On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the campus group Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and its supporters met at 40th and Locust streets to march towards the School District of Philadelphia building, joining thousands for the Historic MLK DARE March. They chanted the symbolic rallying cry of the Ferguson protests, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” as they marched through campus and around City Hall.
Symbols define many causes, including
those addressed by Penn’s activist groups.
These groups must traverse the complexities
of the social and political issues they confront.
Eye–catching and provocative, symbols
ranging from slogans to statistics allow
Penn’s activists to engage their peers. Still,
symbols must not be exempt from scrutiny,
for any aspect of a movement unchecked is
as counterproductive to its supporters as it is
to those it hopes to persuade. And on a college
campus, persuasion is hard to quantify.
SOUL co–founder and College junior Gina Dukes believes that the “Hands up, don’t shoot” gesture is powerful, despite the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson.
“Even if Mike Brown himself didn’t have his hands up…it’s still symbolic of the position black people and brown people face in this country when they face police who come at them with this violence,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do. We’re immediately shot first. No questions asked.”
According to Gina, SOUL’s goals include “economic empowerment, political development, further radicalizing students on Penn’s campus and being an outlet for people who want to have these conversations.” The group’s protest movement has not been short–lived. Last October, before the grand jury verdict on November 24th, the group began Ferguson Fridays—weekly events to keep the spotlight on Ferguson. One Friday, they staged a four–hour–long die–in, during which four students laid on red cloth by the Benjamin Franklin statue near College Hall. While four people participated in this longer die–in, hundreds showed up to the group’s four–and–a–half–minute long die–ins, held after the grand jury verdict was announced.
In a post on SOUL’s Facebook page, Gina and SOUL co–founder and College senior Breanna Moore wrote, “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” evoking a violent symbol of slavery. The full quote, which appears in the caption to SOUL’s profile picture, is attributed to Assata Shakur, as Gina confirmed. Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper in 1977. After escaping from prison and seeking asylum in Cuba, she made it onto the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists in 2013. SOUL’s Facebook caption describes her as a “revolutionary sistah.”
Back on campus after winter break, Gina explained her interpretation of Shakur’s quote. “Because our humanity is already at stake, because our people are already being killed, we have nothing to lose but all the chains that hold us back as far as oppression and racism,” she said. “The only thing we have left to gain is our freedom.”
But some symbols protesters use have drawn criticism. Those skeptical of the symbols point to the fog of the eyewitness accounts surrounding Brown’s last moments as well as contradictory physical evidence— powder burns, DNA, bullet trajectory, blood evidence and shell casings—they argue that these factors undermine a protest movement or ideology based on the case in Ferguson. Calvin Whitaker, a funeral director who picked up and transported Brown’s body, explained in an interview with a Missouri FOX affiliate that the body was on the ground for so long because he was told by police to remain in his car until the crowd and gunshots disseminated and he could proceed.
Although the burden of reality rests on the shoulders of the activists, protest organizers stand by the “die–in” symbol. “The act of lying down like that is not new,” College senior and former UMOJA co–chair Denzel Cummings said. “I think it’s really important to understand that these actions stem from the wide variety of police brutality that happens, not just these two cases.”
While UMOJA, an umbrella organization that unites students of the African Diaspora, does not organize its own protests, it supports SOUL’s protests in “any way [it] can,” said Denzel.
The organization is one of five groups on the 5B, which aims to represent minority groups on campus. Unlike SOUL, the 5B focuses largely on campus policies, including mental health, faculty diversity and financial aid for low–income and first–generation students. While groups with symbols or catchphrases are easily identifiable on campus, the Penn community engages with the 5B’s efforts in less visible ways—with general body meetings, speaker events and cultural celebrations.
On Tuesday December 8th, over 200 students headed to Houston Hall to participate in the United Minority Council’s #WhyBlackLivesMatter photo campaign. The campaign didn’t revolve around the “Hands up, don’t shoot” gesture or include a die–in protest, as SOUL’s have. Instead, each student wrote a reason why black lives matter and posed for a photograph with his or her response, written in black marker on a white sheet of paper. “Because indifference is ignorance,” one read. Another: “Because equality shouldn’t just be a slogan.”
On December 13th, the organization covered the LOVE statue on campus with over 100 of these responses. It was unmissable to the thousands of students who walked through College Green that day. “We wanted it to be a central place where people could come to read the responses, especially if they couldn’t partake in the event,” UMC Chair and Wharton junior Tanya Jain said.
UMC’s photo campaign also began in response to the Ferguson case, and, according to Tanya, aimed to enlighten Penn’s students on “why it’s important that we value everyone the same.”
Tanya believes activism should create a general awareness of a particular issue. “A lot of these protests that are going on cater to people who are really gung–ho about the issue, while there are people who have no idea what’s even going on,” she said. “It’s an issue when people don’t know why they’re laying down; some are just bandwagon followers.”
After considering evidence that challenges Brown’s role as an example of a broader narrative, Tanya conceded. “Even if you don’t use Michael Brown, there are so many other instances of people that were faced with police brutality. Who was that guy who was choked?” she said, wondering about Eric Garner’s case.
But, she said she “wouldn’t make a case if the evidence is still shaky. It defeats the whole purpose because then people just try to attack [our] symbol.”
“We use our institutional citizenship here at Penn to hold our own huge, powerful institution accountable,” said Chloe Sigal, Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) organizer and College senior.
For Chloe, holding Penn accountable means demanding that it pay PILOTs—payments in lieu of taxes, or voluntary taxes paid by nonprofit organizations to the city.
SLAP is a movement for “economic justice.” In past years, the group successfully spearheaded the “Justice on the Menu” and “End Deathtraps” campaigns. Their hallmark this year, PILOTs, has gained attention citywide, partially due to the group’s sit–in at President Amy Gutmann’s holiday party in December.
Today, Penn and Columbia are the only universities in the Ivy League that don’t pay PILOTs, an ongoing campaign that began in the seventies in the United States. SLAP demands Penn pay 0.1 percent of its annual operating budget, or 6.6 million dollars a year, to the city. This money would be allocated just as any other property tax revenue, with 55 percent going to the School District of Philadelphia. Still, the role of 6.6 million dollars of revenue in a city with an 81–million dollar budget deficit remains unknown.
SLAP organizer and College senior Adrian Rios said that Penn’s current community involvement is not enough. “When you’re a nonprofit that celebrates how much money you have, that’s questioning your nonprofit status,” Adrian added. “What kind of nonprofit holds 10 billion dollars in endowment? That’s unheard of.”
In September, on the bus back from the People’s Climate March in New York City, five Penn students channeled their momentum from the day, creating Fossil Free Penn.
The group, now in its third iteration, joins Penn’s many activist groups tackling environmental issues. In previous years, Divest Penn and Penn Community for a Sustainable Endowment pushed for divestment, but never succeeded, for various reasons, including a lack of direction. Fossil Free Penn demands, again, that Penn divest from fossil fuels.
In October, almost 30 students headed to the Inn at Penn, chanting, “Penn Trustees, divest, please,” outside their meeting. But their efforts have yet to translate into meaningful policy change.
“How are we going to divest from fossil fuels if we can’t even divest from tobacco?” College sophomore and coordinator for Fossil Free Penn Gavi Reiter said in an interview on campus in January.
While critics doubt the economic prospects for renewable energy, Gavi believes an economic incentive will emerge in the long–term, though unapparent now. “It’s important for Penn to set a precedent that these energy sources are very dirty and that’s not where the future should be heading. So we should be an example and care about the future of our students and everyone else,” she said.
Gavi’s advocacy work is just one example of students voicing dissatisfaction with the status quo. “I love that we’re students and we can use our voices,” she said.
From College Hall to City Hall, Penn’s activist groups use their voices to advocate for causes they deem worthwhile. They raise their arms, they lie down and they sit–in. They carry with pride the slogans and signs that represent their causes—each with its own critics and backstories.
See the photo gallery for the Martin Luther King Jr. March
Dina Moroz is a senior from Philadelphia majoring in English.