Hundreds of student volunteers arrived on Howard University’s campus a week early to help freshmen move in to their new dorms. They lugged their belongings to their new homes, directed them around campus, and caught up with friends before classes started.
It was the kind of scene that was repeated on university campuses around the country over the last couple of weeks. But while everyone was settling in at Howard, law enforcement officials clad in military gear were in Ferguson, Mo., confronting people who were protesting the death of Michael Brown—the unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer at least six times on a Saturday afternoon. Before he was killed, Brown was also slated to start college this month.
Illustration by Robert Meganck
So a few hours before an assembly for freshmen move-in volunteers started last Wednesday, Howard University student government leaders decided they had to say something about Brown—a teenager that Howard University Student Association Vice President Ikenna Ikeotuonye said “could have been any one of us.”
The 300 students were instructed to stare straight ahead and pose with their arms up and their palms forward—a gesture that, particularly in the aftermath of Brown’s death, is universally understood to mean “don’t shoot.”
“After we explained to them what that photo was about, the room went from a lot of chatter to just dead silence. It was somber,” says Ikeotuonye, a senior.
Ikeotuonye snapped the photo on his Canon camera, made some edits on his computer, and sent it to his staff on student government. It eventually landed on Twitter, was retweeted tens of thousands of times, and got nods in local and international papers (including in one post on Washington City Paper’s website).
The sheer number of students in that small-framed photo is striking. But it’s more than just the packed auditorium that makes the picture so powerful. These are Howard University students, students who had just arrived at the Mecca—with a capital M, as it became known during the Black Power movement in the 1960s—of black intellectualism in the U.S. The thought that even these top-tier students have to worry about walking down the street and getting shot by the police in this country resonated with people.
“No matter where they are from, no matter what their story is, these kids are black kids, which is why they had their hands up in the first place,” says Gregory Carr, the head of the Afro-American Studies department at Howard. “Can they ever jailbreak this identity that basically communicates a different humanity? I don’t know that they can, I don’t know that they can ever do that.”
But, Carr says, “the Howard brand means you can’t assail these kids.” Read more Social Justice Still Drives Howard University