#BLM at Williams

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In 2012, a grassroots movement was launched in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, an African American teen, at the hands of George Zimmerman and the increasing trend of Black bodies being subjected to police brutality. Today, what has come to be known as Black Lives Matter is visible in nearly all sectors of society from being featured constantly in news segments to students launching their own chapters of the movement on their college campuses.

Last year, the BLM movement was able to poke through what we call the “purple bubble” at Williams, a layer of disconnection to the outside world due to location amongst other factors. With images of youth killed at the hands of police popping up all over social media students at this small college in the Berkshires were forced to confront the issues Black and Brown bodies are dealing with on a daily basis. By the time classes ended, tensions were high between students who, some for the first time, had to confront and defend their stances to their peers on the some of the nation’s most pressing political and social issues. 

However, classes began a few weeks ago and the tone is strikingly different from last fall. It was only months ago that the campus climate was cloaked with what felt like a layer of mental and physical exhaustion, something you wouldn’t be able to tell based on the bright and energetic faces you come across on the quad today. I was interested to see what legacy, if any, the BLM movement which left so many student impassioned just months ago, left at Williams. I reached out to Ahmad Greene, a senior who managed to travel down to Missouri to march along with the protesters of Ferguson while classes were in session, to talk about the aftermath of Black Lives Matter at Williams. 

Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Greene is an accomplished writer in addition to a dedicated student of both the History and Africana Studies Departments. He is also a member of the BLM chapter in New York City, and it was because of his involvement with the chapter that Greene was he was invited to talk on air with Nancy Grace regarding the killing of Deputy Darren Goforth. When I sat down with Greene the topic of Black Lives Matter was fresh on his mind, as it is most days. 

We started by talking about the current campus climate. Describing students as “sheltered from reality,” Green explained that the location and social atmosphere of Williams makes it easy for students to shield themselves from topics of an uncomfortable nature while subscribing to the belief that campus is a safe space for all. But, as Greene continued, that is not the case. There have been cases of students of color, particularly Black males, being stopped and racially profiled by the Williamstown police, and in some cases, campus security. To Greene, it is the privilege here that allows students to “opt out” of national events and see how those events relate to campus and there peer’s personal experiences.

This privilege Greene highlights is not just being able to attend an elite liberal arts institution but the privilege many college students have when their only encounter with issues of systematic racism is in a classroom setting.“[At] Williams, the issues of race and racism are here,” Greene explained, “[but] we separate them from people’s personal experiences.” This separation of concepts, which are often discussed in the language of academia, and reality leads to an environment where people are able to talk about issues of race in the classroom and make theories in response, not thinking about how these national issues affect some of their peers. 

Ahmad’s point is made clear when one looks back on how the BLM developed at Williams. Starting in September of last year, students decided to take action and increase the awareness of the brutality being administered by police onto the bodies of PoC. Largely of color themselves, these students posted thought-provoking, sometimes controversial posters, ignited discussions both in public and on outlets like YikYak and got the campus to start debating the topic of white privilege and institutional racism. These efforts culminated in a die-in in the Paresky Student Center, where students laid down in the middle of the floor, as their peers made outlines of their bodies with duct tape. This act was intended to agitate the notion that the murders being witnessed on screen were distant from the realities of Williams students. 

While many students applauded the action for bringing to attention how the Williams community is not as disconnected as it may sometimes lead itself to believe, some found it an unwelcome obstruction and several students could be seen walking over the outlined bodies on the floor in their haste to get to their next class. Throughout the year, student activists encountered backlash because of their outspokenness and many were confronted with guilt, a feeling Greene commented was a result of the sentiment, largely enforced by their peers, that they “should be grateful for what they’re given” as students at such an excellent institution. In others words, as Green put it blankly, “complaining here doesn’t make sense because you have so much.” 

Towards the last few weeks of the year, with finals approaching and a general sense of feeling drained, there was a noticeable decline in students actively seeking to engage with the Williams community on the issues that BLM brought to the forefront. As students started to invest their efforts in supporting each other to cope with the deadening footage being aired of yet another Black life lost at the hands of an individual armed with a badge, Greene notes that the focus shifted to creating spaces for “our healing and community.” One example of what he is referring to is Black Healing Week, a series of events on campus that were led by students of color who saw the need for a space of relaxing and mental decompression. Not too long after, students started to pack up and head out and the question of how would we all feel once we got back was left up in the air.  

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At Williams, Black Lives Matter has transitioned from a very public movement to a private mission taken on by those who continue to invest and be personally affected by the issues at facing the nation. Those who continue to spread the vice of BLM find support in student organizations like the Williams African Students Organization(WASO) and the Black Student Organization (BSU). There are also faculty members who are more than willing to mentor students and who contribute thought-pieces on these issues themselves. Through this support and small actions, like the acknowledgment of the adversities many students of color had to overcome to make it to a place like Williams at this year’s Convocation, the legacy of Black Lives Matter is still present, if not as public. 

Based on how last year ended, one would think that students like Greene wish they avoided bringing the BLM movement to the Berkshires but they would be wrong. While bringing BLM to Williams did not produce this Disney-esque ending where everyone was able to part ways with a sense of self-fulfillment, it caused students and faculty alike to recognize, if only for a  moment, how interconnected we are with society at large. Black Lives Matter at Williams was an attempt that sought to enlighten all members of the community, ”push[ing] us to see people---past the theories, [to] real lives.” And honestly who could regret adding that to the bubble?