Getting Involved, Making an Impact: Student Activists and BLM

By Catherine Onorato ‘22  and Amanda Edge ‘22

Summer 2020 will be remembered not only for the lives claimed by the COVID-19 epidemic but also for the epidemic of police brutality against people of color. For many, this summer was a wake-up call; it is no longer possible to ignore the injustices faced by minorities, specifically black people in America. Now, people across the United States are uniting in the streets to come together to advocate for racial justice within all facets of American life.  


In America, people of color have been marginalized for centuries. They are incarcerated disproportionately in comparison to their white counterparts. They are largely forced out of areas due to gentrification and pushed into redlined communities with poorly funded schools and higher police presence. They often face verbal and physical abuse, particularly in the form of police brutality. These constant hurdles create barriers to success for people of color. These are the systemic issues that have provoked people of all races and ages to take to the streets and to protest. 


The boiling point was the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Minneapolis black man who was murdered by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin justified his actions by alleging, based on reports, that Floyd was carrying a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd’s death, along with Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, and many other people of color, gave rise to riots and protests across the Nation. Their deaths are just the shortlist: Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, Treyvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and the list goes on and on.  


The coverage of these protests and riots in the media has been very diverse.  The races and ages of people in attendance were widespread, some protests turned violent, others remained peaceful. Regardless, the voices of these protesters should not go unnoticed. 


Student activist and protester TJ Moss ‘21 reflected on his experience at a more violent protest. Moss recounts, “The police they just threw, I guess it was tear gas, and then, once they threw the tear gas, they started shooting-- I don't know if it was rubber bullets or paintballs-- they started shooting and people started running back [toward where he was sitting]… and that’s when I realized, okay, I think I’m in too deep, I didn’t really sign up for all of this.” He goes on to reflect more, stating that “It was very tense, an adrenaline rush for sure.” 


Additionally, TJ experienced displays of allyship while protesting. Moss recalls, “a moment where I was face to face with a police officer, and a white woman, comes up to me and gets in front of me… she was like I’m protecting you because I don’t want them to take you, I want them to take me, and so she stood in front of me and the police officer and had her hands around me. She was like ‘I couldn’t let you be the next victim’.” 


We spoke with student activist and protester, Zach Gunn ‘21, about his views on allyship. He stated that “Being a good ally is being someone who is understanding and supportive of the motive; a true ally would support you and believe that you have the strength to make a change.”  When asked what else people in our community can do to make a difference, without necessarily attending protests, Zach responded by saying “Any discrimination or prejudice you see, speak up and speak out-- because nothing can be changed unless it is talked about and brought up. So use your voice and use your social media to spread awareness.” 


This movement has not only empowered Americans to stand up for their beliefs, but it has also been a learning opportunity for many about the harsh reality of being a minority in America. It has inspired an emergence of systemic change to level the playing field for future generations of Americans. The work is far from finished, as it's difficult to instantaneously enact change, but these protests and the heightened awareness of many Americans has kickstarted the process of equality. 


In my personal experience (Amanda) of attending protests, I’ve found them to be extremely powerful. This summer I attended a sit-in at the National Cathedral at which minority students, mainly black, spoke about their experiences at predominately white institutions, and their anger and exhaustion with the systems in America that have continuously put minorities at a disadvantage. For me, it was listening to the fire in their voices, and the hope that they would be able to make a change in our society, that inspired me to maintain hope of my own. The sit-in has had such a lasting effect on me, which is one reason that I believe in the power of protesting and that it can truly encourage change. 


For me, Catherine, the Black Lives Matter protests that I have attended were empowering. I attended two protests, one outside of the Alexandria Police Department, and one in Old Town. The Old Town march really put in perspective how powerful young people are when united against a problem in society that everyone is passionate about. This protest was student-led and had hundreds of students marching for racial equality. When I heard the words of the young black students speaking about what hardships they face daily, it was an opportunity for me to become educated on issues that I otherwise may not fully understand. These speeches inspired me to take even more action and encourage my peers to do the same. I believe that the power of protesting is extremely important and can change societal and systemic issues.