which happened to block their path for a short time. This is how marches work. Nothing about it was frightening, nor did the author of this article describe it as frightening. In my opinion, the only people who would have been frightened by the protest would be those who are already uncomfortable with large numbers of black people gathering in public.

6
Anonymous over 3 years ago

It's also a fact that Trayvon Martin was clearly scoping the neighborhood, and that Zimmerman's suspicions were valid, and that he was entirely within his rights. It's also a fact that Martin initiated the attack, and that Zimmerman acted in self defense. But no, let's not be objective, let's just conclude that since a non-black man killed a black man, he must be a crazy racist. Zimmerman should have just let Martin kill him.

And I still fail to see what harassing shoppers and brunchers who have had absolutely nothing to do with anything accomplishes.

7
Luisa K. over 3 years ago

6: Trayvon Martin was temporarily LIVING in the neighborhood. The "scoping" story is because he was walking slowly, but guess what -- it's not a crime to walk slowly while black in your own neighborhood. Trayvon did NOT initiate the attack -- there are 911 recordings of Zimmerman stating that he was following and approaching Trayvon.

As for the protest, we did not harass anyone. We marched and chanted. Nobody was harassed. Also, everyone has something to do with this. By being silent or even by being uninformed, we are all complicit in allowing this system to continue to thrive in America.

8
Anonymous over 3 years ago

#3 "Disgusting and shameful"? I guess we are all entitled to our opinions. My questions is really why did this illicit such a visceral response from you? I am of the mindset that we can engage in these conversations without being accusatory and confrontational... because what does that really solve? I guess my biggest questions are what did you really want to contribute to the conversation? What are you seeking to accomplish?

9
Anonymous over 3 years ago

7: No, that isn't accurate. He wasn't just walking slowly down the street, he was off the street looking around in an apartment complex (where he didn't live). He had a history of burglary. And yes, Martin initiated the attack. It occurred after Zimmerman had returned to his car--Martin chose to come back and viciously attack Zimmerman to the point that Zimmerman needed to use deadly force to defend himself. Even if you ignore everything else, merely following someone does not warrant such an attack, and self defense is entirely justified.

This article is disgusting because it seeks to generalize all cases where a non-black person shoots a black person. Rather than treat each case individually and look at the facts, it asks us to conclude that any non-black person who attacks/shoots/kills a black person must be a racist and that such actions are always unjustified.

There certainly is a problem in this country, but acting like this only makes things worse.

10
Anonymous over 3 years ago

If we treat each individual incident on its own, we only see the prejudice that is inherent in all of us. Put them together and you see the systemic Racism that empowers some against others they see as different. How many of these incidences must occur before you think the author can then generalize?

11
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Alyssa,

Bravo, this is wonderful.

Thank you for writing it.

12
Anonymous over 3 years ago

So.....what is it that you want? That's the main question I have every time this issue comes up. Some people claim they want white people to speak up or take action. Then when white people want to stand up and march with you, they're out of line, disconnected, and need to sit down somewhere because they have no share in that experience. I feel like as long as the cry is "Black lives matter" instead of "All lives matter" and you're selective about who's allowed to chant, we're not going to get anywhere. I get it. People have been killed unjustly and other people got away with it. It's scary, it's wrong, and it seems like no one's fixing it. But what are you actually asking for, with your signs and your marching and your screaming? What is it that you have such a pressing need to discuss? Do you just want someone to listen? do you want a bill passed? Fewer music videos with twerking? What do you want? Because unless that's made clear, all your efforts, all your articles, all your signs and marching....it's all just noise.

Also, I really liked the line "When I hear Black male, I think, my brothers, and Im scared because I cant protect them from those who dehumanize them."

I think that line helped me to understand a bit of where this reaction comes from. Mainly because when I think of my brothers, I don't think "black male". I guess my brothers are black, but truth be told, I was just sheltered enough growing up that race was never a defining characteristic. I wasn't "black" or "a girl" I was "a genius". Maybe other people thought of me that way but I never did. I don't think that I often think "black male". As a matter of fact I'm drawing a blank even now. Those words aren't associated with a particular image in my mind. But I can see how if I identified my brothers with "black male", as maybe I should in some sense, I'd be worried about them too. But truth be told I worry about race crimes against my brothers far less than I worry about car accidents, plane crashes, or sudden illnesses. Not sure what that says about me. But thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about it.

13
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Alyssa,

I find your desire to draw attention to issues of discrimination commendable, but it is highly hypocritical that you begin your article with stereotypes of people on Newbury street which are highly critical of their lifestyle. Insulting others is a poor way to convince others that you have the moral high ground.

14
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Just to let Anonymous knows, as a Black male living, working in the system, at no time am I not always aware of being a "Black male". I walk with my white male friends and when a cop approach they admit to thinking "where is this guy going". The "Black males" in the group are all thinking why is he approaching and thank goodness he didn't stop us, as the cop passes by. I raised my "Black" kids like you to not think of themselves as just another Black kid but to be Smart, Genius, Exceptional. But to never forget the plight of being Black in America. It is real. I live it, others are living it. Ignorance doesn't mean it is not there, it just mean it is an opportunity to educate, hence the march.

Finally, If someone feels oppressed or empathize with the oppression of others, is it not obvious what the author is asking for??

15
Chelsi over 3 years ago

3: Even if what you say about Trayvon Martin is true (which I don't think 100 of it is) what do you have to say about all the other examples that she gave: Renesha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford. They still highlight the issue she is describing, which means that the issue does exist and should be discussed. Her larger point still stands. Sometimes we need to try and see the forest instead of the trees.

Additionally, like all other causes, people write articles to generate discussion maybe not to have a law passed but just to make people more self-aware of their attitudes and actions and eventually change the overall culture where these behaviors are accepted and/or apart of the social norm. Similar to the recent "protests" against catcalling. No law will be passed on catcalling, but the discussion has generated an awareness that will allow people to be aware of how uncomfortable it makes women feel and eventually make it more socially unacceptable to do so. Discussion does have it's role in making change.

16
Luisa K. over 3 years ago

12: I'm white and didn't feel at all out of place at the protest. There were more than a few white people present, some of whom appeared to be involved with the organization and leadership of the event.

The reason we still need to talk about black lives instead of all lives is because black lives are the only ones that are routinely devalued by police and by American society. When a black man is killed by police, the assumption (by the cops and by the media) is that he was guilty of some crime, and therefore deserved to die. If an unarmed white woman were shot in the street by police -- even if she had just committed a crime, like stealing cigarillos -- she would be painted as a victim, and people would be outraged that she wasn't arrested and tried as the system says she should have been. But because Mike Brown was black, he has been depicted as a thief and a thug, and the implied message repeated over and over is that he deserved to die.

This protest was criticized by several people for not having a clear purpose, and it's true that there was no single pre-packaged call to action at the end of it. For me personally, the protest served to make others think about something that they usually don't. I think about race and black lives regularly, but many people who look like me do not, and that's not necessarily their faults -- as a non-black person, it's easy to ignore the situation of black people in America. But for one day, I know that we made at least a few people think and question what we were doing and why, and if even one of those people realized the truth in what we were saying, I believe we accomplished something.

17
Itoro Atakpa over 3 years ago

13: How is exactly is she being critical of their lifestyle? The fact that one could really feel the right to be insulted by being described as a "brunch-eater" while actually eating brunch in light of a discussion about the consistent devaluation of human life demonstrates EXACTLY what this article is talking about. Brushing off the fact that people are being killed for no reason and having their names besmirched, and instead focusing on an OBJECTIVE description of people as brunch-eaters, is exemplary of "a society that does not care about Black lives."

18
Rozanne Mungai over 3 years ago

Great Article Alyssa! Thank you.

#2: I completely agree with you. This article should have been published a lot earlier while the issue was still largely presented in the media. This delay raises the question of whether or not MIT really cares about the micro- and macroaggressions that Black students face both on and off-campus.

19
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Does anyone else see the irony in the black community calling for the kind of lynch mob justice that they themselves were regularly subjected to not even all that long ago?

The grand jury in the Ferguson case is very likely to not indict Officer Wilson, and guess what? It's not because they're a bunch of racists, it's because all the evidence points to an extremely clear case of self defense. And yet I fully expect to see all of the same lynch mob behavior as when Zimmerman was acquitted. I saw a sign after that incident reading "America says 'guilty'". How anyone could write that or associate with that is beyond me.

20
Luisa K. over 3 years ago

19: It's ridiculous to claim that it's "an extremely clear case of self defense." Mike Brown was shot with his hands in the air (see the autopsy reports if you're curious), and none of the evidence indicates he attempted to grab the officer's gun at any point. In what world is shooting an unarmed 18-year-old especially someone who is making a universal gesture for "I'm unarmed, don't shoot" possibly justifiable as self defense?!

21
Anonymous over 3 years ago

I did read the autopsy report. I don't know what you read, because there's absolutely nothing that says he was shot with his hands in the air.

Black witnesses invented a narrative that he was running away and was shot in the back, when that is clearly false. According to the autopsy report, all of the entrance wounds are in the front. So their version of the story is completely unreliable. And that's the only narrative that supports the surrendering idea.

22
Luisa K. over 3 years ago

My mistake, I should have been more specific. I was referring to the first autopsy released, which was conducted in August by an independent group, not the Ferguson PD's autopsy report. Ferguson has every reason to misrepresent the evidence in this case, so I personally wouldn't trust their autopsy report as absolute fact

The independent autopsy was conducted by two experts, including Dr. Michael M. Baden, formerly the chief medical examiner for the City of New York. I understand that people will probably believe the "official" autopsy report more than the initial one, but I would also point out that the independent autopsy was released within weeks, while the official autopsy wasn't released for over 2 monthsjust things to consider.

23
I. Pavel over 3 years ago

21: To suggest that more than a handful of separate eyewitnesses invented and corroborated a unified narrative of what they saw based on the fact that they were black (mind you there were non-black witnesses with similar accounts) is ludicrous. Also, the eyewitnesses stated that Brown was shot AT (not necessarily hit) while running, then he turned around and surrendered, and then he was shot multiple times.

24
Sandy Alexandre over 3 years ago

Dear Alyssa,

Your indignation is beautiful, incisive, important, and human.

Race talk is neither a "deflection," an "accusation," a "guilt trip," nor a "waste a time," as it's often spuriously categorized.

It can certainly be hard for many to engage in, but it's also necessary.

It can certainly be eye-opening, and that might mean conceding that and being prepared for the possibility that some people are not ready or eager to be that way enlightened.

I'm ready (am always ready, really) for those conversations to happen, and I look forward to helping create safe spaces (and indeed MORE spaces)--from the classroom to elsewhere--where we might spark them and where I could facilitate, lead, and participate in them.

Thank you for writing!

And I'm so glad to know that social activism brought you relief from the pain of being/feeling silenced by our cultural climate's bizarre omission of race talk. I'm so glad you got a chance to exhale while fighting for the right for all of us, especially the most despised of us, to--at the very least--BREATHE!