MIT community holds vigil in wake of George Floyd killing

DiFava: MITPD has ‘great respect for the peaceful protests’ following Floyd’s death

The MIT community held an online vigil June 2 “in the wake of the recent tragic killings of African American people across the United States – including the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – and the protests that have followed,” Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier wrote in an email to the MIT community.

Floyd was killed under police custody in Minneapolis May 25 when former officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for about eight minutes, The New York Times reported. Protests erupted in U.S. cities, including Boston, the week following Floyd’s death.

The Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO) hosted the vigil.

Dozier began the vigil by asking MIT community members to “lean on your community — reach out to your friends, mentors, advisors, colleagues, and professors” in “these troubling times… complicated by physical distancing.”

President L. Rafael Reif also addressed the community: “We know, and we insist, that black lives matter. That black lives are worthy and complex and inspiring. That every black person is unique and and beautifully human, and that every black person of every age, everywhere, deserves dignity and decency and respect.”

“This truth, and the basic humanity of people of color, are violated in our nation every day,” Reif said, citing Floyd’s death as an example. “But so many have suffered before him, over weeks and decades and centuries. Our nation is in terrible trouble,” Reif said, citing the “systemic racism that is destroying us from the inside.”

Reif asked the MIT community to “accelerate positive change” by “insisting on full accountability for the officers” involved in Floyd’s killing, supporting the current protests, which are “overwhelmingly filled with peaceful people begging for justice,” and calling for reform of the criminal justice system. 

Reif said that those who have the “advantages” of education, money, power, and “even safety in our homes and neighborhoods” benefit “every day from a society with a racist history and a racist present. And MIT is part of that society.”

Reif urged viewers to support MIT’s ongoing effort, led by Dozier, to “develop a strategic plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion” in the MIT community.

Undergraduate Association President Danielle Geathers ’22 said that “as a black woman, my heart is heavy… not only because of the persistent racist attacks on black lives which are exacerbated by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19,” but also the “abject pain that accompanies the prevalent normalcy surrounding black deaths and the vulnerability of black lives.”

Geathers said that the deaths of Arbery, Taylor, Floyd, and Tony McDade are “a visible display of a prolonged injustice which has lingered beneath the surface since before our country’s founding.”

Geathers cited the history of racial inequality at MIT, pointing out that “even today, many black students don’t feel fully supported by the Institute.”

“An overt act of hate is only one manifestation of racism,” Geathers said. “We cannot solely denounce hate, but we must be vigilantly aware of its cousins: privilege, ignorance, and apathy. We must improve” MIT’s ability to be “a place of opportunity, and to reverse the existential threats that confront all of us.”

Graduate Student Council President Madeleine Sutherland G urged viewers to “remember to take care of” themselves as they “go out into the world to fight injustice.”

“There comes a time when we have to call evil by its name. The anti-black racism plaguing this country and claiming so many lives is one such time,” Sutherland said. “In particular to my non-black colleagues, it is important to listen to and believe our neighbors who have been telling us about racism and police brutality for years.”

Office of Minority Education Director DiOnetta Crayton said that activists can bring “positive change” by being “warriors” for “justice in our own spaces, in our own spheres of influence.” 

Crayton said that two types of activism are necessary. “We need those called to serve and change systems from within, and we also need those called to shake the walls, the ceilings, and the very foundations of oppressive policies and systems from without,” Crayton said.

Crayton cited several leaders — Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, President John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Petey Greene, Shirley Chisholm, Shirley Ann Jackson, Angela Davis, Ava DuVernay, and the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement — who inspired change in the fight for civil rights. 

“We need everyone who says they care, not just to care but to do their part to fight the injustices that threaten to destroy us all,” Crayton said.

Dozier said that police brutality against black Americans “speaks to the systemic dehumanizing and undervaluing of black lives, born out of slavery, reinforced by Jim Crow laws, and promoted even today by media stereotypes,” and is not merely “the result of a few bad people doing bad things.”

“We can and must legislate the hateful dehumanizing actions of those who are unwilling to check their biases. I stand in support of the peaceful protesters insisting on accountability in the recent killing,” Dozier said, emphasizing that he supports the MIT community’s efforts to build a more “inclusive, equitable, and just future.”

Corban Swain G said that Floyd’s killing is “on the continuum of our experiences with inequities in education and representation in the student body and faculty of MIT.” The ensuing protests “and their documented sabotage by incendiary groups” are “on the continuum of the Black History Month installation in Lobby 7 in 2019 and its desecration with symbols of hate,” Swain said.

Swain read two poems, “On-Campus Security” and “The Movement,” that he wrote about racial injustice. “On-Campus Security” was based on an email sent to an MIT dorm community to publicize a party in February that was later canceled. 

“The email repeated the phrase ‘average black male around five foot six wearing a blue backpack’ nine times, jokingly referencing a police description of a suspected dorm intruder. Although an apology was made, for black folks on campus this was unfortunately another example of how we were not welcome,” Swain said. 

In the poem, Swain replaced each instance of the repeated phrase with a description of racism “to shape a narrative about the struggle for inclusivity and security for black students on campus.”

History professor and criminal defense lawyer Malick Ghachem said that “policing practices… must change in radical ways,” but this change will require “sacrifice.”

“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,” Ghachem said, citing the medical personnel from the Minneapolis Fire Department who “tried to save” Floyd after the police had “done their damage.”

Ghachem called on viewers to draw from the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, to realize 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.” 

Ghachem also advocated an increased “appetite” for “productive confrontation” in the face of injustice. 

Literature professor Sandy Alexandre referenced Toni Morrison’s statement that “the very serious function of racism is distraction.” 

Alexandre said that “to tell yourself that racism is a distraction is, in effect, a coping mechanism.”

“The past and the present have proven time and time again that racism is not merely a thorn in a person’s side. It’s also a suffocating knee on a person’s neck,” Alexandre said. 

“To graduate from the notion that racism is a distraction is to enter into more advanced knowledge that racism is, in fact, also a serial killer. This is not sensationalism. This is not hyperbole. This is what MIT on any ordinary day would call ‘hard data,’” Alexandre said. 

Alexandre said that racism “has killed Fred Hampton, Henry Dumas, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, David McAtee, and many more.”

“You effectively turn a serial killer into a personal henchman when you see it destroying communities of color and you sit idly by, letting it continue on its killing spree,” Alexandre said. 

Alexandre urged the MIT community to fight racism by “supporting people and organizations that affirm the full range… of black lives” and “undernourishing and starving white supremacy and its minions.”

Ramona Allen, vice president for human resources, compared racism to a virus that “mutates and changes,” leading to a “national sickness marked by widespread economic, political, and social inequalities.” 

Allen connected her experiences with racial inequality as a child in segregated Boston to the “collective, deep-seated, historical traumas that are now manifesting on the streets.”

“It’s exhausting to be a person of color in this country,” Allen said. “I’m tired of imagining my husband, family, and friends, people who look like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, facing a legal system that does not recognize their fundamental worth and humanity.”

Allen urged members of the MIT community to take action: “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.”

Allen emphasized the need for “changes in laws, behaviors, and hiring practices” and “greater opportunity for people from marginalized communities to access education.”

Chevy Cleaves, Lincoln Laboratory chief diversity and inclusion officer, said that his military service was “meant to purchase for all citizens — not just some of them — the opportunity to realize, embrace, and extend our highest ideals.” 

However, “the sacrifice that established and now sustains us is cheapened by the message that our Constitution and our institutions are for some citizens and not all,” Cleaves said. “Like many others, I have feared for my family, those who look like us, and the community of those Americans who understand the meaning and possibility of our aspirations.”

Cleaves expressed his hope that Americans “commit to facing the common internal threat” of racism “in a way that brings sustained change.”

Black Student Union (BSU) co-chair AudreyRose Wooden ’21 read a poem she wrote, titled “Our Protectors,” about the strength of the black community.

Former BSU co-chair Kelvin Green II ’21 said that “fighting the violent reality of racism” cannot be done alone. “To me, this means we must tap into the ancestors and their wisdom. They are those that thought of us, here and now, who knew we would have questions, who knew we would be outraged, and then decided to write so that we could read.” Green then read a passage from Morrison’s Beloved.

BSU co-chair Kendyll Hicks ’20 expressed sorrow for “the families whose black mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters” 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.” 

“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?” Hicks asked MIT administrators.

Hicks compared MIT’s vigorous response to the COVID-19 pandemic to MIT’s inaction against the “public health crisis” of police brutality. “To acknowledge and be informed without concrete effort is to be complicit and to support the police terror that’s occurring,” Hicks said. 

Hicks called on MIT administrators to “publicly demand the accountability of all officers involved” in Floyd’s death and “publicly support the demonstrations and broader black liberation efforts happening across the country.” 

“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,” Hicks said.

Hicks said that to honor the lives lost, “we must listen, learn, educate, speak up, vote, donate, empathize, love, and fight.”

Aiyah Josiah-Faeduwor G said that “for the collective struggle for black liberation,” many members of the black community “charge ourselves with the task of being vulnerable and doing the spiritual, emotional, and physical labor” of publicly sharing their identities and experiences. 

Josiah-Faeduwor said that by the time he was eighteen, he had seen his father and two older brothers incarcerated, adding that by then, his “biggest fear in life involved encounters with the police.”

“I wanted to remain free and safe from what plagued my community. I didn’t want to end up in the predicament each role model I had growing up fell into,” Josiah-Faeduwor said.

“Today, before policies change, our mentality” and “collective commitment to the liberation of black people must,” Josiah-Faeduwor said. “The time is now, and we need that support now. There are black lives being lost in these streets, and the decisions each of us make over the next few days may impact the fate of our world for the next few generations.”

Jaleesa Trapp G called the MIT community to reflect on their everyday interactions with black people: “If it feels awkward when you’re checking in on black people in your research group [or] on your staff, why does that feel awkward? Is that the only time that you check in with them?”; “Do your students feel comfortable at a place like MIT?”; “Do we acknowledge that MIT was created because of the slave economy?”

Trapp asked viewers to educate themselves about racism against the black community: “Why is it that, when there’s a high profile black death…, you have to ask where you should donate?”; “Are you actively looking for black people to support” who “do this work all the time?”; “What are you doing to educate yourself everyday, and not just when something happens?”

To conclude the vigil, Heather Konar, Office of Graduate Education communications officer, led a performance of Rhiannon Giddens’ “Cry No More.” 

An anonymous commenter wrote in the chat during the vigil that MIT should “remove the Blue Lives Matter flag from MIT Police.” 

Lynda Nelson, senior administrative assistant for MIT Research Administration Services, responded that the Blue Lives Matter flag should not be removed, citing the killing of MIT officer Sean Collier by the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Nelson wrote, “Boston Strong - ALL lives matter!” 

Fran Marrone, administrative assistant for the aeronautics and astronautics department, concurred with Nelson: “I am so sad for Officer Sean. All lives do matter.”

Several commenters criticized Nelson’s statement. Anthony Farrell ’13, administrative assistant for the Institute Events Office, wrote that the Blue Lives Matter flag “continues to minimize the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement without listening to their words” and “is a painful symbol of disregard for the black community.”

ICEO Program Director Beatriz Cantada wrote in response to Nelson, “I'd be happy to engage in discussion with you about how Blue Lives Matter is problematic and anti-Black.”

The ICEO later removed Nelson’s comment and its responses from the chat.

MIT Police Chief John DiFava wrote in an email to the MIT community June 2 that Floyd’s killing left him “shaken and angry.” DiFava condemned the “cruel violence” of the killing and “the shame it casts on the vast majority of law enforcement officers who are trying to do a good job.” 

DiFava wrote that MITPD has “great respect for the peaceful protests” following Floyd’s death.

“We know that this tragic event is one of many injustices African Americans have suffered at the hands of police over time. We support the need for change,” DiFava wrote. 

DiFava wrote that “a culture built on trust, diversity, fairness and inclusion” is “ingrained in everything we do at MITPD.” Officers “continually make efforts to self-assess and to listen,” training “constantly to build and reinforce the habits and values of good policing,” DiFava wrote.

DiFava wrote that all MITPD officers “stand together with the MIT community on the side of justice and human decency.” 

“Our job — one we take very seriously — is to keep our community safe. That means every member of our community, without exception and with absolute respect for the dignity of all,” DiFava wrote.

Reif wrote in an email to the MIT community May 29 that the killings of black Americans “highlight yet again the tragic persistence of racism and systemic injustice” in the U.S.

“I know that the pain of these events is especially intense for certain members of our community, beginning with those who are African American and of African descent, though certainly not ending there,” Reif wrote, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic and “rising strains in U.S.-China relations” have also led to “harassment and discrimination” against members of the MIT community.

Reif wrote that he charged Dozier to lead an effort to “strengthen” the MIT community and “work on these challenges, for ourselves and for our society,” building “a community where we aspire always to treat one another with sympathy, humility, decency, respect and kindness.”

A list of resources for MIT community members can be found on the ICEO website. According to the website, Student Mental Health and Counseling Services is creating a workshop series on “responding to and processing racial microaggressions and healing from racial incidents” and a discussion group on coping with recent events of “targeted violence toward communities of color as well as the compounded disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.”