Students Organize 'Die-In' Protests at Dining Halls
Earlier this week, three all-Black student ‘die-ins’ were organized at Pomona College’s and Pitzer College’s dining halls. According to the protesters, the die-ins were a response to institutional violence committed against the Black community as a whole, sparked by recent grand jury decisions to not indict white police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, respectively.
Two of the three die-ins organized under the mantra of #BlackLivesMatter, a nation-wide movement that describes itself as “a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” In a statement sent to TSL, the participants of the Frary dinner and Pitzer lunch die-ins described their demonstrations as "an act of reclaiming the space with our bodies for the protection of our own bodies," emphasizing that their goal "was not to create a spectacle of our Black bodies for media documentation."
Die-ins have recently become prominent staples at protests across the country. They have brought major highways in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago and New York City to a stop, with protester numbers swelling well into the hundreds. Participants at these demonstrations have been both Black and non-Black individuals.
But the Claremont die-ins were organized to involve only Black participants lying on the floor.
Participant Dia Flood PZ ’16 said that they think “part of the very intentional choice behind the organization of this die-in being all Black is to no longer tip-toe around the fact that Black people in this country experience a disproportionate amount of state-violence."
They added, “It is not that we do not acknowledge that other racial groups experience oppression at the hands of white supremacy, capitalism and imperialism, but the fact is that anti-Blackness is so rooted within these systems that other racial groups benefit from the systematic consumption of Black bodies in ways that we obviously cannot."
The Claremont die-ins came nearly three weeks after approximately 400 members of the Claremont community marched to City Hall to protest the exoneration of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. Although in support of the event, some students criticized the march’s lack of focus on Black students.
“I think it’s important for Black voices to have a central role in demonstrations or protests because that’s who it’s affecting most, and I don’t feel like that was what necessarily happened at the [march],” said die-in participant Michelle Schultz PO '16.
Multiple demonstrators also saw the die-ins as a way to respond to the racially biased incident that occurred Dec. 5 at Scripps College, when the image of Rosa Parks' face on a quilt that hangs at Vita Nova Hall celebrating Women's History Month was defaced with the N-word.
The die-ins were "necessary at the 5Cs, especially considering what happened at Scripps,” protester Donald Abram PO ’16 said. “The Black community as a whole is not necessarily heard on the Claremont Colleges, and for us to disrupt the daily lives of our collegiate counterparts was so important because they needed to think beyond the superficial level of just supporting the protests that occur across the country. These demonstrations forced the community to acknowledge us and listen to us and to know that we are justified in what we’re doing.”
The first die-in took place at Pomona’s Frary Dining Hall on Wednesday night. At 6 p.m., approximately 30 Black students came into the dining from both entrances and laid on the ground near the middle of the hall, while about 10 other participants stood around their classmates holding poster boards with thought-provoking messages. More than 30 students, staff members and faculty members stood in silence around the die-in. Demonstrators stood up and left in silent unison at 8 p.m.
“I didn’t expect a crowd to be watching us, so when I looked around I felt this sense of unity with the Pomona community,” Elijah Dixon PO ’16 said. “The floor was cold, and my back was hurting, but then instantly images of the parents of Trayvon Martin and all the other Black lives that were lost came into my mind. I remembered that [I was] doing this for Black lives, so it made me feel immediately better. The two hours on the floor were healing for me. ”
Pomona Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum wrote in an email to TSL that she attended the die-in to support the protesters.
“The actions are important, the issues they are seeking to address are vital and we need to grapple with them as a society and community,” she wrote. “I was struck by the silence, and the many students who stayed to bear witness.”
Director of the Draper Center Maria Tucker also said she attended in support of the die-in.
“The takeaway for me was around the theme of silence and the power of contemplativeness,” she said. “It reminded me of the extensive work that we have to do not just away from campus but on campus. I was surprised by some of the oppositional responses where some students were clearly uncomfortable, but more so I took note of the students who were supportive and stood by for the duration of the two hour die-in.”
By the time Esther Cheung PO ’17 arrived at Frary, the die-in was in full effect. She had known about the event beforehand, but was still surprised at the protests’ silent intensity.
“I was immediately hit by the seriousness of it,” she said. “The gravity of the silence at a place like Frary where every little voice echoes was breathtaking. This was probably a once in a lifetime experience for privileged students to walk into Frary feel uncomfortable. It’s a reversal from the everyday experiences of the marginalized on campus.”
That same night, a smaller die-in was independently organized at Pitzer’s Holiday Snack at McConnell Dining Hall. At approximately 10:40 p.m., an event organizer shouted “Hands up, don’t shoot!” to signal the start of the demonstration. Black students then laid on their backs while non-black students sat on the floor. The die-in lasted four and a half minutes, signifying the four and a half hours Michael Brown’s body was left on the street after he was shot. Once the die-in was over, organizers led a discussion outside the dining hall about the event and its purpose.
The next day, a third die-in took place at McConnell during lunch and involved the same students who protested at Frary the night before. After marching through Claremont McKenna College, the protesters silently walked in as a unit just past noon and laid in the middle of the dining hall’s main walkway until 1:30 p.m. The number of participants varied between 20 to 40 as Black students joined in at various times throughout the die-in.
While both Wednesday protests at Frary and McConnell seemed to garner much support from students in the dining halls, Thursday’s die-in received a more negative reaction.
“People reacted a lot worse [on Thursday],” said Noah Knowlton-Latkin PZ ’17, who attended both Pitzer die-ins. “Some people went in and just got their food without paying attention to what was going on. It was pretty disrespectful. Other people were even laughing at what was happening."
Schultz, who participated in both the Frary and McConnell demonstrations, reflected on the differences between the two.
“At the Pomona demonstration, it was almost completely silent, and it wasn’t until we got up to leave that I noticed all the people standing,” she said. “But at Pitzer, there were many conversations being had. I was facing the door, so I saw people’s initial reactions right when they came in. Some people turned around and left, some people looked like they hit a brick wall, completely shocked."
The Pitzer die-in, she said, "was more emotionally draining because people were more disrespectful of what we were trying to do.”
Multiple non-Black students grappled with their role in the demonstrations.
Avery Raimondo PO ’15, who attended the Frary die-in, said that the event made him contemplate how to display his support for the cause.
“I stood with my food in hand for a while out of respect,” he said. “As a white male, [the demonstration] made me question my relationship with the movement. I wanted to show solidarity, so that’s why I stood.”
Knowlton-Latkin said that one of his friends at the die-in at Pitzer on Wednesday night questioned why he could not lie down alongside the protesters.
“When I told her that we weren't supposed to lay down with the protesters because we were white, she said it was reverse racism," he said. "But it’s not. This is not an issue that affects us the most. White people are used to having their voices heard everywhere and always. When they’re told they don’t have anything to contribute they freak out.”
For protester Nicole Rufus SC ’16, tensions surrounding the demonstrations and the Ferguson and Staten Island verdicts illustrate the need for more work to be done.
“Many of our peers responded positively to the demonstrations, but as we can see through the vandalism at Scripps and the reactions of some of our peers, there are racist sentiments at the Claremont Colleges that we need to actively address,” she said.
For Rufus, friction surrounding the demonstrations produced an important silver lining.
“One positive thing that has come out of all these tensions lately is that, for the first time since I've been at Claremont, I feel that a cohesive Black community has started to form,” she said. “If nothing else, that, for me, has been really important. I just wish it was better circumstances that brought us all together.”
According to multiple participants of the die-ins, actions will continue to take place next semester in an effort to keep conversations alive.
Update: This article was updated Dec. 13. It originally indicated that student demonstrators first came in and sat down at Frary Dining Hall before proceeding with their protest. It now indicates that student demonstrators never sat down in the dining hall and directly entered the space to partake in the die-in.