In the week since George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the nation has mourned the death of another unarmed black person, with large-scale protests against racism and police brutality proliferating across 40 cities.
The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have incited agony and indignation among the Emory community, with black students and professors demanding unity in the fight against racism and meaningful conversations about America’s deep racial divide.
“My heart is heavy because of this,” Associate Professor of Political Science Andra Gillespie said. “How many times does this have to happen before we as a society actually seek to restructure our institutions and try to prevent these tragedies from happening?”
On the evening of May 29, demonstrations in Atlanta escalated into riots as some protesters overturned police cars and damaged storefronts in downtown Atlanta and Buckhead. Gillespie stated that recognizing how underlying social conditions marginalize black people is vital to understanding why such violence occurs.
“I see the violence, and it troubles me, but I also know that it doesn’t diminish the need to acknowledge and address the systemic issues that were amplified by George Floyd,” Gillepsie said. “If anyone uses the excuse of violence to not address the problems, it is subterfuge, and I think it’s just hiding the fact that they didn’t want to address the issue in the first place.”
Emory NAACP has prepared a letter addressed to the Emory community seeking to unify students in support of black Americans, stating that “no matter what race, gender, or sexual orientation you identify with, the plague of injustice in our communities pertains to us all.”
“Listen and amplify Black voices, donate to organizations who are currently in the war field for Black rights, have conversations with your family and friends about these issues no matter how uncomfortable they might make you feel, and demand change from our authorities,” the letter reads. “To be silent is to be complicit.”
A coalition of student governing bodies and groups, including the Emory and Oxford Black Student Alliance, College Council (CC) and the Student Government Association (SGA), addressed the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in a May 28 email to the student body.
“These deaths sparked national outcry, for their deaths signify the rampant racism and white supremacy that still exists today,” the email reads. “How many more young Black individuals need to be killed before something is done to rid our society of violence at the hands of racism?”
CC Vice President of Student Affairs Amon Pierson (22C) said he’s been asking himself the same question.
“I am enraged, but even more than that, I am tired, and it is exhausting to exist in a state which threatens death all the time,” Pierson said. “The job of student government is to be a soundboard and to advocate for students, whether that be mental health resources or to become more politically active.”
Two days after SGA’s email, outgoing University President Claire E. Sterk also addressed the recent killings, writing that the Emory community must repudiate intolerance and racism. The email did not address the protests that occurred in Atlanta the previous night nor the nationwide uproar that’s ensued in the wake of the killings.
“The Emory community stands for justice in all aspects of our mission, and when confronted with hatred and prejudice, we must speak out,” Sterk wrote. “Our community will continue to engage in conversations that matter, no matter how difficult the dialogue.”
On May 31, student group Young Democrats of Emory penned a letter to University administrators, on the behalf of several student governing bodies and affinity groups, demanding the University ensure that black students are safe on campus: “While Emory has already taken steps toward providing a more equitable environment, it is clear that massive shifts in culture are needed and we believe as an educational institution, Emory has a responsibility to take part in this shift.”
The letter also demands that “places intended to support marginalized students are not negatively impacted by financial hardships” caused by the coronavirus pandemic and asks the University to develop a fiscal plan for these spaces to remain operational.
Students requested an expansion of Section 220.127.116.11 of Emory’s Open Expression Policy, which concerns the rights of student protestors “to prevent arrests unless absolutely necessary.” The letter criticizes this section of the policy which allows the chair of the Open Expression Committee to dictate whether police action can be used to stop a protest that has become unruly.
“With no clearly established guidelines, the University leaves the space open for racism to enter the learning environment,” the letter reads. “Students cannot be expected to learn while under the threat of racist rhetoric.”
The final demand asks Emory Police Department (EPD) officers to undergo rigorous implicit bias training, the University to publish more data concerning the use of physical force and weapons by EPD officers, and to develop more accessible reporting methods for community members who have been “treated unjustly by the police.”
When asked about the University’s silence at the time of his interview, Pierson said he didn’t harbor blame toward Emory because he remained skeptical about a statement’s ability to inflict substantive change.
“Them saying that they are advocating for us is something, but what is that really going to do at the end of the day?” Pierson said.
Sterk’s email announced that a “Vigil of Solidarity in Remembrance of Victims of Racist Violence” will be held on June 5 at 4 p.m. over Zoom, and students are encouraged to light a candle in remembrance of those who have died and listen to Creative Writing Program Director and recent Pulitzer Prize recipient Jericho Brown speak.
Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life Gregory McGonigle did not respond to an interview request by press time.
“I think our task as researchers and as students is to not hide behind the ivory tower and act like this doesn’t affect us,” Gillespie said. “As somebody who is African American, when I see George Floyd, I see someone who I recognize – someone who I met in particular when doing the research for my first book. But even if I didn’t have that person connect, even if I didn’t share a racial background with George Floyd, I should still be outraged, because we watched the police choke the life out of a man.”
Correction (6/1/2020 at 3 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that Amon Pierson (22C) is the SGA vice president of student affairs. In fact, he is the CC vice president of student affairs.