Beyond Bystanding: An Open Letter to First Years

This letter was originally published on RIFuture.Org. It was edited after feedback to correct and update background information on the Ray Kelly protest organizing efforts

On August 20th, the Pokanoket Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation set up an encampment at Potumtuk (referred to as Mt. Hope in Bristol, RI) to reclaim their ancestral lands from Brown University. Their history and intentions have been made clear through their Facebook group Po Metacom Camp and their website. On September 5th, they planned the event “Pokanoket Convocation: A March for the Land” during the matriculation ceremony for the Class of 2021.

Image found on RIFuture.Org. The signs read, "We are not trespassing," "This is our sacred land," and "No photos beyond this point without consent."
Image found on RIFuture.Org. The signs read, “We are not trespassing,” “This is our sacred land,” and “No photos beyond this point without consent.”

I want to begin this letter by making my background and intent clear. I write this letter as a person of color, the child of immigrants, a recent graduate, and as a part of the Brown community. I write this letter on behalf of myself and myself only. I’m also writing this letter from California, far away from what is happening and what will occur. This letter isn’t for Brown’s administration or the Pokanoket Tribe and their allies — I don’t know what it’s like to be in your position and my understanding of the situation is limited to what I can read online and what I hear from people involved. But this letter is for the first year students (and their families) that witnessed this demonstration as their first introduction to Brown University — because four years ago, I was in your shoes.

Coming from a Filipino immigrant family in the Bay Area, I was taught to believe that if I got a college education and worked hard enough, it would be enough to live a successful and meaningful life in the United States. When I was accepted to Brown University in 2013, I chose to go — not because I loved the idea of leaving my family to move across the country or because I felt particularly welcome when I visited for A Day on College Hill, but because it was an Ivy League institution. I thought I understood what that reputation could do for me and my family. To be quite honest, my 18-year-old self didn’t think too much about what getting a Brown education meant in a larger societal sense.

During my first semester, I witnessed the campus protest against a lecture promoting Stop and Frisk policing tactics by Ray Kelly, the NYPD police commissioner at the time: my first introduction to activism on Brown’s campus. The protest was organized by students, Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE), the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), and several other local residents of Providence. Around the time of the event, similar tactics were increasingly being used by Providence police on communities of color and the Rhode Island Student Union Project at Rhode Island College were petitioning against the arming of campus police. And so organizers and protesters were concerned that by hosting the lecture and reserving seats for Providence Police officers, Brown condoned and promoted Ray Kelly’s use of racial profiling. I remember, I was just getting out of my Tuesday seminar when I heard drums and chants from across the street. As I got closer, I saw many of my friends and upperclassmen I looked up to, standing beside Providence community members whom I had never seen before. I had little knowledge about Stop and Frisk and who Ray Kelly was, and so to say the least, it was overwhelming.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. Do I go in and try to hear what Ray Kelly had to say? Do I join my friends to support something I knew nothing about? I stood there on the grass outside the List Art Building, frozen with all the other bystanders who were equally at a loss of what to do in the moment. I remember going back to my room in Keeney, sitting in the lounge and immediately crying. I thought to myself, “What did I get myself into?? Is this what it’s like to go to Brown?”

I can confidently say there was never a dull moment during my four years at Brown. I’ve seen countless actions challenging the administration to do better by its students, its workers, its grad students, the neighboring Providence community. But of everything that happened, nothing really compares to the protest against Ray Kelly. What made that moment different from every other action for me was that it wasn’t just Brown students at the front of the line — it was also Providence community members. It was families who had lived in Providence and whose communities were directly impacted by Stop and Frisk policies. It was people outside of the university that were being affected and having no say in the matter. These were the people leading the effort to stand up against the university. And yet, when it came time to talk about the consequences of that protest, it seemed the entire conversation focused on how the Brown community was divided. Conversation about our relationship with the local community faded as quickly as it started.

As Brown students and community members, our compassion and attention cannot only be reserved for those within the university’s halls. Brown is the largest landowner in Providence and is ranked as one of the top employers in the state of Rhode Island. Everything this university does affects the people around it and we have a responsibility to show up for them too. And I get it — that isn’t an easy thing to accept. I, as well as many Brown students before you, have grappled with the weight of that responsibility. Especially for students who are first gen, low income, and/or from communities of color, attending this university also means having access to resources and opportunities that many of us might not otherwise have. But these resources and opportunities don’t just come out of thin air. They come at a cost. And in this particular case, they come at the cost of the Pokanoket Tribe.

I don’t know how you felt during the matriculation ceremony, but I can guess that you were uncomfortable. Almost everyone around was probably uncomfortable. And that’s the point. It was absolutely intentional for the march to disrupt this moment for you and your families. The matriculation ceremony is a high profile event and it’s the perfect opportunity to address Brown’s administration out in the open. You might feel the urge to think, “This isn’t about me, it’s between the Pokanoket Tribe and the administration,” but I want you to fight that feeling. I want you to challenge the notion that as students and alumni, we get to be bystanders in this situation. Because as long as we’re tied to Brown University, this is about us too.

Once we walk through the Van Wickle Gates, we aren’t just Brown students. We are beneficiaries of a university whose buildings have gentrified communities of color and whose operations rely on the undervalued labor of its workers. We are beneficiaries of a university that exploits the work of its student leaders and professors of color to uphold its reputation as a progressive institution in time of Trump’s administration. We are beneficiaries of a university whose legacy and founding was built on the enslavement of Black people and the displacement of Indigenous people. What you do with that knowledge is up to you.

I’m not going to tell you you should have reacted or what your opinion should be, but I encourage you to show up and be present to what’s happening around you. Read about the Po Metacom Camp and their intentions before the demonstration happens. Listen intently when members of the encampment make a statement and take note of if and how the administration responds. If your family didn’t understand what was going on, take the time to explain and give them space to process away from the demonstration. And remember to make time to process for yourself. This will only be the first of many encounters you will have with demonstrations at Brown.

It is okay to be confused and to feel at a loss in the moment, but also recognize that this is the real nature of higher education institutions. And it will continue to be the real nature of Brown during the rest of your academic career. Things don’t just happen on Brown’s campus — there are entire decision-making processes behind the scenes that students and alumni can and should be a part of. The moment we choose to ignore what is happening is the moment we choose an institution over people. Welcome Class of 2021.

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