The killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department has sparked nationwide protests to highlight police brutality and promote racial justice. These protests have occurred in over 350 cities. In addition, people have shown their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement through donations, petitions and social media.
Although media coverage of the protests has recently propelled police brutality into the American spotlight, rising senior Bentley Addison noted that black Americans have felt this issue for years.
“I think about it whenever I’m driving and I take a wrong turn, or when I’m walking in Baltimore and end up in a richer area, or when my brother leaves the house. This fear of ‘the next time it happens, is it going to be me or someone I know?’ is something that every black person in America lives with,” Addison said. “I vividly remember my father getting pulled over at the side of the road... and then having a really serious, frank discussion about what that meant when we got home: If we were stopped by the cops, that could be the end of our lives. I was nine.”
On May 31, the University responded to the nationwide unrest in an email to the student body from University President Ronald J. Daniels and leaders at Hopkins Medicine. The statement began by emphasizing the global challenges of the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“We have witnessed our African American, Latinx, Native American and poverty-stricken communities disproportionately dying from COVID-19, while our Asian and Asian American communities have been targeted with vitriol because of the disease’s origins. People have lost family members, and the economic impact of this pandemic has led to many people having lost their job,” the statement reads.
The email then called attention to the death of George Floyd, as well as the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Freddie Gray, all black Americans killed by their white counterparts.
In addition, the email provided links to the University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and access to student wellness resources for those who are hurting during this time. Administrators also promised to hold a symposium series titled “The Language of the Unheard: A Virtual Town Hall on Racial Injustice” in early June.
Addison believes that it is crucial to hold the University accountable to do more.
“Words, classes and symposia are not enough,“ he said. “We need our University to be taking action.”
Over 20 student groups have already signed an open letter to the University condemning its response and its contributions to structural racism in Baltimore, citing the harvesting of Henrietta Lacks’ cells in 1951.
The University’s email also stated that the entire Hopkins community is affected by ongoing injustice.
“Because we are all intricately connected by our common humanity, if one segment of our community is hurting, it adversely impacts all of us. This is not just an issue for African Americans; it is an issue that threatens the future for all Americans,” they wrote.
Rising sophomore Alyssa Zimmerman shared her disappointment in the University’s message.
“The post they shared is not acceptable. It felt like the post was saying ‘All Lives Matter,’ and that is not the perspective that we need,” she said.
Rising junior Jevon Campbell characterized the University’s response as inadequate.
“There are a few major things wrong with the statement,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “First and foremost is the lack of compassion. It feels like a robot wrote it, not a human.”
Karen Lancaster, assistant vice president of external relations for the Office of Communications, addressed these criticisms in an email to The News-Letter.
“The feedback on the message is an important part of the dialogue, and we count on a continued chorus of voices to help inform our own words and actions,” she wrote.
Because of these plans, rising senior Nikki Garcia argued that the University’s response to the movement is meaningless.
“You cannot pretend to stand in solidarity with the Black community while continuing to pursue the creation of a private police force,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “These two cannot exist together as it has been made clear to administration through protests, sit-ins, and other avenues that Black students would not feel safe or protected by such a police force.”
Campbell questioned why the University chose to omit mention of the private police force in its statement.
“Are you still planning on getting a private police force on campus after all these incidents of police brutality?” he wrote. “If you are still bringing a private police force to campus, how will it be any different from the police forces around the nation?”
Lancaster stressed that the private police force will still be created, but only after dialogue with the University’s faculty, students, staff and neighbors.
“We share the community’s anguish and anger regarding the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police during his violent arrest,” she wrote. “We also hear and take to heart the renewed questions and concerns about the establishment of a Johns Hopkins Police Department and want to assure our community that we are taking a slow, deliberative and consultative approach to that effort.”
According to Lancaster, the JHPD Accountability Board will meet for the first time next week and take recent events into consideration.
“Going forward, the responsibility will be ours to recruit, hire, and train a department that embodies our highest values and principles, and manifests our fervent resolve not to tolerate violence, mistreatment, or bias racism against black, brown, and LGBTQ people in security or any other aspect of our institution,” she wrote.
On the Instagram post, many students alleged that the University was taking down comments pertaining to the private police force.
Lancaster denied this claim in her email.
“We have not deleted any comments. We’ve always had Instagram’s ‘hide offensive comments’ filter enabled (as an initial layer of protection to prevent bullying and hate speech),” she wrote. “We have posted that if someone believes their comment was removed to please DM us to let us know what it said so that we can determine whether it may have unintentionally triggered an auto-filter.”
In an email to The News-Letter, rising sophomore Hannah Pugh wrote that the University must must listen to its black students.
“Although black students only take up 13% of the class of 2023 at Hopkins, we deserve to feel as safe and represented as all other groups on campus,” she wrote. “JHU should disassemble the private police force. Police brutality is a real issue that is very tightly wound together with racist tendencies. Many black students and Americans feel far more threatened by police than protected by them.”
Rising sophomore Devon Cordero noted in an email to The News-Letter that black students do not feel supported by the University’s statement.
“I feel as the response came much too late and is nowhere near enough to convince the black students of their institution that JHU actually cares about issues such as racism,” he wrote. “I would like them to rephrase their statement on the current issues to be more sincere and provide ways to make a change.”
Students participate in protests nationwide
Dean of Student Life Smita Ruzicka spoke directly to students of color at Hopkins in an email to the student body.
“To the black and brown students of JHU, I see you. I hear you. I am with you,” she wrote. “To the JHU students and alums who are joining protests in your respective cities, exercising your rights to peacefully advocate for justice, I applaud you.”
Many students have been exercising the right that Ruzicka mentioned.
For instance, rising sophomore Alyssa Zimmerman, who lives in a suburb of Minneapolis, attended a march in her community that began at the U.S. Bank Stadium and ended at the I-35 West bridge.
“It was really beautiful marching,” she said. “It was so great to see so many people together and to hear the unified voice. It was just amazing.”
Although the protest began peacefully, Zimmerman recounted how, at the end of it, a truck attempted to drive into protesters on the freeway, which had been closed to make more room for the activists. She noted that the media represented the incident differently than she experienced it.
“I heard what the media was saying about me and the truck that tried to kill me. The media was trying to victim-blame us,” she said. “It’s trauma like this that black people face every day. They’re told that they’re lying every single day. Their experiences are belittled every single day. It’s just horrible.”
Rising sophomore Lubna Azmi attended a protest in her hometown of Manassas, Va., where she witnessed police officers perpetrating violence.
“The police were really aggressive, not just physically but also in the manner that they approached protesters,” she said. “A lot of my friends were tear-gassed, and some of my friends were hit with rubber bullets and have been injured badly.”
Addison noted that this police violence makes it difficult for protesters to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“Police instigation of tear gas will force people to take their masks off. The shooting of rubber bullets into crowds will force people to get close to each other to take care of each other,” he said. “If you want these protests to be safe so that COVID-19 doesn’t spread, then these cops have to stop using force.”
Garcia underscored how white allies can use their skin color to support BLM at these protests.
“I would like to see my white peers using their privilege to protect our Black brothers and sisters,” she wrote. “For example, acting as a body shield for Black protesters and also generally following the lead of Black organizers.”
For Pugh, the point of the protests also goes far beyond simply eliminating police brutality in the U.S.
“The goal of this movement is to finally give black Americans equal treatment and eliminate racist biases from the minds of the ignorant,” she wrote. “Nobody should be treated as less because of their skin color. Black is beautiful.”
Campbell noted that, besides in-person protesting, peers can help support the movement by signing petitions and donating to victims and protesters.
Contacting legislators, he added, will ensure that police officers who murder citizens are punished accordingly.
Azmi urged readers to follow this link with information about how they can get involved.
She also called on her non-black peers to break their silence and support the cause openly.
“The fact that the people who are speaking out the most right now are the ones who are most affected is unacceptable,” she said. “They’re the ones who should be able to take a break right now and have their silence.”
Azmi noted that because Hopkins is located in a city whose residents are majority-black, the University has an obligation to take a firmer stance in support of specifically black lives.
“Our school has done so much damage to the black people of Baltimore,” she said. “Justice won’t be served until inequities in health care and education are addressed not only by community members but by institutions like ours and government officials who aren’t saying anything about it right now.”
A large percentage of Baltimore’s citizens, Addison stressed, are Hopkins employees.
“Right as the coronavirus crisis hit, Hopkins reneged on a promise of payment to the largely black food service workers at the University,” he said. “They eventually kept their promise and paid the food service workers for four weeks, but it still proves that Hopkins has not been caring about its black community.”
Campbell called for greater action on the part of the Hopkins administration, as well as American citizens.
“It is sad we must fight for things that should be normal. Sad that my mother should be scared to see me speak up, fearing I may lose a scholarship... Sad that my mother is scared to see me walk out the door and show up dead on the six o’clock news at the hands of a police officer, not because she thinks I would ever commit a crime but because she knows that I am a black man in America,” he wrote. “Justice should be an expectation, not a fantasy. JHU and this nation can and should do better.”
Michelle Limpe contributed reporting to this article.