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‘They need to be uncomfortable’: Students throughout the country share their experiences advocating for Black Lives Matter

and | Friday, June 19, 2020

Young people around the world have taken this moment to use their voices and speak out against racial injustice. The Observer spoke to students from across the nation to see how some of the tri-campus is using this moment to advocate for the Black community. While some are protesting, others have found different forms of activism to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Why are they protesting? What have they experienced? What does this mean to them and their peers? Through these snapshots, we hope to paint a picture of what parts of America look like today.

Plainfield, Illinois

“‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’”

Courtesy of Faith Harris

Faith Harris, a senior, organized a protest in her hometown in Illinois. She said everything began for her when she watched the video of George Floyd being killed. 

“It was actually one of the first police brutality videos that I’ve watched. I normally just cannot watch them just for my own sanity and for my own mental health, but it was like 3 a.m. and I saw it circulating on Twitter, so I decided to click on it,” Harris said. “And of course, just like everyone else I was outraged. I ran into my sister’s room and I was crying. And you know, I told her that killed another man. And she was the first thing that she actually said to me was, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’”

Harris, who is president of the Black Cultural Arts club at Notre Dame, initially organized the protest for her friends and family to partake in. 

“Originally, it was just for, you know, me, my family, my close friends,” Harris said. “I was like, I want to go out and stand out there, ‘Do you guys want to come with me?’ And they said yes, so I put it on my Instagram. And it actually got more traction than I thought it would. People were messaging me, ‘Can we come? Can we come? What can we bring?’ And I was like, I think this might be bigger than we think it’s going to be.”

Harris and her friends and family then started prepping for a slightly larger protest than originally planned. 

“We decided to do all of our research. We printed out Know Your Rights sheets for people who are coming, just in case the police stopped by,” she said. “We brought water, we made posters and extra posters for people. We had about 140 people come, which is way more than we thought. And it was just a peaceful protest. I really emphasized that I wanted it to be peaceful. Because you know, things escalate so quickly, and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Harris said Notre Dame’s response to the death of George Floyd and protests was “disrespectful.” University President Fr. John Jenkins initially released a two-sentence statement about the death of George Floyd, with the famed photo of President Emeritus Fr. Hesbrugh protesting with Martin Luther King Jr. Days later, he released a longer statement.

“I think that it’s really, really just kind of disrespectful that … the President of our University has to kind of be bullied into making a longer statement or just saying more than he actually has done. And I think that’s disrespectful to your Black population,” Harris said. “I think that having your students come together and do more than you do is kind of just, you know, it’s just not acceptable. Notre Dame has had a history of racism. Students face it every day. I know people personally, and close to me who faced it.”

Students in the coming years will be more inclined to make changes to the University’s culture, Harris said. 

“My sister went to the University, and graduated in 2014,” Harris said. “She always apologizes to me, and tells me ‘You know, I never wanted you to go through what I had to go through’ … I think that our students this year or even in the coming years are going to be making big changes, and I think that the University needs to prepare for that.”

Houston, Texas

“It’s important to show not just other white people, like ‘Hey, look, you should care about this,’ but to show your Black and minority friends, ‘Your life is important to me.’”

Courtesy of Emma Shea

Emma Shea attended a protest in her hometown of Houston on June 2. The protest, by most accounts, had upwards of 60,000 people in attendance — including George Floyd’s family. Floyd, whose death at the hands of a police officer on May 25 sparked the outage and protests that have spread across the country in the last few weeks, grew up in Houston. 

“I think that the Black Lives Matter Houston chapter really wanted to lift up George Floyd and George Floyd’s family to show them that, maybe he was in Minneapolis when he died … but to show the members of his family his roots here are not forgotten, and he was important to the people here. Even to people who never knew him he is very important,” Shea said. “So I think his life and legacy were very much emphasized both in the actual marching of the protest and the chants that were initiated, but then also in the speeches that were given.”

Shea, a senior at Notre Dame, has been outspoken on social media about her beliefs concerning the Black Lives Matter movement. She advocates for white people, like herself, to act as allies for the Black community. Shea said Floyd’s death and the aftermath has been a “pivotal moment” for her.  

“I had somewhat seen videos or pictures or things before, but then sort of all of a sudden there was this wave of sort of constant exposure. … I think that’s been a huge eye opener for a lot of people, including myself, and then just realizing how widespread it really is,” she said. “For me, after that, that’s when I really started donating to places.”

Shea said she believes as a white person it is important to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, and other minority groups.

“I think that’s something that’s really valuable for white people to do,” she said. “If you have this awareness now, and if you feel like you can’t be silent about this issue because of how pervasive it is, and how widespread and how just so clearly unjust it is, then you have access to these circles, where people aren’t exposed to that because it doesn’t directly affect them, because they do benefit from the systems of injustice, and historical systemic oppression.”

She said the impact of spreading awareness of the injustices facing the Black community cannot be overestimated and being an ally to the Black community is important for many reasons.

“I think it’s important to show not just other white people, like ‘Hey, look, you should care about this,’ but to show your Black and minority friends, ‘Your life is important to me’ and ‘Your struggle is important to me.’ And I know that there are things I can do, at the end of the day it’s support to show that you’ll put your neck out there.”

New Jersey and New York City, New York

“It was very powerful for me to see a lot of people who were passionate about the same things that I was.”

Courtesy of Lamont Marino

Lamont Marino, a junior at Notre Dame, said he has attended four protests at the time of his interview with the Observer — two in New York City and two in New Jersey. 

“Going to the protest, you felt the passion that everybody had towards trying to get some justice done. For me, it was something I hadn’t really done too much of in terms of activism,” Marino, who is half African-American, said. “Because I’ve read, and I know about history, and I’ve seen racism around me, but you know, there was no real chance for me to be an activist at the time. And so it was very powerful for me to see a lot of people who were passionate about the same things that I was.”

Marino said he noticed differences in the way police received them in the different areas he protested in.

“In New York, they … had on riot gear and they didn’t seem too enthusiastic about it, even though it was pretty peaceful the whole time,” he said. “I was in the Newark one where the police officers decided to walk with us. That was a very telling experience.”

He said at a protest in Brooklyn he attended, police officers picked people out of the protest and began to get violent with protesters.

“When we got there, they just started picking people out of the protest and throwing them on the ground and started beating them up,” Marino said. “So once they did that, some protesters definitely got really upset and started confronting them and it just snowballed from there. The NYPD has had its backlash lately, and I’ve been a victim to that when I was younger, so I wasn’t really surprised, but I think that this kind of just shone a light on it.”

Flossmoor, Illinois

“For the Black community, there are two pandemics right now: the COVID-19 pandemic and racism.”

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1019lcsFnzd4Dk5IkK3JzsnWNUeKQGFJhUlr-uKQucTM/edit

Kennedi Sidberry, a Flossmoor, Ill. native, said she felt helpless after the news of George Floyd’s death. 

“I called the University Counseling Center, and I was basically like, ‘I’m sure I’m not the only student who was feeling a little hopeless at this time, what resources do you have to offer?’ I was really disappointed to find out that there really wasn’t anything available,” Sidberry said. “They had different services for coping with the pandemic, but there weren’t really any racial violence coping mechanisms, I guess there any resources for that. So that was the start.”

Sidberry, a junior, said she eventually got in contact with Jamie Garvey, an on-staff psychologist. 

“I spoke with her and she was really kind. She was really understanding, and she was grateful that I was bringing the issue to her attention. Honestly, within maybe two days, I saw so much feedback,” Sidberry said. “She would email me back and say, ‘Okay, so we just had a staff meeting about your issues, about your concerns, and they whipped out a workshop within a week over Zoom where students could come and just process their emotions and reactions to the violence in the media.”

Sidberry said the Black community at Notre Dame needed their own specific mental health resources.

“For the Black community, there are two pandemics right now: the COVID-19 pandemic and racism. And this is nothing new,” Sidberry said. “We basically just felt like [Jenkins’s] response on behalf of the school was just kind of a slap in the face. It wasn’t very genuine. So basically through talking with Jamie, I was saying ‘Is the UCC going to put out a statement, a list of resources, or something?’ Especially for students returning to campus where we’re supposed to have [President] Trump come to campus in this fall for the debate, and students always have to deal with the culture shock of coming to school and not seeing other people who look like them and just microaggressions add up.’”

Sidberry decided to work with the UCC to create a Black mental health resource sheet. To make the list of resources, Garvey sent Sidberry suggestions, and she shared them to all of her social media accounts. Additionally, the UCC created a webpage with similar information for students of color.  

Sidberry also runs an Instagram and GroupMe account for students of color at Notre Dame called @notredamenaturals, to showcase students of color and their natural hair. 

“With the Notre Dame naturals account, that started before the George Floyd incident even occurred,” Sidberry said. “That was supposed to be a platform to celebrate Black beauty … just to kind of create community, and I feel like in the in light of everything going on it’s even more necessary, because when everything in the media is telling you that you’re less than,  having that space to just look at how beautiful our community really is is really important.”

 Indianapolis, Indiana

“I’m a lot more driven to be the change that I want to see.” 

Courtesy of Max Siegel

Max Siegel, a junior at Notre Dame, has a unique perspective as an offensive lineman for the Irish. He was asked to share his opinion about the protests and turmoil happening in the world as part of Notre Dame Football’s “Signed, the Irish” series. 

Originally from the Indianapolis area, Siegel said he attended a protest his friends helped organize downtown, but said he was initially very “disheartened.” 

“It was really hard to really articulate what I wanted to say, and kind of just express how I felt,” Siegel said. “But after a couple of days, and just reaching out some of my friends and some of my other friends that are activists here in Indiana, Indianapolis, it really re-energized me. So now I’m a lot more hopeful. I’m a lot more driven to be the change that I want to see.” 

At the time of his interview with the Observer, Siegel had been to three protests in his area. At the start of protests, the 7 p.m. curfew in his area contributed to some violence, Siegel said.

“The way it worked before last week was that essentially the police can use whatever force needed past 7 p.m., which was the curfew,” he said. “So the closer you got towards that 7 p.m. marker, the more tense it got. … Now it’s been getting better, less tense. The first couple of weeks there were a lot of violent protests at night. But now, you don’t really hear about as many of them anymore. It’s just been peaceful protests.”

Siegel said he was disappointed in the original statement the University put out, and in some of the details they included in the following statements. 

“I think that so to say that I was disappointed in the original one would be an understatement. I think the second statement was better. But I was also very disappointed to see that police brutality was not mentioned by name, and also the portion about racism hurting everybody also rubbed me the wrong way,” Siegel said. “I wrote this in my piece, but racism that hurts someone in your community hurts everybody. But it felt like at the time, that wasn’t the time or the place to put in that racism hurts everybody, when you see these are acts of violence towards Black people.”

New Orleans, Louisiana

“Students often will claim that there’s this wonderful Notre Dame family, but there’s so many Black students that can’t say the same…”

 

 As the president of Shades of Ebony and the director of diversity and inclusion for student government, senior Kaya Lawrence felt the need to respond immediately when she heard about George Floyd’s death.

Early on, Lawrence met with the executive board, representatives from Diversity Council and members of her own department to craft a statement from student government.

“We really wanted to make sure we had different voices represented, and that it wasn’t just student government speaking on behalf of students of color,” Lawrence, who is currently living in New Orleans, La., said.

In preparation for the fall semester, Lawrence said student government is working on a number of policies to improve race relations on campus. In addition to helping write the student government statement, she assisted in writing a call to action from a coalition of Black clubs on campus on behalf of the members of the Black Notre Dame community.

Both statements prompted vice president of student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding to schedule meetings with a number of groups on campus, Lawrence said, but she’s skeptical that significant changes will be enacted.

“I think many times in the past the administration has had meetings with these different groups about the problems on campus but has failed to actually create a transformation on campus,” Lawrence said.

As Notre Dame is a predominately white institution, Lawrence said she thinks many of the Black students on campus go through a lot of silent pain, where white students often fail to speak up when Black students are targeted. To improve the campus environment, Lawrence urges the student body to hold themselves accountable and speak up.

“Students often will claim that there’s this wonderful Notre Dame family, but there’s so many Black students that can’t say the same or who don’t feel comfortable or who don’t feel at home when they come back to campus,” Lawrence said.

South Bend and Notre Dame, Indiana

 “To the members of the Black and African American student body, we’re all in this together and it’s okay to feel drained or frustrated or fatigued about what’s going on.”

Courtesy of Jeff Musema

Notre Dame community members gather at the Grotto in the Prayer for Unity, Walk for Justice event on June 1.

Senior Jeff Musema said he’s not surprised the protests have gone on for so long.

In many ways the Black community has reached a breaking point, and this time, Musema said, Black voices have had the chance to speak up while benefiting from the support of a large number of members within their community and allies outside of it.

“I think that the quality of one’s life is a product of the quality of the consistent emotions one feels, and the Black community within Notre Dame and the nation as a whole has felt like they’ve been misunderstood and misrepresented and unheard,” Musema said. “So it’s not surprising that [the protests] have gone on for so long.”

A resident of Granger, Ind., Musema attended a protest in South Bend and the “Prayer for Unity, Walk for Justice” event organized by the University, both of which attracted hundreds of people. While he appreciated the prayer service, Musema said he wished more Black and African American leaders in the student body were involved in the planning of the event.

As the president of Wabruda, a student group that promotes brotherhood among Black men on campus, Musema hopes to collaborate with the administration to work towards solutions, and he urges the Black student body to stay focused.

“To the members of the Black and African American student body, we’re all in this together and it’s okay to feel drained or frustrated or fatigued about what’s going on,” Musema said. “It’s okay to take a break, collect your thoughts and really question the changes that you’d like to see not only for yourself but for members of the community who will be coming to Notre Dame.”

Bentonville, Arkansas

“For me, it’s just really telling if you’re silent.”

Courtesy of Lan Anh Dinh

Senior Lan Anh Dinh carried a sign with a quote from political activist and writer, Angela Y. Davis, to a protest in Bentonville, Arkansas.

As an international student from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, senior Lan Anh Dinh said she was nervous at first to attend a demonstration because protesters in Vietnam are often subjected to harsh treatment and violence.

Dinh still wanted to do her part to support Black lives though, and despite her apprehension, she attended a demonstration in Bentonville, Ark., which neighbors Springdale, Ark., where she currently lives.

“The protests happened around this Confederate statue right opposite the first-ever Walmart, and I thought that was just so powerful,” Dinh said.

While the protest Dinh attended remained peaceful, protests in Bentonville, Ark. have escalated since then with police officers deploying tear gas and ordering protesters to leave.

As an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement, Dinh said she’s mainly looking to listen, amplify her friends’ voices and lend physical and organizational help.

“The first step in being an ally is really just alerting myself to all of the prejudice that I didn’t realize was there,” Dinh said.

Dinh said she’s been spending time educating herself further on issues surrounding racial inequality in the U.S., and she encourages other Notre Dame students to do the same.

“I guess I just want people to care more,” Dinh said. “If they’re not going to do something I want them to join in on the conversation even if it is uncomfortable because they need to be uncomfortable. For me, it’s just really telling if you’re silent.”

St. Louis and Jefferson City, Missouri

I was Black from the moment I was born, but this discussion surrounding racial justice is pretty novel to a lot of people, especially privileged people at Notre Dame.

Courtesy of Blake Johnson

Senior Blake Johnson attends a protest in St. Louis, Missouri to fight for Black lives.

Living in St. Louis, Missouri, only 15 minutes away from Ferguson, senior Blake Johnson said outrage regarding police brutality is not something novel for people in his community. 

“Watching [Floyd’s] video is very reminiscent of this feeling that happened after Michael Brown’s death,” Johnson said. “It kind of revamped a lot of those feelings of anger that came from an unjust, killing of an unarmed Black person. I think it was a lot of novel anger, but also a lot of rejuvenated renewed anger, from before.”

Taking to the streets, over the past few weeks Johnson has attended protests in Jefferson City and St. Louis to ask the state government for police reform and for defunding the police department. 

“I want legislators and people in power to know that our voices are heard and that we’re here and we’re not going away until we see some major changes happen,” Johnson said.

While many people in his community have protested before, Johnson said he is particularly struck by the widespread support the Black community has received.

“In Jefferson City I think it was around 1,000 people and in St. Louis a few thousand came out to the protest,” Johnson said. “People of all ages and colors came out in solidarity to protest, and I thought that was a beautiful thing.”

In addition to attending protests, Johnson said he has been reading articles, educating himself and discussing issues surrounding racial inequality with his friends.

“I was Black from the moment I was born, but this discussion surrounding racial justice is pretty novel to a lot of people, especially privileged people at Notre Dame,” Johnson said. “I kind of took it upon myself to call out my peers and even my close friends that weren’t paying attention to what’s going on and weren’t having discussions amongst themselves and their family members because I think at this time with this great momentum everyone has to play a part if any change is going to happen.”

While Johnson said he knows toppling systematic racism will take a long time, he thinks legislation to reform the system is a good start.

“I think to not be hopeful is not really helping the cause,” Johnson said. “I think in order to continue protesting, in order to continue educating yourself, in order to continue striving for change, you have to be hopeful of a better future, so I do have hope for this country.”

Johnson hopes the momentum continues in order to enact lasting changes, and he encourages students at Notre Dame to continue having conversations, educating themselves and protesting even when it is inconvenient.  

“There are millions of your fellow Americans that are living every day in a racially adjusted country,” Johnson said. “Black people deserve your attention, and they deserve the country to continue striving for a better future.”

Moraga, Oakland and Orinda, California

“Even as people are protesting police brutality, the police have responded with brutality.”

Courtesy of Brendan McFeely

Police line up in riot gear prepared to subdue protesters in Oakland, California.

Sophomore Brendan McFeely said his experiences protesting have been very different depending on where he’s gone. 

Residing in Orinda, Calif., McFeely said he attended a protest in downtown Oakland as well as a few events in the suburbs. The protest McFeely and his friends joined in Oakland near the police department attracted thousands and later turned violent after curfew.

“It was kind of terrifying because across the street the riot police were preparing for that night even though curfew didn’t happen for two more hours,” McFeely said. “Then at some point they started getting out their twist ties so that they could handcuff people.”

In Moraga, Calif., organizers held an event at a local park where hundreds of people attended to hear from people of color in the community, McFeely said, and at his own high school, he participated in a phone bank event to call legislators. McFeely said he’s also seen a number of small demonstrations of people standing on corners with signs in his small town, and he’s surprised by how widespread the protests have been, despite some turning violent.

“Even as people are protesting police brutality, the police have responded with brutality,” McFeely said. “I think it’s been frustrating, but I think it’s also been really inspiring to see the reaction this time as opposed to the other times where there have been some protests, but it seems like there hasn’t been nearly as much traction,” McFeely said.

McFeely said he feels strongly about serving as an ally in this movement and doing what he can to support Black lives.

“I think for me, it was just that I felt I would be betraying people I know and love if I didn’t because I’ve grown up with so much privilege that I felt like it would be wrong for me to not use it for good,” McFeely said. “And as a white boy, you know it’s less likely that police are going to brutalize me, so if I can put my body between myself and people who are more likely to get hurt by people who are supposed to protect them that’s something I’m willing to do.”

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

“As a Black person in America, it’s so easy to see myself in every single one of these victims.”

Courtesy of Erica Browne

Junior Erica Browne helps with voter registration at a protest put on by the Oklahoma City chapter of Black Lives Matter.

After attending a number of protests in Oklahoma City, Okla., junior Erica Browne said she was interested in doing more to lend support to the movement and enact legislative change. 

So she, and four other young women, have been planning their own protest.

Browne got in contact with the other lead organizers for the protest through social media and has meet with them over Zoom to consider logistics, like getting permitted and finding volunteers to be medics and hand out supplies. 

“Though we aren’t directly affiliated with Black Lives Matter, we are working with some of their organizers, and they’re giving us tips and helping us out,” Browne said. “By attending protests led by Young Democrats of Oklahoma or any other organization like that, we’ve not only showed support and fought for Black lives at the protests, we also learned so much from all of all of them.”

She said her experiences taking two Center for Social Concerns seminars, “Organizing, Power and Hope” and “Act Justly,” in the past year encouraged her to get involved and provided her with some background knowledge to take into consideration while organizing.

So far, Browne said they have almost a thousand people who are planning on attending their protest according to their Facebook group.

“We’re really passionate about seeing this through and passionate about creating change and holding our elected officials accountable and figuring out ways to make our protests more than a protest,” Browne said.

While Browne strongly believes in the importance of protesting, she said she thinks protests are just the beginning, and sharing petition links and ways people can be involved in their next city council meetings is also critical.

“When it comes to our elected officials it’s really easy to accept small wins to say that this means we’re moving in the right direction,” Browne said. “But we really need to keep putting constant pressure for this to actually be realized and for things to actually change. We don’t have time or the capacity to keep accepting mediocre changes or soft changes.”

Having seen other videos of Black people’s violent interactions with the police, Browne said she could not bring herself to watch the killing of George Floyd.

“As a Black person in America, it’s so easy to see myself in every single one of these victims,” Browne said.

This sentiment is in part what drives Browne to continue fighting for change.

“We need fast and immediate action, because there’s nothing right now, at least in my city, stopping what happened to so many people from happening to me, from happening to my mother, my siblings, my other parents,” Browne said.

The Observer will be updating this story as more students’ experiences are shared. Email the authors at [email protected] or [email protected] to tell us your story.

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About Mariah Rush

Mariah is a senior majoring in American Studies and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is from the great city of South Bend, and serves as Managing Editor of The Observer. You can find her always on Twitter at @mariahfrush.

Contact Mariah

About Serena Zacharias

Serena is a junior majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She hails from the great cheese state of Wisconsin and currently serves as the ND News Editor for the Observer.

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