May/June 2020Vol. XXXII No. 5

Voices from the MIT Community Vigil

Kendyll Hicks, Ramona Allen, Malick Ghachem, Corban Swain

The following four messages speak to the tragic circumstances triggered by racism, the consequent chronic experience of fear, and the need for our community to recognize and address the continuum of racially inspired situations at MIT as well as those beyond. All of the messages are from the June 2nd MIT Community Vigil, (either excerpted or in their entirety). They put forth a call to action; not being racist isn’t enough. As Kendyll Hicks says in her message, “We are tired of thoughts and prayers.” The spoken words carry these messages more forcefully than the text here can. We encourage everyone to hear these and the other 12 messages presented at the Vigil:

Kendyll Hicks is a graduating senior in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

For the past week, we have watched again and again the slow and methodical disregard for a black man’s life. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds Officer Derek Chauvin fearlessly stared into a camera and continued to dig his knee into George Floyd’s throat. George lost consciousness, the officer heard cries saying “you are killing him,” and he continued to dig his knee into George Floyd’s throat.

But, this isn’t about George Floyd. This is about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Dion Johnson, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Atatiana Jefferson, Trayvon Martin, and so, so many more. My heart has ached and my throat has tangled for too long for the families, whose black mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, some whose names we know and countless others whose we don’t, were treated as problems instead of people. Whose bodies were battered by those who were sworn to protect them. Who fell victim to a system that has masterminded the murder of a people. We are gathered here to mourn those precious lives lost. In mourning, I fear for my family, my friends, loved ones, and myself – who wake up in a country where it has always been open season on black bodies and who look in the mirror and think “today, being black could be my death sentence.”

But where do our tears go? When will our country stop coddling white killers? When will our institutions begin to truly feel our pain and inherit our tears? When will they realize that not only are we fighting for justice, for fair and humane treatment, but also that we are fighting for our lives? We are tired of thoughts and prayers.

With that in mind, MIT Administration, I would like to ask you – do you really care about your black students, faculty, and staff if you’re not willing to use your power and resources to protect us? When Covid-19 arrived, MIT sprung into action making masks, ventilators, diagnostics, and pharmaceuticals. Where is that ambition for the public health crisis for which we gather right now? When vicious immigration policies threatened the safety and protection of students, MIT publicly urged the powers that be to make a change. You’ve proved you can do something, but today you’re missing in action. And as so many have noted, to acknowledge and be informed without concrete effort is to be complicit and to support the police terror that’s occurring. Stand with us. Publicly demand the accountability of all officers involved. Publicly support for the demonstrations and broader black liberation efforts happening across the country. Do something. Include us in your mandate. Accept this problem as your own. Because we will never achieve an equitable and just community on campus if our humanity is being disregarded everywhere else.

So, how do we honor the lives lost? We must listen, learn, educate, speak up, vote, donate, empathize, love, and fight because we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Ramona Allen is the Vice President for Human Resources.

For some of us, we are at a familiar crossroads. Familiar because, as a person of color, violence has impacted our experiences and family histories in this country since its inception. Like a virus, racism mutates and changes, but leads to a national sickness marked by widespread economic, political, and social inequalities.

As a child growing up in segregated Boston, I had eggs thrown at me, and my school bus was regularly stoned and shot at. I had no choice but to keep moving and so these traumas were never really addressed. But these are collective, deep-seated historical traumas that are now manifesting on the streets. It’s exhausting to be a person of color in this country, and quite frankly we are tired.

I’m tired of imagining my husband, family, and friends, people who look like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, facing a criminal legal system that does not recognize their fundamental worth and humanity. I am deeply disheartened and disappointed by the ways in which the lives of people of color have been devalued . . . over and over again. That is quite a heavy burden. Black men, women, and trans lives MATTER and this shouldn’t have to be a point of discussion.

Fortunately, we convene today as members of a community of teaching, learning and innovation. I draw strength from knowing that at MIT, we continue to be committed to educating students in ways that will “best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.” Watching Commencement just a few days ago warmed my heart and left me feeling encouraged and inspired. I am inspired by our staff and faculty who in countless ways demonstrate their brilliance, thoughtfulness, and kindness.

So I’m counting on you all; my expectations for this community are extremely high.

We have the best and brightest minds here. So we need to lead the country from Cambridge, just like we do in every other way that makes MIT a place of excellence. Innovation, imagination, and creativity are part of our DNA, and we must use these strengths to be part of envisioning new ways of being together as a community.

At this particular crossroads, we must take action, and now.

No more waiting! Educate yourself. Raise awareness. Sign petitions. Donate to bail funds. Support our activists. Protest. Vote. We need ALL people involved, not just people of color, but ALL people to fight for change.

If you are experiencing a new level of consciousness, embrace it.

We need changes in laws, behaviors, and hiring practices. We need to create greater opportunity for people from marginalized communities to access education. Finally, we need to hold each other accountable for that change. Ask your peers what they are doing to enact change. We must harness the strengths of our diverse campus community, and in the spirit of our mission statement, “bring knowledge to bear on one of the world’s great challenges.”

By working together, let’s lead the way MIT!

Malick Ghachem is an Associate Professor in the History Section.

My name is Malick Ghachem and I am a member of the MIT History Faculty and a criminal defense lawyer who teaches in the area of race and criminal justice.

It is profoundly discouraging to consider that who gets to breathe in America circa 2020 is a matter of race. We have seen that this is true in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic in recent months, and the murder of George Floyd shows that it is also true in relation to our policing practices, which must change in radical ways. Such change will require white Americans and indeed all of us to make sacrifices of the kind we have been generally willing to make in the face of Covid-19 but seem unwilling to make in the face of structural racism. And that is because policing practices are so deeply embedded in our economic organization, in how we think about cities and property, in longstanding doctrines of criminal law and procedure, and many other factors too numerous to mention here. If you can muster the fortitude to watch the extended video of the murder of George Floyd, you will see that at the very end, well after the police have come on to the scene and done their damage, a team of emergency medical personnel from the fire department arrives to try to save Floyd. I do not know whether overcoming police brutality requires the wholesale abolition of police departments, but if we had police departments that acted more like fire departments – seeking to heal or to put out fires rather than to apply force and escalate tension – we would almost certainly be in a better place.

This past week I received an email from Kaijeh Johnson, a junior at the Peabody Institute, the music conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University. He wrote as follows: “It saddens me to see the divide between the leaders of this country, and their citizens of color, continue to grow as weeks go by. Each day I grow more afraid of the world we live in and more afraid of the people I believe are supposed to protect me. I believe there needs to be a change in the system. I believe the voices of America’s black and brown citizens need to be heard and their messages taken to heart. I believe it is time for a united front against the injustices that plague our communities. Though I know these things are necessary, I have no clue where to begin.” And so he asked me: “With your knowledge of the past and your knowledge of the present, what is the most effective way for young people in 2020 to present [a] united front and achieve results, as our ancestors did during the civil rights movement?”

I want to share with you a modified version of what I wrote back to Kaijeh. For starters, I urged him to make music that would capture this moment and his feelings about it. I told him that he could help to mobilize people of color to vote in the November elections. And that he could work to make his own institution resemble the kind of country he wants to see.

But Kaijeh was particularly interested in what the past could teach us. And so I told him also that change happens on both small and large scales, and that we don’t really understand what happens on the large scale. No historian or sociologist has yet developed a scientific model of the intersecting forces that make for something as big as the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Some observers of the opening days, weeks, and even months of the French and Haitian revolutions were aware that they were living through a very unusual time, but none of them could have foreseen the scope of what was to come, and not all of them would have liked what they were going to see. For example, the free people of color who mobilized for political rights at the start of the Haitian Revolution were entirely unaware that their claims would set in motion a process that would lead to the abolition of slavery, a result few of them sought because many of them were themselves slaveholders. The violent white mob that destroyed the property of the British East India Company in Boston Harbor in 1773 was unaware that it was setting in motion the American Revolution, which upset almost every notion of law and order then prevalent in the British Empire. There is no catechism for revolution; every large-scale change is the product of many small changes.

Looking back at the French Revolution in the middle of the nineteenth century, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that he saw more continuity than change at the end of it. He would have recognized the American dilemma with racism, which seems to hold constant even when it is said to be changing. But even Tocqueville may have undersold the role of continuity in a revolution. Making an impact almost always involves working in teams. Teamwork means looking for the particular gifts that different individuals bring to the table. It also means learning to rely on others when your own energy and availability begin to fade. A social movement of the kind that Kaijeh is thinking of almost certainly needs something like a business continuity plan. This is, arguably, what was missing when the Arab Spring of 2011 faded into the Arab Winter.

Finally, I urged Kaijeh to remember the lessons he learned under the Covid-19 lockdown, so that when residential university life and normal economic activity resume, he could find ways to stand up for these lessons when he encounters others trying to slip back into old habits and patterns, as they and we undoubtedly will. We can remember, for example, that people are in fact capable of making great sacrifices and undertaking great risks, but also that the distribution of sacrifice and risk in America is very uneven. How to figure out the right mix of compassion and confrontation that will move others to level the playing field before the next crisis hits is a difficult balancing act, especially so for people of color. But increasingly it seems that we will need more of an appetite and tolerance for productive confrontation in this new era, and so I told Kaijeh to cultivate both the skill and the art of that practice.

Corban Swain is a third-year PhD student in Bioengineering.

I was not originally planning to share about this, but early in June, I was speaking with one of my brothers in the faith, a Black man. He described to me that his six-year-old daughter heard about what happened to George Floyd through a community conversation, and she started asking questions: “What is racism?” “What does it mean?” Then my friend and his wife told their daughter, answering her questions as best they could. And the next day, he asked his daughter, as he did every day, “What was your favorite thing about today?”

And she says, “That you came home safe.”

Let that sink in.

No six-year-old should have to be concerned for the rest of her life about the safety of her daddy because of the color of his skin. So when we talk about injustice, it’s not just the system, it’s not just an incident, it’s not just a video. It’s children. It’s people. It’s a lifetime of trauma and mindset that we, as Black people, have to adapt to.

There is a tendency to distance ourselves from the events going on in the country. We have the ability to frame what we see in the news as “over there,” mostly separate from our personal lives “over here.” However, today that separation is not present for Black people. The things we see in a video are on the continuum of our lived experiences.

Let’s bring this home. As hard as it is to admit, the modern-day lynching of George Floyd is on the continuum of our experiences with inequities in education, representation, and support in the student body and faculty of MIT. As hard as it is to admit, the protests on the streets in more than 140 cities across America and their documented sabotage by incendiary groups is on the continuum of the Black History Month installation in Lobby 7 in 2019 and its desecration with a drawn swastika. In the same way that survivors of assault can be triggered by seeing their perpetrator, as Black people we are triggered and traumatized recalling the ongoing assault – devaluation and death – whenever we see our perpetrator – racism – in all of its many forms.

I share all of this to ask you to see with eyes unafraid to examine this continuum in yourself and the spaces you hold. And I speak with hope, knowing that recognition is the first step in the continual work of restoration.