A Campus Responds: Q&A With Students Who Staged Hands-up, Die-in Demonstrations

Some of the students, faculty and staff who joined the “Hands-up-don’t-shoot” photo shoot last week. Photo by Mattie Daughtry.

Last week, Bowdoin students responded to the recent events in Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland by staging a “Hands-up” photo shoot on the Museum of Art steps and a die-in in the campus dining halls. Elina Zhang ’16 interviewed two of the student organizers, Ashley Bomboka ’16 and Symone Howard ’15, to ask them about turnout for the events and about their commitment to raising awareness on campus of racial injustice and police violence.

What role did you play in the actions of last week?
Ashley Bomboka ’16: I’ve been organizing for the most part. …There were a lot of people on board, so it was pretty much just me making sure to take cameras, that people knew about it, that people knew to wear black, that people knew what we were doing it for. The message behind the Hands-Up Don’t-Shoot photo was to embody the emotions and physical posture of Michael Brown before he was shot and killed. He had his hands up, which is the well-known signal of surrender: “I’m unarmed, I don’t have any weapons on me.” He was saying, “Don’t shoot,” and that he didn’t want to die.

Symone Howard ’15: I helped organize the die-ins in Moulton and Thorne. It was a group of about seven students that were involved….Everyone took their own role in the die-in.

Ashley Bomboka ’16

Ashley Bomboka ’16

How have you felt about the campus’s response to these actions?
AB: Overall it’s been positive for a few reasons. The first is that many people participated in some way. I think that shows the effect that national events can have on a community and it also shows the power in numbers and strength in a community that can come together.

The second is that at the end of both events, there was dialogue; there was organized dialogue, such as a talk from 6:45 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the 16th floor of Coles Tower that allowed students to react to the die-in. Then after that, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., students discussed the issues that we wanted to change on Bowdoin’s campus. …It’s good that we’ve empowered people to do something or to say something or to better formulate their own beliefs.

SH: Overall, I can say that it was nice to see so much support, especially for the photo shoot, to see so many students come to that, it was very powerful and it goes to show that those students are aware of those issues outside of the Bowdoin bubble. In terms of the die-in, I was even more amazed because I wasn’t expecting so many people to participate. To see a good 70 percent of the dining hall on the ground was very powerful.

Why do you think these actions matter to Bowdoin students?
AB: I think these actions matter to Bowdoin students because for some of us, we actually think about issues of justice every day. We’re studying our legal systems, we’re studying race, we’re studying how class plays into this, we’re studying how communities are formed, or how organizations empower or dis-empower our constituencies. On a personal scale, a lot of people do feel affected. For them, race is a part of their identities, and it definitely has dictated the course of their lives….When we go home, there are still people who are protesting, there’s still discussions in the cities we love and care about in our homes, on our social media networks. There’s no way that you can escape it. Now it’s about time that we bring that conversation here and have it out in the open especially because for some people it’s hard to be a race or to represent a race, to embody racial attitudes of some kind and have people not notice it or acknowledge it or feel uncomfortable dealing with a part of your identity.

Symone Howard ’15

Symone Howard ’15

SH: I think that actions matter because there are people within the Bowdoin student population that are particularly affected by these issues. What has been happening in Ferguson, in New York City or in Ohio — it could easily be a student’s brother or a student’s nephew or even the student, for that matter.

Why do these actions matter to you personally?
AB: I am black. I grew up kind of knowing that life was going to be difficult, that there were some people out there who would hate me because of my race. I grew up with two younger siblings and a black father. My father would always wear a suit every time we went anywhere and put his hands behind his back to let store clerks see that, “Hey, I’m not stealing anything.” And he would tell my brothers to do the same thing. So I think we always grew up knowing we always had to go so much out of our way to show we’re not going to be a threat or an inconvenience to anybody.

I think also that police brutality is a problem, police militarization is a problem. So for me it’s problematic that in black communities this does exist and in a lot of communities of color this does exist. In general, police are meant to protect. They shouldn’t be fighting their citizens, regardless of race. At the same time, people of color are getting worse treatment, so we should also fight for equal treatment. Also too, this reflects on our legal system, on our justice system. I don’t believe this issue is not wanting to deal with crime, I just don’t believe that death is the proper response to stealing a pack of cigarettes or selling cigarettes on the streets….I think we need to apply punishments equally. I also abhor the idea of black men being viewed as monsters, being viewed as threats. That’s a bias and that’s a prejudice, because obviously not every single man fits that. I don’t think any person should be debased in that way.

SH: Over the summer I paid a lot of attention to what was happening in Ferguson and I participated in a lot of protests back at home. And I knew that even though the media wasn’t giving it as much attention as time passed on, I knew this issue would spring back up with the non-indictment or indictment. At that time we didn’t know if [Darren Wilson] would be charged. For me, it’s been extremely personal because I’ve been following the [Michael Brown] case and then the Eric Garner case. I guess when you follow something for so long, and you see all these protests and you see other colleges and universities doing similar things like staging die-ins and taking to the streets, it’s just very powerful. It’s very nice to see how protests or activism has changed over time. In the 60’s you’d have a few protests in different places, there wasn’t an easy way to communicate that. With social media it’s so easy to know where a march is happening, when it’s happening, where are you marching to. You can have people from all over come to that march. And then there are tons of other marches happening simultaneously, in D.C, Chicago, L.A., Alabama.

What plans do you have for next semester?
AB: My goal for the individual photos is to use them in a photo campaign of some kind. I hope to involve myself in discussions even more so and play a more of a leadership role in discussions about race on campus and the intersectionality of all aspects of one’s identity. My goal is to keep myself as an individual aware and to support my classmates and to foster dialogue.

SH: As student director for leadership, I would like to equip the first-years and the sophomores with leadership skills so they can do similar things when they’re juniors and seniors and they will be equipped with the tools to lead a protest or to organize a huge show of support.

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