Faculty Feature

Faculty Feature: Addressing Race, State Violence, and Social Activism

Mike Brown. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Tony Robinson. Unarmed African American men, even boys, killed with impunity by police officers and vigilantes, their names bear witness to a long history of state-sanctioned anti-black violence in the United States.  Their premature deaths, and the refusal of the courts to pass judgment on those who caused their deaths, have sparked outrage, grief, and controversy about the lived divide between those who are and are note exposed to the risks of racial profiling and state violence. The #BlackLivesMatter movement that has emerged recently from this long history affirms African American resilience as it demands social justice and change.

The idea for the winter 2015 course on “Ferguson and Beyond: Race, Police, and Protest in the Contemporary US” began as an expression of solidarity with UW Bothell students and alum who were trying to understand and respond proactively to these current events.  Recognizing that many students were deeply affected, and that silence was not an option, Ron Krabill, Director of the MA in Cultural Studies (MACS) program, penned a letter on behalf of all faculty members in the program, addressed to MACS students and alumni:

“….We want you to know that, like you, we are following the events in Ferguson, in New York, in Cleveland, in Phoenix, here in Seattle, and elsewhere with a combination of sorrow and rage.   We share your emotions of anger, frustration, cynicism, hope, and countless others.  And like you, we are struggling to make sense of both what’s happening and how best to respond.  We have been involved, like you, in a wide variety of direct (as well as indirect) actions here in Seattle and elsewhere, and will continue to do so.”

What became clear, through the exchanges that gave birth to the letter and those that followed from it, was the need for a collective space where students, along with faculty and staff, could engage with the events and the long history that led to them. Students called out for a space within their campus community to create dialogue regarding race, structural violence, and activism.

This call resonated very much with IAS faculty member Sarah Dowling, who teaches across ethnic studies, creative writing, and contemporary literature.  She had noticed that many of the students in her Writing the Americas course were really hurting, and had used poetry by Claudia Rankine and Morgan Parker to open discussions of racial injustice.  Along with Krabill, she acted quickly in mid-December to launch a winter course that would serve as a forum for further dialogue and action. They recruited MACS candidate Marcus Johnson, who had been active in campus dialogues, and reached out to multiple IAS faculty members in order to create “Ferguson and Beyond: Race, Police, and Protest in the Contemporary United States.”

Despite the fact that the course was announced after the autumn quarter had ended in mid-December, twenty-four students enrolled in the undergraduate course, while many more participated in ways that did not involve credit.  The instructors issued an open invitation for all students, faculty, and staff to attend discussions, and created deliberate intersections with other courses. 

Students followed current events; read a selection of articles from scholars, activists, and artists; and engaged in public conversations about these topics. They also participated in a day-long teach-in at the Ethnic Cultural Center on the Seattle campus, organized by a coalition of UW Seattle and Bothell faculty members and attended by community members, students, faculty, and staff. An opportunity to explore the legacies and effects of anti-black racism in the U.S. as well as a call for solidarity and change, the teach-in brought Garfield High School leaders together with UW graduate and undergraduate student activists. “It’s rare that an on-campus event of this scale centers Black experiences, voices, and perspectives,” noted one participant. “It was very powerful to see students owning and learning from each other in that space.”

Additionally, the course offered opportunities to contextualize recent events from a number of crossdisciplinary perspectives. IAS faculty members Dan Berger and Scott Kurashige, both of whom teach in IAS’s American and Ethnic Studies major, led a class on Contemporary Policing, Incarceration and Resistance.  Camille Walsh and Trevor Griffey offered historical and legal perspectives on Racialized State Violence and Resistance. And Christian Anderson and David Giles drew on their training in geography, anthropology, and urban studies, to discuss Broken Windows, Urban Space, and Urban Cultural Politics.

The final session, facilitated by Community Psychology faculty member Janelle Silva and graduate student Marcus Johnson, centered on next steps. Students took control of the class through a series of small workshops. By reflecting on the previous class sessions, developing questions that emerged throughout the quarter, thinking through various forms of organizing, creating action points, and reflecting on individual or group protest, students were able to create an activist tool-kit that could serve to shape future responses.

“What surprised and inspired me most was the fearlessness and dedication of the students,” Johnson remarks.  Dowling agrees: “Most importantly, the course brought students together and provided a forum where they could work collaboratively on various forms of activism. They began to learn from one another outside the classroom, connect their struggles, and act in solidarity as allies and as agents of change. It was really inspiring to see.”

Marcus Johnson is a contributing author for this article.