Zellie Thomas, who protested in Ferguson, Mo. after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, spoke to students about activism, racism and police misconduct in an event sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. last Thursday. Thomas is originally from Paterson, NJ, but traveled to Ferguson three times in order to support the cause.
“For a while now I’ve been really active for police brutality and since that was one of the biggest cases, I felt something really powerful about it. I had to go down there,” Thomas said.
Ferguson became a center of national attention this summer when Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson while Brown was walking in the street unarmed. Brown’s body was subsequently left out in the street for four and a half hours. These circumstances sparked massive protests throughout Ferguson, which received an almost unprecedented police response.
Thomas spoke to a group of about 20 listeners in Friends Hall as he recounted the antagonism he and his fellow protestors faced by police, while demonstrating to demand justice for Brown. He described the police indiscriminately using tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators, covering their badge numbers and name tags to avoid identification and threatening to arrest people for attempting to record what was going on, among other things.
“They were saying that you could not stand in the same spot for more than five seconds or you’re going to be subject to arrest,” he recounted. “You know, that your right to assemble is like only five seconds.”
During the presentation, Thomas showed a video of protestors in Ferguson being confronted by police, as well as two other videos of similar police-shooting incidents in order to demonstrate the discrepancy between the police accounts of those events and actual recordings of those events. He suggested that law enforcement was trying to cover up the brutality and racism that occurs during such incidents.
“All this is about accountability and transparency, all this could have been avoided,” he said. “There could have been no tear gas, no rubber bullets, because the only thing people wanted to know was ‘Why did you kill Mike Brown? Why was he out there for four and a half hours?’”
Thomas also involved the audience by asking them what they saw in the videos, how they were taught to interact with police and what they thought police could do to avoid similar situations. His main message to students was that they could get involved and make a change by raising awareness about the situation in Ferguson and about the other issues facing African-American people in modern society.
He also stressed the usefulness of social media in raising awareness, saying “The main reason why people know about it is because of social media.”
Michelle Forbes, the president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, felt that the event was fitting to the sorority’s mission, which is to uplift and empower minority students.
“We felt like a good program was to bring someone who could bring awareness about something that happened that was very major, that is going to be a big part of our history,” she said.
Jerome Daniels, a sophomore who attended the event, said he thought it was very productive and educational.
“Black men and black women and minorities as a whole are being racially profiled and… our judicial system as well as our enforcement is not as, you know, protective as we thought it was,” Daniels said. “We need to make a change.”
“All you have to do to play your part is just to raise awareness – you don’t always got to be in the front lines, you don’t always have to know everything,” said Thomas at the event’s closing. “You don’t got to be the smartest person. You don’t got to be the person that’s the best speaker or the best organizer or the best, you know, anything. All you got to do is have this want to change the world and make things a little bit better.”