Updated 7:21 a.m. Tuesday to change number of people involved: Monday marked not only the first day of classes at Washington University and Saint Louis University but also a collaborative effort to take note of the death of Michael Brown and the issues it has raised.
As Brown’s funeral was being held at Friendly Temple Baptist Church, a crowd of Washington U. students, faculty, administrators and staff members that organizers said topped 300 people marched around the campus and held a moment of silence for him. About 30 people gathered at SLU for a similar event near the campus clock tower, offering brief reflections and observing a period of silence.
Amee Azad, a senior pre-med student at Washington U. from Indiana, said the events were part of a nationwide effort, with the hashtag #HandsUpWalkout.
The movement’s website said it was designed to be not just a one-day observance.
“This event is meant to be more than just a gathering,” the message said. “This is an opportunity to organize like-minded people on your campus around police violence against people of color. Think about other actions that can be taken locally to change police practices and consider scheduling a planning meeting some time during the week.”
In an interview, Azad said the Washington U. event had a similar goal.
“One of our goals,” she said, “is to encourage the WashU community – the students, the administration and the faculty – to engage themselves, to engage in dialogue and volunteer their time in Ferguson and really get to know the area.”
She said the aim of the march was to make the students’ views known but also follow the wishes of Brown’s family.
“We wanted to be as respectful as possible to the Brown family," she said. "We were aware of the fact that Mike Brown’s dad had requested no protests during his funeral in the morning. We did a silent march around the campus and had a moment of silence as well.”
Having Brown’s death and its aftermath so close to campus brought home issues that have never really been all that far away, Azad added.
“There are definitely cases on the WashU campus of racial profiling,” she said. “These aren’t foreign issues for us. The situation in Ferguson hit very close to home for us. But these are also systemic issues, and there are larger factors at play.”
In a statement released before the two campus events, organizers said higher education can play a special role in helping to highlight and resolve the issues brought into focus by Brown’s death.
“As students from Washington University and Saint Louis University,” the statement said, “we seek to amplify not only our voices but also the voices of our community in the call for justice for Mike Brown. We understand the position and influence of universities in the St. Louis community, and we will hold these institutions and ourselves accountable in this fight for justice. As young people and students, we see this as a fight we must join.”
Azad and the statement said the events Monday should be just the beginning of the effort.
“While a candid and honest dialogue on race is vital in this country,” the statement said, “those dialogues become stagnant without relevant and purposeful action. We expect the Saint Louis University and Washington University communities to actively engage with the greater St. Louis area by participating in local rallies, panels, protests, and grassroots events. We ask individuals to learn their rights in order to recognize and combat the abuses of power seen in those we pay to protect us….
“By gathering, we memorialize yet another unjust killing of a young black man and make clear our stance that students everywhere must act. We are engaging the issues of our day by stepping away from our computer screens and textbooks and transforming our thoughts into action. Today, we pay respect to the many lives extinguished by unnecessary police violence. Tomorrow, we will continue in the fight for justice and work to reaffirm the value of every single human life."
Azad said she was particularly impressed by how students were able to come together so quickly at the start of the school year.
“I originally got involved after having conversations when I got back to campus with a lot of my friends about the issues,” she said.
Also impressive, Azad said, was how many people were willing to take part despite the oppressive weather.
“That was the most amazing thing,” she said. “People were not concerned with their comfort. They knew what the message of the event was, and they were there regardless of the sun, and the heat and everything. It was pretty moving.”