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Ferguson In The Classroom: How One College Took Up Race And Policing This Semester

"Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance and Popular Protest" is among the most popular courses at NYU's Gallatin School.
Errin Whack
"Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance and Popular Protest" is among the most popular courses at NYU's Gallatin School.

Last Thanksgiving, NYU junior Micah Finkelman sat down to dinner with her white, liberal, Ohio family the same week a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Finkelman's parents had watched the dramatic news coverage of clashes between police, protesters, and looters and wondered what to make of the images. Their daughter struggled to explain why the Black Lives Matter movement should matter to them. But now, she's spent a semester in a classroom gathering the evidence to make her case.

"In some ways, I'm always going to be sort of removed from the emotion of it, because of my skin color, because of my privilege," Finkelman said. "But [this class] has allowed me to understand where people are coming from. I need to contextualize it, and it helps when I have academic books to back me up when I go home and talk to people who have barely heard of the movement."

A course called Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance and Popular Protest is among the most popular at NYU's Gallatin School, where Finkelman is enrolled. The class filled up quickly last spring, had a long wait list, and has had consistently overflowing attendance — including some students willing to audit the course without getting a credit, just for the chance to soak up the syllabus.

Despite being barely a year old, the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked similar curriculum on campuses including Emory University in Atlanta, Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan, and the University of Florida as demonstrations on and around college campuses have led to classroom discourse. At NYU, students have wrestled with questions of criminal justice, race and the media and the history of protest in America, putting the current campaign on a continuum of black struggle reaching back to slavery.

"I was expecting a room full of black faces...That's not what I got. I'm actually happy for that. It has allowed for a rich diversity of experiences in a very fruitful way."

The NYU course has also featured high-profile participants in Black Lives Matter, including Professor Cornel West and activist DeRay Mckesson, both of whom were arrested in Ferguson. Professor Frank Leon Roberts, who is black, said the idea for the class came to him after wanting bring conversations he was having with students about the events in the news into an academic setting.

"It's this idea that when you get young people together and put them in a classroom, something happens," Roberts said. "One of the things (Mckesson) said that I think is really true, is that Twitter and the classroom are the two last radical spaces in America."

The relationship between black activism and academia is not a new one. Several leaders of the civil rights movement, including Congressman John Lewis and former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, began gaining steam while they were still students. And in the midst of that era, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught a class on social philosophy at his alma mater, Morehouse College, in 1962.

It was the only class he would ever teach. The handful of students enrolled — some of whom, like Bond, were already engaged in the movement — took those lessons and went on to become activists in their own right.

More broadly, other social movements have also been the subject of real-time examination on college campuses recently, with courses on 2010's Arab Spring and the 2011 Occupy movement being taught at colleges from Roosevelt to Pace in the years immediately following those uprisings.

Chevaun Samuels, a 20-year-old political science major at NYU, recalled being in his room when the non-indictment verdict came down for Wilson. "I remember getting very upset and walking from Chinatown to 42nd Street to join a protest," Samuels said. "After that, I was just like, I need to be in this movement. It's time to make an impact, to make our voices heard."

Samuels said taking the class was a must for him; he squeezed onto the class roll after being waitlisted. "I knew about the movement on a broader spectrum, but...I needed to understand the building blocks of the movement before I could understand what the movement was about," he said. Samuels and his classmates debate and dissect different aspects of the movement for three hours a week, exploring topics from the ethics of black rage to the prison industrial complex, and looking at how the Black Lives Matter movement intersects with gender, democracy, and religion.

On a recent Thursday, the class began with a roundup of the past week's events as they related to Black Lives Matter before launching into a discussion about reform or abolition as a solution to mass incarceration in America. Discourse ranged from emotional to empathetic in an environment of mutual respect.

"Everyone is genuinely and thoughtfully engaging with the subject matter of the class," said Shelly Pires, a junior from Framingham, Mass, who is black. "I think the non-black people in the class are sometimes just as active voices. Everyone who's in this class is really, really interested in being there."

The class's diversity came a surprise to Roberts. "I was expecting a room full of black faces," he said. "That's not what I got. I'm actually happy for that. It has allowed for a rich diversity of experiences in a very fruitful way."

Now more than halfway through the class, Finkelman is looking forward to Thanksgiving this year. During a recent visit from her parents, she lent her mom her copy of Are Prisons Obsolete? by scholar and ex-Black Panther Angela Davis.

"For me to be able to give my mom a 100-page book that lays out how the system is set up to be disadvantageous to African-Americans is huge," Finkelman explained. "I got that through this class. My parents were just here and I was able to talk to them," she said. "I've seen them evolve since Ferguson in tremendous ways, in the same way; I've seen myself evolve."

Errin Whack covers urban affairs for The Associated Press. She is based in Philadelphia.

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Errin Whack