Black students host ‘die-in’ on university seal, spark debate

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“I can’t breathe,” junior Marcellas Ball, standing on the St. Edward’s University seal, yelled at 11:50 a.m.

Twenty black students fell to the ground at the “die-in” demonstration, and stayed there until the Main Building bell rang at noon on Dec. 5.

The 20 students were surrounded by over 100 students, faculty and staff, who stood or kneeled around them, many holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter.”

Ball, senior Samantha Herd and junior Jarnell Watson are the three students responsible for organizing the demonstration.

According to them, the purpose of the demonstration was to show solidarity; to recognize recent events in Ferguson, Mo.; and “to acknowledge the wrongful deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and countless others who haven’t received attention in the media.”

Ball and Watson said that they became frustrated on Wednesday when they attended a deliberative dialogue facilitated by Amy Wright, a professor of American Dilemmas. The dialogue, which was hosted by two students in Wright’s class, was about the prison-industrial complex and treatment of black and brown people, Ball said.

“We’re mad that our university has not done anything to show solidarity with these communities. What can we do?,” Ball said. “That’s what started the idea.”

That evening, Ball reached out to Herd via Facebook, and they met up with Watson to plan the event. On Thursday, Herd created a Facebook event, to which over 1,000 people were invited.

Two aspects of the demonstration became the center of some contentious debate : the choice to lie on the university seal and the organizers’ request that only black students do so, while non-black participants stand or kneel around them.

Black Lives Matter

Watson said the organizers felt it was necessary to limit it to only black students lying down, because the message is that “black lives matter.”

“It’s affecting us directly, and we wanted the support of the non-black community around us to show that these people are supporting us, not necessarily that it’s affecting them, but that they’re supporting us, holding the fort down with us,” Watson said. “The fact that they are around us, forming a barrier around us, means that they care about our lives.”

Dean of Students Lisa Kirkpatrick describes the decision to only have black students lie down as “a symbolic understanding of what’s going on in our country right now.”

Junior Jeslyn Schuh also says she thinks it was a good decision for only black students to lie down.

“White students are not the ones being targeted; we are not the ones dying. It’s not our place to be the ones who demonstrate,” Schuh said. “It was a very real representation of what’s going on.”

Some students who publicly expressed opposition to the request were reached out to by Hilltop Views, but they declined to comment.

Demonstrations held at the University of Missouri and the University of Texas at Austin similarly requested that only black students participate in the main part of the protest, while non-black students participate as allies.

Despite organizer’s requests, non-black students still lay down during these universities’ demonstrations. At St. Edward’s, however, everyone who attended the demonstration honored the organizers’ request for only black students to lie down.

Students at Clemson University, George Washington University and Yale University have organized similar “die-in” demonstrations over the past week. However, no request was made for only black students to lie down at these events.

The Seal

“We decided to use the seal because it is the most sacred symbol and part of campus,” Herd said.

Kirkpatrick said she had to think “long and hard” before accepting an invitation to the event via Facebook. She did not want the student body, who had created the tradition of not walking on the seal, to take the event as a disrespectful act to the seal. However, she ultimately accepted the invitation and attended the demonstration.

“The real issue isn’t about our seal. The real issue is about the sacredness of life, and the challenges that we have in our country about racism,” Kirkpatrick said. “I knew in my mind and in my heart that this conversation needed to be about that, not about our seal.”

According to her, the organizers did a good job of communicating why they chose to use the seal as the location for the demonstration.

Anna Meyer, a freshman who attended the event, does not think that the student body fully understood the purpose of hosting the demonstration on the seal.

“Some people felt hurt or offended or as if the protestors were disrespecting the university,” she said.

However, Meyer says that she understood and supported the decision to use the seal after the organizers explained it to her.

Meyer hopes that in the future, events like this will be arranged better, so that more people will understand and support the message.

Rubi McLaughlin, a senior, said she was on campus during the event, but chose not to attend or participate once she was told the demonstration would take place on the seal.

“I just feel that there are plenty of locations which would have been just as honoring for the die-in while still respecting our schools traditions,” Mclaughlin said. “Perhaps by the new chapel would have been a good alternative.”

According to McLaughlin, she did not want to break the tradition so close to graduation.

“I might just be superstitious, but that’s my reasoning,” she said.

According to Herd, the thought was that black lives are just as sacred as the seal and that holding the demonstration on the seal would elevate the status of both black students and the seal.

“The Holy Cross mission is all about social justice, and I feel like this whole demonstration really embodies that,” she said.

Looking forward

“When I looked around at the crowd of folks who are here, it’s not just the people we see at so many of our events on campus,” Kirkpatrick said. “There were a lot of other faces who showed up and demonstrated their care and concern for the issues.”

One student who attended the event said that everyone needs to do everything to make change happen.

“As a white person, I know I’ll never have to face anything like that. Statistically, I won’t have to face anything like that. I feel like all I can do is be an ally, and advocate and listen as much as possible,” junior Liz Adams said.

Herd says she hopes to raise awareness of events happening nationwide.

“I feel like a lot of students are disconnected or uncomfortable with talking about race and issues of race,” she said. “I’ve run into a lot of students that have no idea what Ferguson is, or who is who. It can be very frustrating.”

Herd believes it is also frustrating that students can be apathetic.

Ball says he was disappointed that he had not heard anything from students or administrators about hosting a demonstration, while other universities around the country were doing so.

“I know that their are multiple students here, plenty of administration, faculty and staff that are just as outraged about these events as I am,” he said. “But no one had taken the initiative, and so that was my disappointment.”

Ball said he turned his anger into motivation and took the initiative himself to plan the demonstration.

“I hope participants (both black and non-black) feel a sense of community and make a connection with the black students on this campus since there are so little of us,” Herd said. “It’s very rare that black students come together for a cause this large.”

Four percent of the 5,095 students at St. Edward’s are black — about 204 students.