About 50 students, staff and faculty gathered in the Webster University Sunnen Lounge Nov. 25 for a two hour discussion about the recent grand jury decision and the events that followed. The forum was open to the public. It allowed for those students and faculty to have an outlet for discussion since all Webster classes were canceled for the day.
However, not all students and faculty were happy about the day off. Senior international business major Hezekiah McCaskill felt like the University canceling classes today was a “cop out.”
“Learning that the school was closed down, not because of the danger that I was in but because of the threat to safety that was posed here, was like a slap in the face,” “ McCaskill said. “It’s disrespectful.”
The open forum took place less than 16 hours after the grand jury’s decision to not indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. Wilson, who is white, was not indicted on any criminal charges for fatally shooting unarmed teenager Michael Brown, who is black, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 9.
Since the announcement, tensions boiled over in Ferguson and communities across the nation.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision during a press conference at around 8:00 p.m.
After midnight, Webster University decided it was in the best interest of the faculty and students to cancel all campus classes Nov 25.
Patrick Giblin, the director of Webster’s public relations responded to McCaskil’s statement and said Webster University’s safety was not the reason the university cancelled classes. He said the university received over 100 calls between 5 p.m. and midnight last night from students and faculty members saying it would be dangerous or difficult for them to get to classes the next day. The calls came from people living in the Shaw and Ferguson neighborhoods.
“It was for the safety of people traveling to campus,” Giblin said. “There was never any question about the safety of this campus…(The administration’s) concern was, ‘What if someone got injured coming to class today,’”
Neither St. Louis University nor Washington University had cancelled classes today. Giblin said the high percentage of Webster commuters made Webster’s decision different than those universities. Webster has over 80 percent undergrad commuter students.
Desire for minority to speak to the majority
Junior cultural anthropology major MJ Johnson said she was thankful she did not have to deal with classes today with the current situation at hand. Johnson, participated in a protest last night in the Shaw community and was struck by tear gas.
She said though she did not have to worry about classes today among the current situation in St. Louis, she thought having classes could have opened the door to needed class discussions about the issue.
“That would allow for dialogue for people who actually need to discuss it,” Johnson said. “I’m getting really irritated talking to the same people. They aren’t the ones who need to be talked to. They aren’t the ones who need to be educated. They aren’t the ones who need to be enlightened. It’s the people who go throughout their day thinking they are not affected by this.”
Out of the 50 or so students and faculty that attended the forum, about ten of the students were white.
Steven Chaffi, a sophomore political science major from Missouri State University came to hear the side of people directly affected by the grand jury decision.
“I’m just trying to take it in and learn from people who are affected by this situation more personally than myself,” Chaffi said. “You aren’t going to grasp that by listening to someone talking about it on CNN, but by hearing from people who are actually experiencing it.”
Webster senior music major Brooke Vonderheide said she came to the forum to make herself more aware. She said she was recently hit for the first time about what the term “white privilege” meant. White privilege is described as a term for societal privileges that only benefit white people.
“For me, I want to listen, because it breaks my heart to see my friends and the people I interact with everyday say ‘We don’t matter,’” Vonderheide said. “I’m just trying to take in as much as I can and understand where people are coming from.”
Asking for understanding
McCaskill said white privilege is a cause for the misunderstandings between the white and non-white races. He said white people will never truly understand what is going on unless they are put in the same situation.
“Experience is the best teacher,” McCaskill said. “I have more knowledge of what I’m going through than you ever will.”
The president of the Association for African American Colleagues (AAAC), Jeremy Coleman, said the best thing to do is to speak up and work towards change.
Coleman said AAAC has been mentoring at a 100 percent black elementary school in North City for the last three years. He said they have been able to see positive changes in those kids and they do not plan to stop there.
“Little things like that are slowly changing a bigger picture,” Coleman said “Just find out what works for you. You don’t have to go out and protest, just find out what works for you. We can make anything happen.”