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Continuing MLK’s legacy at Notre Dame

| Monday, January 19, 2015

Today, we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his remarkable work in nonviolent activism during the Civil Rights Movement. Many of us know of his connection to Notre Dame, as documented by the iconic photo of him linking arms with University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh at a 1964 civil rights rally in Chicago. In honor of Dr. King’s legacy at Notre Dame, I’d like to reflect on the campus protest students held in December for Eric Garner.

On Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014 at 12:16 p.m., more than 100 Notre Dame students, staff and faculty protested the senseless death of Eric Garner at the hands of police brutality by staging a die-in outside DeBartolo Hall. We lay down on the sidewalk for 11 minutes—one minute for each time Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe,” before he was suffocated to death in police officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold.

During the die-in, I lay down and my heart hurt. I stared out under almost closed lids, at the feet that walked around us, at the faces that turned and at the eyes that averted. Most of all I listened to the silence, so unusual during a class change around noon outside DeBart, until it was suddenly punctuated:

“Hey man, new shoes?”

“Yeah, got ’em last weekend.”


Said shoe stepped down right by my face as that person deliberately walked between us protesters, despite the mulch path many others were taking along the side. In that suffocating space, I caught a glimpse of what it is like to be simultaneously exposed and invisible. The deliberate choice those two people made to disrespect our memorial for Eric Garner’s life is exactly the kind of response effected by America’s legal system and general society that makes this protest necessary.

So to those who have voiced on Yik Yak and elsewhere “as if Campus Crossroads didn’t cause enough congestion…,” yes, for 11 minutes the die-in was inconvenient and disruptive. It is also inconvenient and disruptive to have a family member die due to police brutality. Our campus die-in is an admittedly small step in a larger national movement that is finally forcing the country to grapple with systematic racism. Awareness is where change begins. To those asking, “Don’t all lives matter?” Yes, they do. But to paraphrase a tweet by comedian Arthur Chu, “Do you crash strangers’ funerals shouting, ‘I too have felt loss?'” Of course all lives matter. But when police kill black people at egregiously disproportional rates and then often walk free without even a trial, our legal system and society as a whole sends the clear message that black lives do not matter as much as other lives.

At ND, I want so badly to believe that campus is inclusive to students of all races, but it is overwhelmingly obvious to me that this is not true. In addition to countless everyday microaggressions (“you don’t act black”, etc.), I’m troubled by the acts of blatant racism that go largely uncontested on this campus. I can only begin to understand what it feels like to be attacked by someone all the time — what it feels like to be black on this campus and in this country. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, we are still fighting for the civil rights of people of color in America.

The bigger picture is this: regardless of what specifically happened (and/or how much evidence is clear-cut), cases like Mike Brown and Eric Garner are indicative of a much larger problem of racialized police brutality and institutional racism. Brown and Garner do not represent opposite ends on a binary; instead, they occupy two points on a spectrum undergirded by systemic racism and violence.

So how do we, as members of the Notre Dame family, begin to confront race on campus?

Let me preface my suggestions by emphasizing that I do not believe most ND students come from a place of deliberate ill will, but rather, uncertainty. I believe that as a campus we do not know how to talk about race, especially not with each other.

Controversial issues such as race are always incredibly polarizing, and we should take care to remember that those on the extremes speak the loudest. So drown them out. Do some objective research; form your own opinion. Talk about race, especially with people who think differently than you do. If you are not a person of color in America, you have the privilege of being tired of talking about race and all its associated violence and controversy. But for people of color, this is every second of their every day, and it is exhausting. When you see injustice, speak up. Silence is, above all, complicity.

On that Tuesday morning when I made my way towards the die-in, I witnessed students, faculty and staff coming from every possible direction to converge in front of DeBart: people from all walks of life, students of all races, ethnicities and nationalities. I saw hope and solidarity where before I saw only pain and alienation. The die-in represented Notre Dame’s beautiful potential to come together … but it is not enough. In order to heal as a community and as a nation, we need to respect each other, even if we don’t necessarily agree with each other.

Students — you have more power than you know. We, members of the Notre Dame community, inherit Dr. King’s legacy and the responsibility to continue fighting for racial equality. As Dr. King once stated, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”


Jenn Cha


English/American Studies, Africana Studies minor

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Nathan

    In your mind, what is the one thing that everyone can do in their everyday lives to help make this kind of change a reality?

    • Jenn

      Hi Nathan,

      I believe that the one thing everyone can do is simply to listen with an open mind before bringing their thoughts into dialogue. Those who are angry have a right to be angry, but should also be cognizant of the distancing effect that anger has on those who might otherwise have been inclined to listen. Those who feel attacked have the right to feel attacked, especially given the strong opinions constantly espoused by the media. As a professor I respect immensely has voiced, “at the heart of any conflict, someone’s dignity has been violated”. We need spaces to dialogue about race in a context of respect and validation. Until the administration and general society begins to authorize these spaces, it is up to us to create them.

      • Nathan

        What do you imagine these spaces for dialogue could be? I’ve heard that phrase used often, but it always seems very abstract.

        • Jenn

          In my opinion the classroom is one of the best landscapes for frank yet mediated dialogue on race, provided it is a safe space. However, I recognize that for some students/most people this is not a practicable option. I think that in general, we can create these spaces in conversation with others in our daily lives (in the car, after seeing something problematic, after watching a movie with racial implications, etc.) if we enter them with an open mentality.

          • Nathan

            I just realized I was a bit unclear with my last question. While I was curious what would be potential examples of safe spaces could be, I’m also wondering what you see as the definition of a safe space. Is it just a place for discussion, or is there more to it than that?

          • Jenn

            My definition of a safe space is a place in which people feel like they can voice their honest thoughts/opinions without fear of being judged or attacked. Though of course such spaces cannot be forced, we can facilitate such spaces by framing discussions with asking for respect for all those involved.