By JACQUI NEBER and CATHERINE PALMER
News & Features Editors
Black Student Union President Matthew Brown sat down with The News-Letter for an interview on Friday night, just hours after the junior led the protest.
The News-Letter: Your demonstration today was extremely powerful and seeing it from the frontlines, just looking at the magnitude of it all was like witnessing a moment in history. It was incredible. Where did the inspiration for an event [Friday] happen? Why now?
Matthew Brown: We did some political protests last year in regards to police brutality surrounding Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the Baltimore Uprising. But the inspiration for this year came from what’s going on in Missouri and at Yale. We had an emergency general body meeting on Wednesday just to have everyone talk about their emotions, how they’re feeling, make sure everyone’s doing okay. And then we knew we wanted to do something to stand in solidarity which was the blackout that we had on Thursday. And we also saw that a lot of other schools were using this to say “Wait, let’s stand up and fight for what’s right on our campuses as well.” So that’s where we got the inspiration… from looking at the Missouri incident and applying it to Hopkins, and making sure that we had some sort of powerful statement in order to get the point across.
N-L: Did you have any of those ideas—like the demands that you read—in mind? Or were a lot of those developed in the last few days?
MB: So some of them were ideas that we had had from last year as well. They’re ones that were developed by the e-board and also generated by GBM [general body members]. We also have a lot of new GBM members this year and we asked them is there anything specifically you also want that you think is a major problem on campus? And we looked at the ideas and kind of condensed them into what the key points were and created our final demand list.
N-L: To what extent is this feeling connected to what’s been happening in Baltimore over the last eight months?
MB: I think it’s extremely connected. Last April when we had everything going on, a lot of black students on campus felt very victimized by especially the Yik Yak posts. They had seen death threats on Yik Yak… We were reading what some people were saying on social media [at Mizzou and it] brought back some of those events people had surrounding the Baltimore Uprising—how students were acting on campus. It was a very trying time for black students and we understood how the Missouri students felt with how they felt very isolated [and] didn’t really know who they could go to for support. We also think the Baltimore Uprising was something that really started to awaken a lot of people and get people thinking, “We have to take control of what’s going on.” We felt a very strong obligation to helping the Baltimore community and being a part of the protest and the peaceful rallying when everything happened. We tried to apply that to what’s going on now knowing that, you know, we can’t just stop and wait for the next incident to happen. We have to have a continual sort of momentum going which is why I just want to use this momentum we have now, and keep continuing as we go on through the next couple years.
N-L: So when you guys are having this school-wide meeting on the 30th, that’s also the day that the Freddie Gray trials start. Do you think that has any significance? Is it going to underpin some of what you’re saying? Is it connected?
MB: I think it has significance. We started out in April with a lot of strong protests and now it’s continuing to when Freddie Gray’s trial begins. And also when we start examining Hopkins and trying to figure out how we can fix this place to better the environment for black students.
N-L: And why was it so important for you guys to insist on having a meeting with the entire student body rather than just BSU leaders?
MB: Because we’ve had these meetings with BSU leaders only, but we want people to realize that this is a climate you should care about; this is a campus-wide thing. We think that it’s important to have these administrative meetings where it’s just the e-board and the President, whoever. But this is something where the President needs to speak to the whole student body, especially the black students because we can’t bring every black student to the e-board meetings that we have with the President… But if we have a space where everyone can see and everyone can be made aware of what’s going on, I think that’s a lot more powerful when the President takes a stand against racist actions on campus and makes it known what his goals are in order to fix this place to the whole school.
N-L: How do you feel about the way President Daniels responded today?
MB: There were some concerns I had. One of them at first was that when we asked for a promise for a date it was kind of like, “We can’t do it next week” and we wanted to have it immediately. We were also kind of disturbed when he said, “I’ll invite whatever administrators want to come” because it wasn’t that we wanted just the people who wanted to come. The administrators have to be there because as students on campus, we have the right to be able to talk to administrators whenever we feel it necessary. And so we wanted to make it known so that there is no “We will think about it, we’ll try this, we’ll try that.” We want an actual action plan we can see executed—because maybe I won’t be the one to see the changes that happen on campus but I want to at least see the next couple of generations to come through thinking, “Oh, you know, campus is a much better place… It’s because these people did whatever it is—xyz—in order to help me be in the place I am now.”
N-L: In these two years that you’ve been at school, have you seen change? Between walking into freshman year and today when you led this protest?
MB: I think the change I’ve seen the most is in how the BSU is acting from when I [first] saw to now. My freshman year I don’t think the BSU was as active. It wasn’t as integral to me. But after joining e-board and after seeing what happened in April with all the protests that we had around the Uprising and around the police brutality incidents and now what we’re doing this year, I think I’ve seen significant change in how blacks are reacting to the BSU. Whereas before it was like, do they really do anything? Now it’s more like I feel them actually supporting me, actually caring about the issues that I care about on campus, which I really want them noticing. We are the voice for you. We want to help you. So if you ever have a concern—which is why we asked them what other concerns we have on campus—we want to be able to bring it to the administration for you.
N-L: What are your feelings on people of other races supporting BSU’s causes? Can anybody be in the BSU?
MB: Anyone is allowed to be in the BSU and I think it’s a common misconception that people have that you’re not allowed to be in the BSU if you’re not black. Like I said when I was talking today [Friday], we have black students and allies. Allies are anyone who are not black, but they want to help out with the cause, and we love people who want to help out. We are always here for allies. They definitely play roles where they go into spaces that black students necessarily can’t. So if you are in an all-white space and necessarily a black student can’t always be there, an ally is someone who can speak for the black cause, about issues black people are having. We definitely love having allies and anyone who is interested. We always welcome them to come to the BSU meetings, e-board—any sort of event.
N-L: What were your thoughts on the email that President Daniels sent out [Friday]?
MB: I was happy to get an email but I would have preferred that this was something that had been happening before just today. Part of the thing was that I get that an email was sent out but this is something where I would have preferred action last year, when we were having all these different discussions. Email’s great but I would have preferred actual meetings like we are having on the 30th. If we are having full student body meetings, I think that’s more effective than emails where someone can look at it and disregard it. Because a lot of people, if we are being quite frank, will probably just see a “President Daniels email” [and] disregard it. But you know, I think it’s more important when he’s actually hosting something. They [students] go to it. They listen. They can hear what he’s saying and see what students have and what complaints they have and how he’s going to interact with that.
N-L: There have been two forums on race events so far—last year [with Ta-Nehisi Coates] and then this year [with Charles Blow]. What are your thoughts—do you think those are effective?
MB: I think those [race forums] are definitely effective. I think they are helpful because they drew a large crowd especially Ta-Nehisi. It happened right after the Uprising occurred. But I want to see also more forums that not only deal with bringing speakers to campus, but also examining how racism acts on the Hopkins campus. Because I think it’s great to have someone talk about racism as a whole, but let’s also look at how is it seen on the Hopkins campus. What can we do to fix it? Because educating people on race is definitely important. But actually educating people on how racism is acting at our actual institution and what we can do to fix it, thinking of hardcore solutions that will get stuff done, is a really important aspect that should be incorporated in these forums.
N-L: Do you think that racial tensions and divisions can be categorized as the same thing on campuses across the country? Or do you think that because we’re in Baltimore, because we’re technically in “the South,” do you think it might be different here than it would be at somewhere like Yale, in the Northeast?
MB: I think there are some similarities and differences depending on what campus you go to because, for instance, it’s the makeup of the student population. It depends on the surrounding area you are in. There’s a lot of different factors that go into it. When we stand in solidarity with other schools, like we are standing in solidarity with Missouri and Yale, these are things we noticed were similar. We understand there is a black struggle that is going on. For instance, the cultural appropriation during the classes or the fact that there were death threats on the Missouri campus,… ideas about how racism should be fixed on campus or how they can get rid of it, were not taken seriously. We understand those and we relate to them and we want to let them know we are in solidarity. But I think that the way racism acts, there’s definitely some similarities, but there are also differences because in some areas you are going to have more blatant racism and in some more like a technological racism behind closed doors. [That] would be something more like microaggressions that are in passing. There’s definitely some things that overlap all over the place, but there’s also some very key specific ones for each school that you go to.
N-L: And since you heard about this, when the story started breaking, there has been a lot of social media across the country… Did you expect that kind of outpouring? And what do you think about the movement called #activism, where people will just [post on social media] and use that to show that they support the cause? Do you think that actually does anything? Did you expect the blowup reaction?
MB: I think it helps a lot, hashtagging things on Facebook and social media. I know some people say it doesn’t do much, but I think… it does do a lot because when people see all the stuff generating on Facebook and they see people posting statuses and all these different opinions, I think it forces them to try to think about what’s going on: “What is this that someone’s talking about, what am I seeing all over my Facebook or my Twitter?”… And they get interested and read articles and they can get informed. I think it’s important to make sure that you raise awareness about these things because had people not posted about it on Facebook or [been] talking about Missouri on the news or anything, we couldn’t have known that we should have stayed in solidarity with them and we should be trying to support them over in Baltimore. I think being able to have the Internet as a way of communicating all these different causes allows people to be more interconnected and also allows us to be able to support each other from wherever we are no matter what part of the world we are in.