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  • Ethan Heyman

BLM protests in Charleston spark ripe environment for change

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

And this is being felt among College of Charleston students as well.

When nine African-Americans were ruthlessly murdered in a mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church June 17, 2015, many lives were negatively affected by the act of violence.

But for Marcus McDonald, who had just moved to the area, the murders hit particularly close to home.

That was the church where his great grandmother belonged.

“I was just permanently getting settled into Charleston when the [massacre] happened, but it was my great grandmother’s church so I felt a personal connection to it,” said McDonald, currently the leader of Charleston’s Independant Black Lives Matter organization.

From that point forward, McDonald became more involved and invested in the Black Lives Matter movement and the local fight for racial equality.

Back in 2015, getting participation in Black Lives Matter efforts beyond the Black community was difficult.

But now five years later, the view in the country about race relations has changed dramatically, and Charleston has held a unique presence in that change.

Killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Savannah, Georgia, George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta in the spring of 2020 were revealed to the nation via video evidence, and America could no longer ignore or deny the racism still existing in its cities and on its streets.

And as the nation was at home on lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic, a perfect opportunity arose for racially inspired protests all across the United States, including in Charleston.

Black Lives Matter protests put America on notice

Prior to a few months ago, the United States had not seen so many racially motivated protests since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

But rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to millions of Americans being forced to stay at home, helped provide the platform for the sudden elevation of the Black Lives Matter movement. And a perfect storm of events is helping the nation face a reckoning for its racist past, putting the country on notice to a specific and important issue.

Black people have been fighting for equality since slavery, and while systemic racism has brought undeniable challenges, there has been progress.

As 2020 began, videos of violence against several unarmed Black men and women surfaced, and suddenly the nation’s white establishment - particularly white law enforcement - was on notice regarding racial injustice.

  • On March 13, Breonna Taylor was killed in her Louisville apartment, after police officers released fire at Taylor’s boyfriend. Taylor’s family is still seeking justice for the actions of the three police officers responsible for her murder, but prosecutors have dropped charges against Taylor’s boyfriend.

  • Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black male, was murdered by two white men on his jog home on February 23 in Georgia. In what was claimed to be an act of “vigilante justice,” Gregory and Travis McMichaels shot down Arbery after he ran around the truck to avoid them. The father and son have now been charged with murder and denied bond as they await trial.

  • Possibly the most notable killing was the murder of Minneaoplis native George Floyd. On May 25, a citizen recorded a video of Floyd lying face-down and handcuffed as an officer forcefully pinned him on the ground, with his knee on Floyd’s neck. After tirelessly yelling “I can’t breathe,” Floyd eventually suffocated and died on the ground.

Americans around the country were naturally outraged, sparking Black Lives Matter protests across the country, shining a spotlight on racial injustice that has been plaguing many American communities for a long time, including Charleston.

Young activists believe change is coming

To McDonald, the murders felt “like another slap in the face” and that “seeing the videos publicly made everything even worse” in his mind.

McDonald, like many others, was disgusted by the killings, and instead of sitting in silence, he pleaded with the public to demand a change.

“I figured it was about time,” McDonald said. “The videos [of the killings] were out there for the world to see and they were undeniable.”

Security footage of Floyd’s murder was released publicly, and soon after, demonstrations were held in nearly all 50 states across the country, and even many across the globe.

“I think it’s really important what the international pressure is doing,” McDonald said. “It’s a lot different when the protests are happening in one city… compared to when the whole world is watching.”

As the nationwide protests became more intense around late May, it was apparent many beyond the Black community saw a need for change.

Anaya Waugh, president of the Black Student Union at the College of Charleston, said the protests have created a racial reckoning that had been lacking within the Holy City - even despite the Emanuel Nine massacre just five years ago.

“I would describe what’s going on in our country as a painful and inevitable racial reckoning. There has been a steady stream of racial injustice in this country since 1776,” she said, mentioning the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 that was among the catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, as well as the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991 that led to riots in L.A.

“What’s happening right now is not new to us, I believe it is just magnified through television and social media," she said. "What we are seeing today is mainstream society’s inability to deny the realities that we have known well for so long. Injustice has to be in everyone’s face and on everyone’s radar because the oppressed are holding the ugliness, the racism woven into the fabric of this nation into the light.”

Charleston’s checkered history as well as recent events make this city a prime location to highlight racial injustice.

“[The Black Lives Matter movement] inspires me because Charleston is such a historic place, and we can really make stuff happen here,” McDonald believes. “Here, in Charleston, there’s a lot more public support going around.”

Just across the Ravenel Bridge sits Sullivan’s Island, where nearly half of the slaves brought to America first landed. The famous shops on Market Street downtown were once markets to buy and sell African slaves, and plantations where slaves were once exploited are now popular destinations for weddings and corporate events. And, of course, the beginning of the Civil War - fought over the South’s right to own slaves - began right here in Charleston.

The Holy City's often-disconnected remembrance of its ugly history contributes to the difficulty of races reaching common ground, says Waugh.

But immediately after the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, she noticed a shift in the city that she believes has “so comfortably coexisted with its gory history relative to racism and slavery and romanticized” it for decades, even centuries.

“So around the city, which is an important part of our campus, things felt off. People seemed uncomfortable and they seemed disconnected from the reality of these protests, from the reality of racism in the world,” she said, adding that the tearing down of the John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square Park downtown was “a phenomenal gesture toward the direction of change and it makes me hopeful.”

But like McDonald, Waugh definitely has hope in the young people of this city and sees a willingness to cooperate and build respectful relationships, rather than to create enemies and build roading blocks.

“In our students, though, I catch a different, more refreshing vibe,” Waugh said. “Though the majority of our campus will never experience racial prejudice or be directly affected by it, I have noticed a willingness to listen and work with Black students to bring about change.

Change in the works at the College of Charleston

College of Charleston senior Thomas Eppley admits that the constant appearance of “Black Lives Matter” signs on campus was overwhelming at times but also necessary for helping students become aware of the situation.

“I feel like it is important, and it is pushing society to make a change that is needed,” he said. “ I do think change is necessary.”

But Eppley also believes change takes everyone being involved.

“It is important that people continue to prove how much this matters, and how necessary it is our society needs to work together to make a difference,” he said.

CofC President Hsu has definitely had his share of racist incidents to deal with on campus since coming to Charleston more than a year ago.

But he believes more education and improved diversity training to help students talk aboutthe issue in the open has helped improve relations - even as more is still needed.

“I think certainly people are more sensitive about racial injustice and certainly that is discussed more often amongst students and faculty,” Hsu said.

This change has opened up many new opportunities for people of color, including a greater ability to create a peaceful, respectful and welcoming community in Charleston.

Hsu firmly believes the idea of a totally convivial atmosphere in the Charleston community is achievable.

“The history is the history….and we cannot go back in time and change history,” he said. “But what we can do is make our campus more diverse, welcoming, and supportive.”

Some of the changes at CofC include mandatory diversity education and inclusion training for faculty and staff, recruiting more underrepresented minorities and first-generation students, developing a more robust mentorship program for underrepresented minorities, and much more.

“People definitely are now more willing to go through the training because now they do see the problems,” the second-year president noted.

These programs have opened up new opportunities for Black students to embrace The College’s campus without an abundance of fear and unsettlement, Hsu believes.

And a lot of CofC students say they are noticing the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and are becoming aware of the growing necessity for change.

“Moving forward, I believe people will have a better understanding of how coming together is a strong way to make change,” says Eppley.

Political science major Scott Shapiro admits he didn’t pay a lot of attention to the issue prior to all the protests. But now he is paying attention and believes change is critical in America.

“I think it’s good that this issue is being brought to life, and I think more people than less are fighting the good fight,” he said, noting that leadership at the highest levels of government are necessary for the country to really squash racism. “I think that the movement is a response to issues that have been going on in our country for years, and a few isolated instances that happened recently caused this movement to come about. I think it was necessary, but it has obviously divided our country.”

How to fix? Engage with minority groups

While McDonald and Waugh have high hopes for Charleston’s young population to take the lead in improving race relations and racial justice, there is still a lot of hard work ahead.

And they have some ideas.

For McDonald, it all comes down to education - reading books from authors who can speak authentically about the experience of being Black in America and history books that don’t paint a false picture of the harsh reality of slavery and the struggle for civil rights.

“I’d say to just to teach yourself. Don’t ask your Black friends to be your ‘Black encyclopedia.’ Look up and learn stuff yourself,” he said. “If you want to start a non-profit, start a non profit. Use your connections to make a difference - weaponize your privilege.”

Waugh agreed that white people need to do their own research to learn the history, but also suggested students at CofC engage more with minority groups and support their efforts.

“It is important in the role of an ally to support and uplift and magnify the voices of the oppressed," she said, "so a huge tidbit I have is to absorb information when you’re given the opportunity."

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