Timon Ruth’s anger and frustration was evident as he shouted “I can’t breathe!”
A little raspy, his voice boomed and it shook with emotion. His words flowed down to a crowd of nearly 75 fellow Winthrop University students listening nearby on Tuesday afternoon.
The 19-year-old was standing on a balcony of a classroom building, reading a poem he’d written. Below, students were about to peacefully protest recent grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York. In both cases, white police officers who killed unarmed black men will not be charged.
The grand jury decisions have spurred similar protests and demonstrations nationwide. The cases of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, N.Y., are at the center of an emotional debate over whether the nation’s justice system and community law enforcement agencies are failing black people, specifically black men.
Tuesday’s demonstration at Winthrop was the third since the Ferguson grand jury decision. Last month, on the day after the grand jury decision to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, students rallied. Earlier this week, students held a forum and a vigil with Winthrop’s chapter of the NAACP.
All of the demonstrations have been peaceful with no one arrested or asked to leave, students said. At Tuesday’s “die-in,” a few Winthrop professors and staff members watched, but no police officers were there.
Winthrop Acting President Debra Boyd later issued a statement about the demonstrations, saying that “a learning community like ours exists to help students process the impact of difficult times and to find ways to contribute responsibly to a civil society.”
Many students participating in the event Tuesday said they have been deeply affected and frightened by Brown and Garner’s deaths at the hands of police officers.
Ruth’s poem included Garner’s presumed last words as he was in a chokehold by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Video from the incident shows Garner saying several times, “I can’t breathe,” before he fell unconscious. He was pronounced dead at a hospital later.
At the end of his poem, Ruth yelled, “In order for us to stand, we lie down.” Shortly after, the Winthrop students lay on the ground in the middle of campus in what is known as a “die-in.” The demonstration lasted nearly 30 minutes, with students huddled on Scholars Walk, wearing gloves, hats and heavy coats in the windy 50-degree weather.
Cameron Benton also delivered an impassioned poem of his own. It began, “God, am I a monster for the color of my skin?” The 21-year-old continued, “God I’m scared. I know you didn’t give me a spirit of fear but of power, love and self-control. But God, I’m scared.”
Almost all of those students present at Tuesday’s die-in were black. One white student spoke, saying “If I were a black man in America right now, I’d be scared ... of police.”
Changes are needed in the relationship between the black community and police and court systems, said Jarrion Manning, the 22-year-old Winthrop student who organized Tuesday’s die-in.
Manning said that Brown and Garner’s cases “really made me realize the justice system is pretty flawed ... We need to begin to do something to change the system.”