Late on the night of Monday, Nov. 24, junior A.J. Enchill was watching the news following the Missouri grand jury’s non-indictment of white police officer Darren Wilson, who shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson on Aug. 9. Hundreds of people in Ferguson, Mo. were pouring into the streets in rage about what they saw as a miscarriage of justice and an inherently discriminatory justice system.
This August, Michael Brown, 18, was walking with a friend in Ferguson when he became involved in a physical altercation with Officer Wilson, who had pulled his car over to the young black men to get them out of the street. According to The New York Times, Wilson fired shots from within the car and then stepped out of the car and fired again on Brown, who was unarmed. Brown’s body lay in the street for over four hours, and private autopsy report later revealed that Brown had been shot over six times. Throughout August, protests in Ferguson erupted and were met with increasingly harsh police responses and the entrance of the National Guard.
As Enchill sat in the LGBT center with friends, watching the nation begin to burst into uproar about the non-indictment, he felt grief for the family of Michael Brown, for the people of Ferguson and for the eyewitnesses who saw what happened between Brown and Wilson.
“I just got to thinking to myself, ‘I know that my emotions are definitely tied to this decision. I clearly am not the only one who is watching this right now,’” Enchill, who is black, said. “Why aren’t we together right now? Why are we sectored off?”
Enchill sent out a message on Facebook asking if people wanted to meet up to process the events together. By around 2 a.m., about 20 to 25 students had gathered in Eaton Hall, according to sophomore Anissa Waterhouse. From this initial gathering, Indict Tufts was born.
“We spent the rest of the night making posters, chalking and just feeling things through — talking, crying, really channeling all the different feelings we were [having] and processing [them] into action,” Waterhouse said.
According to Waterhouse and sophomore Jonathan Jacob Moore, who have taken on active roles in the group, Indict Tufts is about exactly that — transforming feelings of fury and grief over this specific case into action against systemic racism.
“There’s not an end to this pain. There’s no being over it. You can convince yourself to be over it, and that’s dangerous,” Moore said. “That’s what Indict Tufts is, allowing ourselves to sit with this pain and raw anger and not let it dissipate.”
Moore said that he was not surprised by the non-indictment of Wilson, which he called a “sham,” and felt personally affected as a black man.
“It was a reminder that in the [United States] my body is worthless in the eyes of the state, in the eyes of millions of Americans and apparently in the eyes of courts, [which] are tasked with ensuring justice and integrity,” he said.
Dira Djaya, a junior who is active in Indict Tufts, reacted to the non-indictment with grief.
“This happens every year in which we have a giant case and it blows up and then protests happen,” Djaya said. “This year I had this visceral, bodily reaction in which I just started crying on and on. I’m invested in [this] work, and it was a very emotional experience.”
Associate Professor of Political Science Pearl Robinson was also following the news coverage. Robinson, who specializes in Comparative Politics, Africa and African American politics, tried to place the non-indictment within a historical context.
“It was very clear to me that the repeated killing of young black men, unarmed, by police — it means something,” she said. “It’s more than the individual killings.”
Actions and reactions
That night, students stayed up into the early morning postering and chalking phrases including “black lives matter” and “white supremacy kills” as a way to both express themselves and raise awareness on campus about institutional racism, according to Waterhouse. When they woke up the next morning, however, most of the posters and chalking — including chalking on horizontal surfaces, which is permitted by Tufts’ policy on advertising and posting — was gone.
Waterhouse and Moore expressed outrage about this move, which Moore called erasure. According to Moore, white students wrote “All Lives Matter” over the chalked slogan “Black Lives Matter” as black students stood by.
“It puts black students in a position where they are not allowed to actively express our pain without being seen as dangerous or antagonizing,” he said. “Complicity in white supremacy and racism on campus doesn’t look like racial epithets being shouted at someone, it doesn’t look like people being threatened — it looks like silence.”
Waterhouse was also disappointed in the university-sponsored reflection held in Goddard Chapel the next day. Director of the Africana Center Katrina Moore and Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris, both of whom are black, spoke, but Moore and Waterhouse felt that the event was put together hastily and that the space was dominated by white students and faculty.
“There were so few black students that felt comfortable speaking in such an immensely white space. I didn’t feel comfortable standing in the space, I just had to leave,” Moore said. “It’s unfortunate because there were black students who needed that space … it seemed like a sloppy afterthought.”
“The hardest thing about the university is that as a student of color on this campus, I already know I’m not their top priority,” Waterhouse added. “By being at a predominantly white institution, the white students and people on this campus are going to have more support than the students of color.”
Moore was also among the 80 Tufts students who participated in a rally on Tuesday, Nov. 25 in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, where about 1,400 people marched to the South Bay House of Correction. The protest was organized by Black Lives Matter Boston, a community organization focused on ending racist policing, according to its Facebook page.
According to Moore, the rally had an important role in spurring himself and other students into action.
“[It gave] people from around the area a place to scream and shout and release how they felt, to stand up against police brutality that black bodies are constantly facing — that was very therapeutic, at least for me,” Moore said. “It incited in me a sense … that I could not return to Tufts and allow business as usual to go on.”
The end of Thanksgiving break resulted in a flurry of planning for many students — both those present and absent at the initial gathering on Nov. 24. Propelled by both their informal meeting and the Black Lives Matter rally, students planned actions loosely and organically through the “Indict Tufts” Facebook group, based on whoever wanted to and was available to participate.
Indict Tufts’ actions this week included protests in Dewick and Carmichael dining halls on Monday, Dec. 1, where students chanted “black lives matter,” eulogies held every 28 hours and an open town hall meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 3 to discuss future actions.
“Every 28 hours a black body is murdered at the hands of police brutality and state-sanctioned vigilantism,” Waterhouse said of the eulogies. “It’s finding a space on this campus where we can honor those who are dying as we are sitting here thriving at this university.”
Indict Tufts, according to Moore, has no concrete demands for the university. Rather, for Moore, these actions are fundamentally about disruption of normalcy on campus, to highlight the systematic injustices and violence being done to black bodies both at Tufts and nation-wide. He emphasized that to remain silent about this oppression is to be complicit in it.
“I don’t need bureaucracy, I don’t need a committee, I don’t need officers,” he said. “I need students to sit in their discomfort. Being black at Tufts and in America is discomfort epitomized.”
Moore added that white people, people of color and black people are all equally complicit if they remain silent. He addressed the issue of students, particularly white students, not being equipped with the language or background knowledge needed to have these conversations.
“I say there’s Google for that,” Moore said. “It sounds harsh, but if people are fighting for their survival, how daunting is it to survive the aggressive attack on their humanity on one hand, and to balance the education of the people active in their oppression on the other hand?”
“Go out and do the work yourself,” Waterhouse added. “This affects every person in this country, regardless of what color you are.”
Waterhouse described how students within Indict Tufts take on different roles depending on their race. Djaya, who is Asian-American, has been a part of on-campus activism with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
“My main personal objective with [Indict Tufts] was, as a non-black person of color, to interrogate anti-blackness in Asian American communities and try to mobilize … Asian Americans,” she said. “A lot of the work that we’re doing is primarily about centering black voices.”
Moore noted that Indict Tufts is not the only group on campus doing anti-racist work. Tufts Pan-African Alliance (PAA) is a student collective that “aims to build consciousness with the Tufts community in hopes of creating spaces to nurture and empower the African Diaspora through history and culture,” according to its website. In the wake of the Wilson non-indictment, the group released a statement on Facebook, sending support to all students mobilizing and posing questions like “If we agree that the system is poison, why do we keep trying to breathe within it? What do we have to lose? What do we value? What should we be valuing?”
On Monday, Dec. 1, the PAA held an open community meeting in which several concerns with Indict Tufts were raised surrounding the language it uses, its longer-term goals and its emphasis on black death rather than black life.
“There are ways to be pro-black and there are ways to bring attention to anti-blackness,” Enchill said. “I think that in the world that we live in, those two things are inseparable. If anything, I hope that we can inspire and encourage … pro-blackness.”
Moore emphasized that Indict Tufts does not seek to step on the toes of any campus groups, but rather to create a space where any individuals can do this work together. He said that he hopes campus activists can work in solidarity.
“These efforts need to be open, need to reflect a group consciousness but not consensus,” he said. “Indict Tufts does not speak for black Tufts. It doesn’t speak for any students at Tufts other than those involved.”
“We can’t breathe”
On Wednesday, Dec. 3, a New York grand jury released its decision not to indict New York Police Department officer David Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, by putting him in a chokehold after attempting to arrest him on Staten Island for selling cigarettes illegally on July 17. Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe,” which can be heard on a widely circulated video of his assault. Protests broke out in New York City on the last five consecutive nights.
“I want to be surprised about this decision, but I’m not,” Waterhouse said. “That said, I refuse to lose sight of the greater purpose and let Eric Garner to have died in vain.”
Indict Tufts’ actions this week culminated on Friday with a march of over 150 Tufts students from the Mayer Campus Center into Davis Square. After a four-and-a-half-minute die-in to represent the number of hours Brown’s body lay on the ground, the march continued through Porter, Harvard, Central and Kendall squares, with die-ins at each location. The number of protestors swelled to around 600, according to the Boston Globe. The march was stalled at the Massachusetts Ave. bridge by state police, before they stopped traffic on the bridge and let the protesters through.
“I think that the students are trying to make sense out of this,” Robinson said of Indict Tufts’ actions. “Anytime that you have a demonstration that’s trying to do more than just respond to the event but try to make sense of it, put it into larger historical narrative … I think that that’s very healthy, if people are doing it seriously and particularly in a questioning way. And the obvious question [is], why does this keep happening?”
Enchill, like Robinson, is trying to place these recent deaths of young black men from police brutality within the context of history.
“Are we really applying this to how things have occurred in this country on a historical level? [Because] that’s what needs looking at,” he said. “We’re not in this post-racial world that we think we live in. We need to examine things critically.”
“What I hope we can get to is moving toward a situation where these communities of pain become communities that have the self-affirming knowledge that we want to be free. I heard King talk about [that] the first time I ever saw him,” Robinson, who was active in anti-apartheid movements, added. “I’m hoping that this generation of students are going to figure that out.”
Going forward, Indict Tufts hopes to connect with other local college and community organizers and place itself within the national protests against the non-indictments, while keeping the focus centered on the Tufts community.
Moore and Waterhouse are not making projections about how far into the future Indict Tufts will last, or what any longer-term actions may be. But they agree that action will continue as long as it needs to.
“It’s safe to say that this isn’t something that’s just going to end, because black [people] aren’t going to stop dying after winter break,” Waterhouse said.
“Wherever the minds and spirits of black people on this campus are going, that’s where this will go,” Moore said.