By Gilian Foley
On November 24th, a grand jury voted not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Although this happened weeks ago in Ferguson, Mo., it sparked protests and outrage across the country. Hundreds of people have been injured and arrested.
Protests have been held in Portland, Ore. nearly every day since the verdict was released. Local police arrested 10 at a protest on November 29th as they were reportedly marching through the west side, blocking traffic on bridges and highways.
Sierra Cleary, a sophomore at St. Mary’s Academy, attended the rally for a few hours. She described the event as “a heated, peaceful protest.”
“I saw many people from all different walks of life attend,” Cleary said. “The crowd swelled massively as I was there, with more and more high school students, kids, old people, parents, teachers and all sorts of people. The attitude felt passionate, like the crowd knew what was happening and were prepared to take action.”
Emerald Seale, a sophomore, witnessed the demonstration as she drove through downtown Portland.
“A lot of people were walking around with signs,” Seale said. “There were cops around, and they were yelling. The cops were there just to kind of make sure it didn’t break out into rioting.”
Seale supports peaceful protest, but she also believes that police are necessary to maintain nonviolence within a demonstration.
“I think anyone can protest about whatever the hell they want as long as it doesn’t break out into riots and people stealing stuff, killing people or anything violent,” Seale said. “Peaceful protest is good. The protesters protested, and the cops did their thing.”
Brown’s killing is not an isolated incident. Last Wednesday, New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo was cleared of all charges for applying a chokehold to Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man, which led to Garner’s death. The incident was caught on video, and Pantaleo’s acquittal has inflamed protesters, with many claiming systemic racism and police brutality.
This verdict led to another wave of demonstrations, some more violent than others. Hundreds of protesters marched through downtown Portland on Saturday in a rally that KOIN News 6 described as “large, loud and peaceful.”
Bernard Cohen, a sophomore, attended one of the demonstrations after Wilson’s acquittal. Cohen described it as a peaceful protest, with eloquent speakers and a downtown march, although he witnessed racial tension.
“The energy at the protest was almost distant– it was dark, and people were scared because there were helicopters in the sky and police cars everywhere,” Cohen said. “One event that stuck out for me was when people started chanting, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot!’ and an older African American woman started howling that this chant wasn’t for white people. Nobody really seemed to listen to her. The protest seemed almost routine, very angry and indistinct.”
Last Monday, protesters across the country walked out of their jobs or schools to protest Brown’s killing. Many of the walkouts occurred at 12:01 p.m., the exact time that Brown was shot in August.
The walkout spread through social media and led to organized protests in dozens of cities. Chloe Mathis, a junior, became aware of this protest through Instagram. She considered participating in the walkout but eventually decided not to for a variety of reasons.
“I totally am in support of all the protests, but I never really found a reason or an actual group of people that were doing [the walkout], so I decided not to,” Mathis said. “I had physics. I feel like it’s good to raise awareness, but everyone’s kind of aware at this point, and I’m not really sure if people should just walk out of what they’re doing. I’m not really sure there was a purpose to it.”
Mathis believes that constructive protest is possible and hopes to participate in it. She wants to do more to contribute positively to the situation in Ferguson and change the circumstances that led to Brown’s death, although she is not sure how to.
“The girl I found on Instragram, she’s from Roosevelt,” Mathis said. “Most of the people I know–regardless of whether they go to Catlin Gabel or Grant–they’ve protested. I feel ashamed for not protesting and doing more. If I found a legit thing, I would definitely encourage people to protest.”
Jada Pierce, the 10th-grade English teacher, believes that although these protests were triggered by Brown’s killing they now extend far beyond it.
“Protest, violent or not, is certainly one way to channel outrage over an issue that extends well beyond the facts or fiction surrounding Michael Brown’s death,” Pierce said. “This isn’t just about Ferguson; it’s about the stereotypes we all possess. It’s about racial profiling, a lack of police restraint and a lack of transparency in our justice system. It’s about senseless death: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice.”
A variety of contradicting information about Brown’s killing is available on the internet. Seale believes that this makes it hard to identify the truth.
“I don’t really know what’s the truth or not, so it’s kind of hard to have an opinion,” Seale said. “All you can really do is read online and choose what you believe or not. There’s different opinions, always. It’s very subjective. The facts can be muddled.”
However, some students have managed to form definite opinions. Mathis, along with many other protesters, believes that Wilson should have been indicted.
“I think it’s completely ridiculous that Darren Wilson got away free,” Mathis said. “I think he is lying about most of his story, as many of the facts don’t match up, but I do think [his use of violence] was not acceptable. I think that even if his side of the story is true, which I really do not believe most of it is, that is still not a reason to shoot anybody.”
Katerina Mon Belle, a junior, has a different view from Mathis, agreeing with the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson.
“[My belief] is not because I don’t think he made a mistake or because I am racist,” Mon Belle said. “This was not a hate crime against African Americans. It may have been racially motivated due to profiling or stereotyping on Wilson’s part, but I would have the same opinion regardless of what race the man he shot had been. I don’t feel that this shooting was about race at all, and therefore the center of attention shouldn’t be the difference of races among the men involved.”
Wilson resigned from the Ferguson police force on November 29th after he was told of credible threats to the department and officers, according to his lawyer. However, Wilson has continued to receive death threats. A man from Washington, Jaleel Tariq Abul-Jabbaar, was arrested two days after Wilson’s resignation for issuing online threats to kill him.
Mon Belle believes that many have criticized Wilson too harshly.
“Police are just humans like the rest of us and carry a very large weight on their shoulders trying to protect us and make extremely important decisions in a split second,” Mon Belle said. “Just like anyone else, they are bound to make mistakes sometimes. Sometimes these errors are small and sometimes they are tragic and cost lives.”
Pierce agrees that police officers can make mistakes but does not believe that this clears Wilson of blame.
“As long as we ask police officers to uphold the law and then arm them to maintain safety or order, we can expect that they will use and misuse their weapons to do so,” Pierce said. “They are humans, susceptible to the same flaws as the rest of us. And yet, we should expect them to exercise restraint in all manner of fulfilling their public duties. We can and should expect [officers of the law] to de-escalate situations whenever possible; that’s at least part of what it means to maintain order.”
Some of the protesters, including Cleary, believe that the circumstances surrounding these deaths can be reviewed to prevent future violence. Many activists are calling for increased police training and some are even encouraging laws that make it mandatory for police to wear cameras to document interactions with civilians.
“I believe in using the Ferguson case to light the fire under change,” Cleary said. “I think it can and should be used as support for the greater issue of racial police discrimination.”
Erin Calkins, a math teacher, hopes that the national outcry and attention surrounding Ferguson will encourage positive change. However, she believes that peaceful protests will have to continue to make this possible.
“I’m hopeful that consistent peaceful protests will help form a productive dialogue to move this country forward, as we certainly have a long way to go,” Calkins said. “Persistent peaceful protests do have a history of making a difference in decades past. I think the key is they have to persist. It seems to have become common in recent years for the population to rise up about something for a period of time and then quiet down without changes being made. Between everything that has happened in Ferguson and the recent grand jury decision regarding Eric Garner, there should be enough people speaking out for changes that need to be made in our communities and system.”