On a patch of yellowed grass in the Nebraska Union greenspace, about 40 students lay motionless in a circle, poster boards jutting vertically from their chests like gravestones.
In unison, they chanted the last words of Eric Garner, who died of cardiac arrest in July after being placed in a chokehold by a Staten Island police officer:
“I can’t breathe.”
The students staged a “die-in” on the greenspace to protest police brutality and racism in the wake of Garner’s death and the death of Ferguson, Missouri, 18-year-old Michael Brown.
As unrest protests and rioting ignited around the country last week in response to the lack of indictments for the police officers accused of killing Garner and Brown, it was unclear how a Midwestern, mostly white student body – hundreds of miles from Ferguson and thousands of miles from Staten Island – would react.
But this week, responses came in several forms: The die-in, word of a panel discussion planned for Friday afternoon and a Tuesday morning student-wide email from Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Juan Franco and Assistant to the Vice Chancellor for Diversity Andre Fortune.
In traditionally conservative Nebraska, the demonstration went on uninterrupted Tuesday, though a few who disagreed with the sentiment behind it displayed signs that read: “Protect & Serve” and “I Support the Police.”
Some here expressed skepticism about the nature of the national demonstrations, which have often extended long into the night and led police to deploy riot gear, rubber bullets and pepper spray.
“Let’s not be violent with it,” said Ben Spektor, a senior management major at UNL. “Looting stores and businesses and burning cars isn’t right, and it’s just embarrassing for the community.”
In their joint email on Tuesday, Franco and Fortune acknowledged that tensions are high nationally.
“We recognize that many are feeling the effects of the broader social implications of recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York, and we are saddened by the pain and frustration being felt in the roots and reverberation of these incidents,” read the email from Franco and Fortune. It went on to encourage students seeking answers to utilize the “network of support” available to them, including the Counseling Center, University Health Center, Women’s Center and the multicultural center.
“Today and beyond we seek to provide a campus environment where students feel they matter,” the message continued. “As such, we want you to know you matter. You matter greatly.”
At the panel on Friday, titled “Ferguson & Beyond: Race and Police Killings,” three University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty members will address questions of inclusion, trust and legitimacy in American democracy. The panel will take place in the Nebraska Union auditorium from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The panelists are Gwendolyn Combs, associate professor of management, Jeannette Eileen Jones, associate professor of history and ethnic studies and Patrick Jones, associate professor of history and ethnic studies.
Political science professor Michael Combs will chair the event, which is sponsored by the political science department and the African American leadership caucus
Combs said it’s important to discuss these issues in a public forum because, while he believes protest and discussion are one and the same, a panel provides another opportunity to look at these national issues.
“Students need to get an academic perspective of the debate over race and police killings,” Combs said. “There are systemic questions about the responses of African Americans and police officers that need to be addressed.”
He said he hopes addressing these issues can shed light on a topic that specific ethnic groups – namely blacks and whites – sometimes view differently. Although the two groups are talking about the same issue, he said, middle ground is hardly ever achieved.
The panel aims to find that middle ground and look back into questions that continue to surround race issues.
And although Lincoln is far from New York and Ferguson, racism and police brutailty remain relevant here, Combs said,
He added that understanding the components of the national controversy is essential for UNL students.
“Students today are entering a diverse world and they have to be aware of the experiences that they’re going to find in it,” Combs said.
The unfolding of these events comes about a year after UNL leaders responded to racial unrest on campus through the “Not Here, Not Now, Not Ever! campaign,” which kicked off with a series of speeches and public comment on Nov. 25, 2013.
The campaign was a response to a pair of racially charged incidents in which: An Association of Students of the University of Nebraska senator used racial slurs during debate, and the N-word was found written in chalk in front of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house.
At the time, some students wondered whether the campaign would be an adequate way to address UNL’s perceived “racism problem.”
“Right now, this is glitz and glamour,” then-junior communication studies major Nicholas Banks said at the kickoff event. “Eventually, everyone is going to go home.”
In addition to a series of forums and group discussions, the administrative campaign culminated in several action items from UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. Changes included:
-The creation of an updated campus incident reporting system to record and respond to incidents of bias. The new system, launched in September, allows for more specificity in complaints.
-Appointing Fortune as assistant to the vice chancellor for diversity and creating a Diversity Administrative Council, among other adminsitrative leadership changes.
-Adding a diversity component to many faculty and student training programs, including the First Year Experience and Transition Program.
Fortune wrote a personal letter to the Daily Nebraskan last month expressing his concern about the events in Ferguson.
“I believe God is in control of my life,” he wrote. “Yet, I AM AFRAID – As a 6’2”, 350 lb. black man, identifiably “dark-skinned,” and father of two black boys I am afraid for our lives. It didn’t take this week for that to happen.”
He said although he can’t comfortably say, “I am Michael Brown,” as he comes from a different background, he deals with a lot of the same issues.
“No matter how many degrees I earn and how polite my sons are our lives are still considered less than – we are criminal, dumb and dangerous until proven otherwise,” Fortune said.
Franco and Fortune’s Tuesday email took a different approach, seeking to assure and comfort students.
“Your success as an individual matters greatly to us,” it read. “Your satisfaction with our campus climate and community matters greatly – and to that end, we reassert our ongoing commitment to continue to courageously seek answers together as we shape a community and culture that reflects our best hope for a bright future for each and every one of us.”
Franco didn’t respond to Daily Nebraskan inquiries about the timing of the Tuesday email, so it’s unclear why administrators waited several days to send the message. But student reception was positive.
“Got this email from college today,” junior chemical engineering Eva Araujo wrote in a caption alongside an Instagram picture of the message. “They are making sure everyone knows they are not alone.”
Jacy Marmaduke contributed to this report.