BY RACHEL PAGE, FEATURES EDITOR
Senior Rodney Savoy saw it on TV. “At first I was mad,” he says, “and then I thought, I could be next. The people sitting next to me could be next.” He shakes his head. “I was so angry I couldn’t sleep.”
Wilson students learned about the non-indictment verdict from Youtube livestreams, from NBC, from the next day’s newspaper. No matter the news source, the basic facts remain the same: On August 9 of this year, 18-year-old Michael Brown– a young Black man– was shot and killed by White police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The announcement that the 12-member grand jury selected to review the case had chosen not to indict Wilson on any charges came more than three months later, on November 24.
The jury, which was composed of nine White and three Black jurors, ruled that Wilson had probable cause to shoot Brown because he was acting under the protection of the lethal force law, which authorizes officers to use deadly force if they believe that their or another person’s life is in immediate danger. The non-indictment means that Wilson does not have to stand trial for murder, although a federal investigation is underway with the aim of determining whether a civil rights violation occurred.
In Ferguson, the verdict was met with city-wide protests, both peaceful and violent. The night of the announcement, DC was also up in arms. Protesters marched down U Street and gathered in front of the White House bearing signs that read “No Justice No Peace” and “Darren Wilson Murdered Mike Brown.”
For every Wilson student out marching on U Street or sharing their outrage through social media, there is another that remains unsure about the verdict. “A lot of people are ashamed to support Darren Wilson,” says junior Henry Cohen. “If you support the police officer then it’s like ‘oh, you’re supporting the white guy.’” But, Cohen argues, the jury ruled that Wilson was within his rights under the law to shoot Michael Brown– whether the law itself is flawed or not is a different matter.
Other Wilson students would disagree. “I heard something on MSNBC that really stuck with me,” says junior Gavrielle Jacobovitz, “which was that this was not a Darren Wilson trial; it was a Michael Brown trial.” Much of the debate over Wilson’s innocence seemed to center more around incriminating Brown, from the allegations that he robbed a convenience store before the shooting to the photos of Brown that the mainstream media used directly after the murder, which sparked the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.
Junior Ali Sefsaf agrees: the focus shouldn’t be merely on the evidence, but on broader systemic issues. “The institution of the Missouri Police Department finds nothing wrong with it; that’s institutional racism,” he says. “It forgets the situation that someone is still dead because of [Wilson’s] actions.”
For most Wilson students, at least one thing is certain: the case has brought national recognition not just to Michael Brown, but to the long history of police brutality and racial violence in the United States. “It’s typical of America,” says sophomore Nyia Carter: one incident in a string of targeted and invisibilized murders of Black men and women by White police officers. However, the question of what should be done to address it still remains.
Some students, like Cohen, believe that nonviolent protest is better. For others, it may not be enough to fix a fatally flawed system. Social studies teacher Michelle Bollinger says that the question shouldn’t be whether violence is uniformly bad, but whether nonviolence is “better for making us all feel better, or better for creating change.”
Bollinger points to the fact that despite the largely peaceful nature of the protests in Ferguson, media attention is more focused on the isolated instances of violence that do occur, like protesters turning over police cars or breaking shop windows. “There’s such a big difference between unarmed civilians betrayed by a process that promises to provide justice and this militarized government and police forces,” she says.
Although protests in Missouri and cities like New York were at times confrontational, with police tear gassing protesters and buildings burned, the DC rally on the Tuesday night after the verdict was more subdued. Hundreds of protesters marched from Mt. Vernon Square and the African American Civil War Memorial in Northwest DC to Chinatown and the Supreme Court building. They chanted “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” and sang songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Children as young as five walked alongside their guardians holding signs of their own. As they walked through Chinatown, restaurant workers and patrons gathered in the windows with iPads and phones, eager to document the mass of demonstrators. When several people began banging on the windows of the H Street Walmart, the protesters took up the chant “This is a peaceful protest.”
At Wilson, Bollinger’s history classes made their own mini-signs, scribbled with slogans like “Justice for Michael Brown.” For many, this is what justice looks like: nonviolent reform and legal change. Freshmen Aliyah Massey and Rebecca Kades, among other students, agree that justice for Brown would be achieved if Darren Wilson were charged. “There needs to be a bigger case with more people,” says Massey.
But other students are wary of the idea of looking to state reform for justice. Sefsaf agrees that Wilson should be punished, but he thinks that the change should not stop there. “Maybe we need a violent protest against the system,” he suggests. “A revolution.”
Wilson’s non-indictment has mobilized so many DC residents — and protesters across the country — because of how close to home it hits. Many Wilson students have known and continue to experience racism and police brutality firsthand. Most of the students I talked to were quick to say that what happened in Ferguson could just as easily happen here in DC. Taking a line from a popular protest slogan, senior David Nguyen says, “We’re all one bullet away from a hashtag.”
PHOTO BY ELIAS BENDA