Updated (Dec. 29, 5:15 p.m.):
Over 100 Emerson students walked out of their classes Dec. 4, catalyzed by recent grand jury decisions to not indict white police officers in the deaths of black men, and marched through downtown, holding signs with messages like “We Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.”
The demonstration, which followed days of nationwide protests and on-campus events, was organized in part by Nyla Wissa, a senior performing arts major.
“When one of us can’t breathe, we all can’t breathe,” Wissa said, “Nobody at this point is safe, and that is a hard reality to face.”
The event was held in reaction to recent cases of police violence against unarmed black men, including the Ferguson, Missouri grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, and a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
Elizabeth Finnerty, a junior communication studies major, held a sign reading “No justice. No peace. No more racist police” on a neon-pink poster board.
“We need to take action now,” she said in an interview with the Beacon. “The idea of white allies for black Americans is controversial, but I think that it is extremely important. It’s a civil rights issue.”
The protest led Emerson students through Downtown Crossing headed toward the State House, chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and, “We can’t breathe,” with their arms raised. “I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry for many protesters after Garner was recorded repeating the phrase as he was pushed onto the pavement in a chokehold, multiple officers surrounding him.
As they marched, trucks honked and some onlookers joined in the chants. Others simply watched at the group as they rounded the corner onto Washington Street.
At the State House, protest leaders addressed the crowd through a megaphone and invited the members of the crowd to voice their feelings.
Several police officers watched from the other side of the street. Wissa addressed them, inviting them to come and speak with the protesters, but they did not move.
Some of the students moved into the street, blocking a lane of traffic as a group of students moved into the center of the street and began a performance from their theater troupe, Flawless Brown, which was founded by Wissa.
Students attending the walkout said Emerson professors seemed supportive of the effort and were not penalizing participants. Claudia Castaneda, an Emerson professor in the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, attended the walkout alongside her students and fellow faculty members.
“I wanted to support the effort to protest the police brutality, the racism, that is endemic to U.S society. I teach on these issues and it is important to act too,” Castaneda said. “I always tell my students that there is no one way to make change in the world.”
According to Emerson Police Chief Robert Smith, Emerson police took precautions to ensure that students were able to cross Boylston and Tremont Streets to meet at the Boylston T stop at 3 p.m. Two police officers were stationed to assist.
Wissa said she believes that these peaceful efforts can lead to change.
“Things are already starting to change. We just have to keep doing what we are doing, not just because it is the trend right now,” she said. “People are dying. It is genocide. We need to talk about it now.”