September 27, 2016

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Bringing Meaning to Black Lives Matter at Cornell

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This past Friday, students, faculty members and administrators united on Ho Plaza to commemorate the tragic deaths of Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott and other black men, women and children who lost their lives at the hands of white police officers. What was for many a weekend of homecoming celebrations, was for others a time to grieve and reflect upon racial injustices in America. Despite the success of the protest, the backlash that resulted revealed divisions among our community when it comes to race perspectives. An event that should have enhanced community members’ understandings of their peers’ sentiments instead highlighted a problematic interpretation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The BLM crowd is worthless. Where is the outrage at all the black-on-black killing?”

“Petition: anyone protesting immediately loses their scholarship/loans/grants and has to pay out of pocket (with full tuition due in 15 days)…”

“Bunch of idiots! Where were they when a black person was murdered on campus? (presumable by someone else who is black, although no details of that). I don’t care who did the murdering (black, white, asia, purple) — that is when BLM should have protested! Cornell needs to start teaching these students… Instead of considering ‘more liberal arts,’ maybe these students need more math/physics/bio/chem/cs-so they actually have to sit and study instead of wasting time!”

These were responses to the recent Sun article covering Friday’s protest. Commenters were quick to criticize students, faculty members and administrators for voicing their concerns regarding the recent killings. In doing so, they overlooked important racial elements of the movement.

As a recent Vox article phrased it, the death of Terence Crutcher is “Black Lives Matter 101.” In explaining the events that culminated in Crutcher’s death, a Vox reporter wrote, “[the] interaction reportedly began because Crutcher’s car broke down. As police responded to the scene of the stalled vehicle and Crutcher followed instructions to hold his hands over his head, an officer can be heard on video saying he looked like ‘a bad dude.’ Seconds later, he was lying in a pool of blood.”

As Vox notes, there were no distractions when it came to Terence Crutcher’s death. The victim had neither committed a crime, nor was he suspected of one. Crutcher was not selling untaxed cigarettes at the time of his murder or driving around with a broken taillight. He did not struggle with an officer or run away. While these facts did not make the killings of Eric Garner, Mike Brown or Sandra Bland any less heartfelt, they did add to political debate and public confusion. These dubious facts are simply not found in the case of Terence Crutcher.

Protesters gathered on Friday to highlight racial injustices happening across the nation yet felt right here at Cornell. This movement did not purport to undermine the significance of black-on-black crime. Marchers did not intend to disparage the importance of honoring lives lost in the Ithaca community. Furthermore, the protesters who marched on Friday did not seek unity from those holding divergent views. They did, however, seek respect from the Cornell community. Moreover, they deserved compassion.

Here at Cornell we cherish the notion of providing a caring community for students, faculty members, employees, and alumni from all walks of life.  However, when community members are so quick to trivialize the sentiments of our students (because they lack a complete understanding of the issue at hand, or have no desire to learn more about it), this undermines a key attribute of Cornell.

Diversity drives our University. The diverse backgrounds and perspectives that that our students and faculty bring to Cornell promote innovation and enable us to compete in a globalized society. The backlash that these protestors faced was undoubtedly discouraging. This lack of respect and compassion stifles our progressive campus culture, while belittling the importance of race and social issues that remain pervasive in society today.

Let us build upon our caring community. In doing so, we must be open to learning more about issues that may not directly affect us, but severely impact our peers.

Dara Brown is the graduate student-elected trustee. She can be reached at [email protected]. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.