As Leslie Ochonma read the list of names at Amite Plaza outside the Angell College Center, including those of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and Eric Gardner, each word was met with silence from students.
“There is one thing they have in common,” Ochonma said. “They are all black teenagers killed by those who are supposed to serve us.”
The Upsilon Kappa chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. held a candlelight vigil on Aug. 26 to honor Michael Brown, the 18-year-old black teenager whose shooting by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, garnered nationwide attention.
According to the Washington Post, Brown and one of his friends had been walking down the street, blocking traffic, before encountering the police officer who shot him.
Although Brown was allegedly the suspect in a robbery of a convenience store, the circumstances surrounding the killing remain unclear.
On Aug. 15, Ferguson police announced in a news conference that “the initial contact between the officer and Mr. Brown was not related to the robbery,” the Washington Post reported.
The vigil, one of many that took place on college campuses and public squares across the United States, provided a space for more than 90 Plattsburgh State students and faculty members to remember Brown and share their thoughts regarding race, gun violence and community protection.
Kevin Joseph, vice president of the Upsilon Kappa chapter, said the organization decided to host the vigil to raise awareness in the community, since the issue has been going on for years.
He said that although people “try to pinpoint it on race,” the killing unearths those stereotypes and misconceptions society attributes to black males.
“It puts a lot of things into perspective, especially me, as I hear my parents say, ‘Look out for yourself. You are a college man. I want you to succeed. I don’t want you to be a statistic,’” Joseph said.
J.W. Wiley, director of the Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion at PSUC, said that Brown’s death represents something different because “it rests on the shoulders of other events that have already drained the national consciousness.”
“Unfortunately, it’s the same old thing,” said Wiley, who is also a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha. “We have been there, done that. I don’t mean that to be callous about the loss of life, but at some level, there’s an expectation that black life does not mean that much, or that, in certain situations and certain times, it doesn’t.”
For Bryan Hartman, vice president of Student Affairs at PSUC, teachable moments such as the vigil are good examples of leadership. He wished there was a stronger activist culture on the campus.
“I find it sad whenever a young person is robbed of their opportunity to live a fulfilled life. We are blessed that we don’t have situations or haven’t had one in our community,” Hartman said.
The death of Michael Brown symbolizes how there are still pockets in the U.S. that have not matured in terms of race or difference, Wiley said.
“Ferguson is not the only city in the U.S. that has a dysfunctional reality,” he said. “If you got cops who didn’t get it teaching cops who don’t get it, it is going to perpetuate the cycle.”
Chief of University Police Arlene Sabo said the Plattsburgh community and the SUNY system have been fortunate in keeping students safe.
In all the history of the SUNY campuses, there has never been a shooting by a police officer, Sabo said at the vigil.
Ochonma, treasurer of the Upsilon Kappa chapter, said the list of victims was incomplete because some victims’ names are known, while many more are not.
‘THERE’S ALWAYS AN OPTION’
In the wake of the death of Michael Brown and the riots it fueled in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama said in a statement from the White House that protesters and law enforcement officials should “seek to heal, rather than to wound each other.”
Hartman said he believed people welcome violence too easily in our society because they are inundated by it. From his perspective, violence is the quickest response people have to conflict, to a frustrating situation, or to an unsafe situation.
“I have never understood why when responding to a tragedy we respond with violence,” he said. “Violence should be a last resort or almost never be an option. It’s the fight or flight, but I choose flight before ending in tragedy.”
Joseph said he believes people revert to violence when they’re not heard, since “there’s only so much someone can do peacefully without having to strike a move.”
Wiley said some people out of Ferguson took advantage of the system and were arriving in the city to loot the area.
“After tempers subsided, most people wanted to have the type of protest that President Obama was suggesting, but you also have people with different agendas who could not care less about how the family feels or the statements that were made,” Wiley said.
Joseph said he wishes that in these situations, people were able to find ways to deal with the death of a loved one in a manner that does not affect society in the future.
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