They lay prostrate – motionless and silent – for 4 ½ minutes, a symbolic gesture to quietly protest what many on the floor considered Michael Brown’s posthumous dehumanization.
After his shooting death, Brown’s lifeless body was left to lay sprawled in the middle of the street for 4 ½ hours, much of that time his gym shoes protruding out from a white sheet, his bloodied bulk shielded with “a low, six-panel orange partition typically used for car crashes,” according to a New York Times report.
The more than 50 sprawled bodies — students, staff and faculty members of Dominican University in River Forest — gathered late Tuesday afternoon in an area just off of the entrance to the Rebecca Crown Library. They were here to stage a die-in to protest the decisions by grand juries in Ferguson and New York City not to indict police officers in the violent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both unarmed black males.
“Oh God, the dignity of all your children is compromised by racism, but we gather today to honor all those who have lost their lives to this sin and to affirm with you that black lives matter,” prayed Oak Park resident Claire Noonan, invoking a phrase that’s turned into something of a national slogan of protesters across the country.
Berto Aguayo, a junior at the university and the student body president, said that the demonstration was conceived at a peace circle hosted last Thursday by two faculty members who convened the forum so that the university community could talk through their responses to the two court decisions.
“A lot of the students, myself included, felt that the university needed to express some unified response to everything going on in Ferguson and New York City,” Aguayo said.
“We felt it was our mission to create a more just and humane world that involves addressing these issues, not remaining quiet, not passing them on, but really addressing them and taking them on and showing solidarity for the people directly and indirectly affected by all these issues,” said the 20-year-old.
As they lay symbolically dead, Noonan, the university’s vice president for missions and ministry, urged the participants to “consider ourselves as the brothers and sisters of those who are lying in the street both literally and metaphorically.”
The Dominican demonstration was much quieter compared to the more visible public outcries that have occurred across the country. Since November 24, when a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, 28, in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, more than 100 people have been arrested in connection with the protests and riots that occurred in Ferguson after the jury’s verdict.
National unrest was further inflamed by the Dec. 3, decision by a grand jury in New York City not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, 29, the police officer responsible for fatally chocking Eric Garner, 43. Officers said the Staten Island man was arrested for selling loose cigarettes. Demonstrators have since gathered in cities across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, in opposition to what many people now feel is a much larger issue of rampant police brutality and abuse that disproportionately affects minority communities. On Dec. 5, hundreds of protestors in Chicago marched through the Loop and briefly shutdown Lake Shore Drive. Four people were arrested and charged with misdemeanors.
“We cannot allow ourselves or our communities to tolerate a system that has criminalized and demonized black and brown youth while agents of the state are rarely, if ever, called to publicly or legally account for their violence,” said Leticia Villarreal Sosa, an associate professor of social work at Dominican, in a statement she read on behalf of the faculty and staff at the university.
The statement was signed by leaders in Dominican’s Graduate School of Social Work, in addition to representatives of Smith College, Portland State University, Columbia University, the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration, and the National Association of Social Workers, among other organizations.
“[We are] committing our specific social work skills and expertise […] to the support of individuals and organizations in Chicago and beyond that are demanding systemic change, supporting those affected by state violence and racism, and promoting healing, restoration and movements for power in communities most affected,” the statement read.
Anthony Suarez-Abraham, a professor of theology who was one of the faculty members who hosted the peace circle, said that he hopes the demonstration is only the beginning of more consistent social activism.
“I hope that this builds into a movement,” he said. “I think there have been a lot of terrific responses around the country and Dominican is adding its voice to those. Hopefully a movement develops to address these problematic issues.”
Suarez-Abraham, a resident of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, said that Tuesday’s demonstration received the support of the university’s administration, faculty and staff.
“From the president down to the faculty and staff, the university is explicitly supportive of not only the response we’re seeing today, but there were also many faculty, staff and students at the peace circle,” he said.
As participants were dispersing, Aguayo alerted them to a flyer listing other social justice events happening around campus and tried galvanizing attention to a matter of practical policy that was much closer to home.
Aguayo said that the River Forest Police department and the Dominican University student body were working on drafting a memo of understanding that would maintain a healthy relationship between the two entities.
“The memo just details what we expect from each other when we have encounters with one another, it protects our students and it improves the relationship we already have with the River Forest Police department,” Aguayo said.
“Luckily, I believe they’ve been really cooperative and really receptive to our advice, so this just solidifies that relationship and makes sure that we prevent any type of police violence, abuse and brutality.”