Whose Lives Matter?: A portrait of racial protest at Boston University

Sometimes, inaction causes a larger outcry than action.

Days after Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo collected 200 and passed “indict,” communities around the country have erupted in protest. In case you have been hibernating for the last six months, two young, unarmed black men were killed by police officers this summer, spurring months of rioting and non-violent protest alike. The Twitter campaign, #BlackLivesMatter, helped organize a nation-wide conversation about racial violence. The outcry had begun to simmer before grand juries chose not to indict either officer responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Last week was a big week for Boston activists. Adults from around the Boston area have continued to protest around the city, from Sommerville to Roxbury to the Boston Common. Protestors have blocked traffic, swarmed public events and demanded a voice in the conversation about race and police brutality.

BU is no exception. From a #HandsUpWalkOut protest Dec. 1 to the vigil for Michael Brown Dec. 2, BU students have responded loudly and forcefully in solidarity with the protestors, especially in Ferguson, Missouri.

At the protest on Dec. 1,  students started the protest with a 1 p.m. walkout, followed by faculty speeches, a few minutes of chanting, a die-in, a moment of silence and, finally, a march through campus. The racial tension within the protest itself was palpable.

“No, please, white people, join us,” a few black students murmured, watching young white activist chant, “Black lives matter.”

Twenty minutes earlier, a handful of primarily white students were holding their arms above their heads in the center of Marsh Plaza on the Boston University campus. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” they cheered. As a black woman led students in a chant, a white teenager interrupted her to say, “Excuse me, we actually organized the event, and we were planning on doing a die-in.”

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Nai Collymore-Henry is a student activist at BU. She’s a co-director of the Center for Gender, Sexuality and Activism at BU, and she’s pretty tired of seeing white students take over protests against racial oppression.

“In order to be a good ally, you need to make sure the narratives of race that need to be told are at the forefront,” Collymore-Henry said in an interview. “Even though you might be the greatest organizer in the world, it’s not your responsibility to lead people. It’s your responsibility to empower people to act on their own and let their voices be heard.”

Check your privilege, social justice buzz-phrase of the year, still means something, even after it was reduced to a meme. Acknowledging the myriad ways we benefit from whiteness means more than screaming loudly at an intangible ‘patriarchy’ or ‘white supremacy.’

“Activist” has been reclassified as a marginalized identity. It has its own culture, its own triggers, its own claim to a safe space. It has a high death toll, as most marginalized groups do, but what it’s missing is inevitability. An activist can go home, turn on “Futurama” and take a break for a while. A person of color can’t take a break from his or her race.

Pamela Lightsey, associate dean of community life and lifelong learning within BU’s School of Theology, argues the white voice, alongside the voices of other people of color, is important in achieving the goal of racial equality.

“The liberation of black people at the hands of oppression in America has never been won by black people alone,” Lightsey said. “Historically, the liberation of black people and the advancement for our human rights has come with persons who stand in solidarity outside of our particular context.”

Both Collymore-Henry and Lightsey do take issue with the edited hashtag #AllLivesMatter.

“Let’s not diminish the movement with phrases like ‘all lives matter,'” Lightsey said.

Collymore-Henry saw her fair share of “#alllivesmatter”s at the protest in Roxbury, Massachusetts Nov. 25. She’s sympathetic to the universality of the phrase, but overall, she thinks it does more harm than good.

“The most awful things I saw at this rally were people claiming ownership over the black community and changing ‘black lives matter’ to ‘all lives matter,'” Collymore-Henry said. “I understand that on a level – we’re all human, people all experience grief and hardship – however, this is a race thing.”

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