Humanizing the Collective Body

by Tommy Woon, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Naropa University

It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon on our very small campus. Everyone was starting to leave for Thanksgiving break, when one student spontaneously decided to make flyers and go from classroom to classroom, calling people to a meeting to reflect on the Ferguson Grand Jury decision. At least sixty students, faculty, and staff showed up to discuss the Ferguson Grand Jury decision, reflect, and act in solidarity with actions being taken across the country.

As daylight faded and cold arrived, many of them decided to take action, walking to Arapahoe Avenue in front of Naropa. The protestors decided to alternate lying in the street for four and a half minutes blocking traffic, and marching to the sidewalk with hands raised and shouts of, “hands up, don’t shoot,” as cars patiently waited before driving past them. The purpose of the action was to call attention to the four and a half hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street, unattended.

Student protesters block Arapahoe Ave. traffic. Photo: Austin Pick.
Student protesters block Arapahoe Avenue traffic. Photo: Austin Pick.

Earlier, in the meeting, some fair-minded sympathizers wondered whether the Grand Jury’s decision was proper, and I realized how many people in the world are suspending action on this particular case without understanding what this case represents. While we can identify with police officers facing danger and claiming to be legitimately afraid for their lives, it is also clear that there is a severe disparity between those experiencing fear choosing to shoot Black children and adults and those choosing to shoot white people.

This case is emblematic of an entire history of state-sponsored assaults on Black bodies. Literature such as scholar Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness tells us that intentional, state-sponsored actions against Black people began immediately after slavery ended, and that the disproportionate numbers of Black incarcerated is also not an accident. Further, this year a MacArthur Genius Award winner, Dr. Jennifer Ebherhardt, provided clear, empirical evidence that studies on implicit bias reveal Blacks are more likely to be judged as criminal, sentenced to death, or, even more likely, to be fired on by police officers.

We can also add that most of these officers are exonerated, because who can disagree with a fear of dying? We have a system that perpetuates historical bias by legally protecting the police officers’ use of excessive force. Under this system, we rarely see police officers prosecuted. A week later, we receive news about the New York Grand Jury’s decision about Eric Garner’s death, in addition to many more media reports about the prevalence of this pattern.

While traditional scholars have begun to work with law enforcement agencies to overcome the dehumanization of Black people, we at Naropa also have something to offer. We can help overcome the effects of racism on our collective minds AND bodies by talking, feeling, and learning to regulate the felt sense of racism and racial trauma through contemplative practices. The world is waiting for the differences we can all make through our unique contributions to social change.

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