UMD students want to use class time for protesting

During a student forum held Thursday at the University of Maryland, Black Lives Matter advocates argued that activism should be taught in the classroom to make it more “convenient” for students to “stand up for racial justice.”

The "Baltimore to Byrd" event, hosted by the student organization Maryland Discourse, featured a panel consisting of two students, Rhys Hall and Christine Hagan, as well as Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Kumea Shorter-Gooden and College Park City Councilor Robert Day.

The event started with a disclaimer from UMD’s NAACP chapter secretary and panel moderator Gabriela Davis notifying the audience that “although #BlackLivesMatter is a general statement or black civil rights movement, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is an actual chapter based national organization and these panelists do not reflect the organization.”

The first half of the event involved prepared questions from Davis, after which the panelists fielded questions posed both by audience members and under the Twitter hashtag #UMDBLM.

Davis began by asking the panelists to define “the end goals of Black Lives Matter and what happens after you reach that goal,” to which the panelists responded that the movement is about the pursuit of black equality, but that it is an ongoing struggle without a definite end-point.

“The voices of black people in America should always be represented, and through that representation there will be growth in that period,” Councilman Day said. “We must continue to push forward and use this movement to educate, and communicate, and to continue to grow.”

“I think this is an incredibly important movement that should involve all of us,” Dr. Short-Gooden added. “Black Lives Matter is not just for black folks to embrace, and it’s wonderful to look out in the world and to see such visible diversity in terms of ethnicity and race. I think Black Lives Matter is aimed at eliminating all racism, whether it’s intentional or unintentional; whether it’s conscious or unconscious.”

When asked if the university has been sufficiently active in the movement, Hall immediately said “no,” and that he wished the university would devise a tenure program that will protect teachers from losing their positions when they advocate issues.

“It is difficult to put yourself in this type of activist movement,” Hall complained. “One of the best things we can do for that is to create a program that will give that type of faculty, particularly young ones, a little bit of greater security so that they can advocate on behalf of the things they believe in and the things that they research, and not feel as though they are putting themselves in jeopardy or putting their families in jeopardy.

“For students, these are the type of discussions that need to be happening in the classroom,” he continued, saying, “I’m very fortunate that I’m a sociology major who’s about to graduate, and I have the flexibility in my schedule to allocate my time to being part of this.”

Younger students, though, he fretted, “can’t commit all the time to be on the streets protesting, and if this stuff were being discussed in classrooms; if this were being talked about in anything other than perhaps the African-American Studies and Sociology departments … I would wonder if the need for the amount of energy we’ve expended would be so great.”

Hagan concurred, saying she wished students were both more eager to protest and had the free time to do so.

“I think it’s very hard to find students that are truly motivated and want to do something,” she complained. “I know we all have so much homework to get done and studying to do, and there all these more fun, more exciting things we could be doing with our Friday nights but I don’t think there’s ever going to be a convenient time to stand up for social justice.”

Dr. Shorter-Gooden went even further, opining that the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement should be integrated into coursework regardless of their relevance to the subject.

“It’s not just in terms of supporting Black Lives Matter; it’s not just the protest or even the name changes,” she asserted. “It’s what happens in the classroom; to what degree we educate all of our students—whether they are in sociology or engineering; whether they’re undergraduates or grad students—to understand the context in which they live and the context in which they will work, so I think Black Lives Matter needs to be there in the classroom regardless of the discipline.”

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During the question-and-answer portion, an audience member asked the panelists what white activists can do to help the movement, to which Hall responded that “allies” (white activists) have to be willing to go jail alongside black activists.

“For a lot of ways my blackness is a crime, the blackness of some my fellow brothers and sisters and not conforming has been a crime, and we’re being persecuted just for our pure existence,” Hall said, arguing that even if his white counterparts aren’t doing anything “inherently wrong,” they are nonetheless “compliant” if they don’t actively stand against the system.

“For example, I don’t need you to tell me you feel sorry for me as a black person; you don’t have to apologize for the mistakes of your ancestors,” he explained. “What I do need is when I’m out there protesting; when I’m trying to make this movement with the rest of my black counterparts, I need you to have my back. I need to know if I get sent to jail, then you’ll have to be going to jail with me in solidarity because you care about this cause.”

As the discussion was drawing to a conclusion, the final Twitter question asked, “Can the Black Lives Matter movement overcome political division in the USA, especially when looking at Donald Trump and other racist candidates?”

Councilman Day answered that students must be more politically involved, noting that his own family had been involved in politics in the area for almost 80 years.

“I’ve heard the stories; I’ve heard the challenges; I’ve heard what people are saying, but one thing I’ve found out is that in order for their voice to truly be heard, they have to be part of the establishment,” he told the audience.

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