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Why We Can’t Breathe Easy

Graduate student activism.


December 9, 2014

Justin Dunnavant is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Florida. You can find him on Twitter @archfieldnotes or at his blog AfricanaArch.

Over the last couple of weeks, my Facebook and Twitter accounts have turned into a constant barrage of articles, videos, and actions calling for Justice for ‪#‎EricGarner, ‪#‎MikeBrown, and countless others. It is a memorial for the deceased and a call to action for the living. In some cases people have discouraged me from posting such matters on my “professional” social media accounts, as it may make others feel uncomfortable and paint me as a “radical.” While I remain firm in my conviction, I had to question to what degree should we as graduate students and future faculty become involved in advocating for social justice? The fact is this recent chains of events hits close to home.

With the situations in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland I am reminded of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, just two hours away from my university. In 2012, immediately following the incident, several students traveled down to Sanford to call for the arrest and trial of George Zimmerman and subsequently protested the verdict. We wrote our reflections, held a memorial service, and some even took over the state Capitol calling for the passage of “Trayvon’s Law.”

If Trayvon Martin weren’t close enough to home, in March 2010, less than three months before I arrived at the University of Florida, a black graduate student, Kofi Adu Brempong, was shot in the face by the University Police Department’s Critical Incident Response Team in his on-campus apartment. Police said they “felt threatened” by him as they forcibly entered his home. Kofi had been crippled by childhood polio and walked with a cane, while the police were armed in SWAT gear.

Fortunately, Kofi survived. Unfortunately he had to have reconstructive surgery on his face and is unable to teach because he still has problems physically speaking. Community members, students, and faculty continually protested—organizing and participating in demonstrations similar to ones we’ve seen over the past weeks—to have charges brought against the officer. Six months later, a settlement was reached with the university and Kofi agreed not to sue. The police officer was never arrested, retained his job at the police department, and was only fired six months later after he pulled over and threatened to shoot a reckless driver. University professors made a documentary that was released earlier this year, which outlines the incident and its aftermath. I would like to say that these incidents are unique to Florida and UF but I know that this is not the case.

So what does graduate student activism look like? It takes many forms. As academics, we write constantly and therefore should feel comfortable putting our thoughts to words in times of need. Write an op-ed piece or a press release to the university and community newspaper sharing your perspectives and reflections. Whether we realize it or not, our titles as “graduate students” often carry a lot of weight, particularly in college towns. In some cases, we have unique qualifications that can be leveraged toward furthering more tangible actions. Attorneys and law professors recently organized the Ferguson to Geneva campaign to bring the issue of human rights violations associated with racial profiling and police violence before the United Nations. The parents of Mike Brown gave personal testimony before the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva last month.

As educators, we have the ability to use our classrooms to instruct and relate the course material to relevant matters. If you’re not sure how to make connections between your course material and current events, you’ll be surprised what a quick google search can reveal. A New York Times blog provides different strategies and resources for teaching about Ferguson in the classroom, and one archaeologist explains how the incidents in Ferguson have affected her writing. Thankfully, there is a plethora of written and visual material about the subject that we can share and use.

Finally, it’s important to remember that we are part of a larger community. We are members of the university as well as the wider communities in which we live. Therefore, addressing incidents in our neighborhood, state, and country are just as important as those that happen on our campuses. At the same time, as graduate students we hold a unique position among our campus community. We are role models to many undergraduates, serving as both their lecturers and their peers and sometimes as members of the same organizations. Believe it or not, we also have relatively better job-security than lecturers and untenured faculty, in some cases allowing us to be more vocal about things that make administrators uncomfortable. I would suggest that as community members we stay informed, share our experiences and join local efforts to make a difference. It’s important to remember that during the Trayvon Martin situation, it was the outpouring of support from communities across the country—and the world—that helped bring the case to trial.

One note of caution: be aware of just how taxing being socially active can be and don’t over-commit yourself. Just two years ago, students at UF thought it would be funny to dress in Blackface for a fraternity Halloween party. The university refused to punish the students or the fraternity that sponsored the party but felt pressured to provide “sensitivity training” and accept our proposal for an African American Studies undergraduate major after we spend weeks organizing an action plan. That “pressure” came from countless hours of meetings with campus organizations, concerned students, and university administrators, and we stayed up late nights drafting recommendations and speeches. It’s not easy, and I have seen several students prolong their graduate school careers as a result of their activist work.

In the coming weeks and months, some will choose to remain silent and I respect their decision. Unfortunately, as a young African American male who used to walk my neighborhood in a hoodie like Trayvon Martin, play with toy guns like Tamir Rice, and had aspirations for college like Mike Brown, I have no option but to stay committed to this work. I am constantly reminded by others that I am here to get a degree and not to get too involved, but I kindly reply I want my degree to make a difference. By the time this post is released, we will have held another demonstration effectively blocking off a major intersection adjacent to our university during rush hour traffic to drive home the point that #blacklivesmatter. #ferguson #fergusontogeneva #mikebrown #trayvonmartin #ericgarner #icantbreathe #tamirrice #johncrawford


Please share your thought, comments, and concerns. This is a safe space for dialogue.

[Image by the author used under Creative Commons Licensing.]



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