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UNC and the power of the patriotic protest

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Photo: ESPN Last Saturday, before kickoff at a football game against the University of Pittsburgh, a group of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, dressed mostly in black, sat during the playing of the national anthem with their fists raised in the air. Proclaiming that “Black lives matter,” these students did far more than simply enter into our ongoing national conversation about police brutality; they asked us to help them live.

Their demonstration on Saturday was motivated by the police killing four days earlier in Charlotte of Keith Lamont Scott and the seemingly endless officer-involved killings of black people across this country. It was motivated by the fact that lawmakers in their home state will hold a special session to tell private citizens which restrooms they should use, but refuse to address well-documented racialized policing practices. It was motivated by facts known for generations in the black community, but proven by social science that police officers in Greensboro, NC stop black drivers more than twice as often as they do white drivers—even when there is no reason to stop (despite finding drugs and unauthorized weapons more often when they stop white drivers). It was motivated by the fact that many students from Charlotte are afraid to drive the 130 miles from Chapel Hill to go home.

When students raise their fists, when they stage die-ins on campuses, when they kneel before football games, and when they sit in silence, they want you to see them and acknowledge their humanity. As generations of black students and their allies before have done, these students embody the best of the First Amendment’s protections of free speech and assembly, even as their governments fail to live up to their promises under the Constitution that no one “be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” or subject to “excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishment;” that no one be denied “the equal protection of the laws.”

They remind us that Black children, too, have the right to play in parks—yes, even with toy guns—without the police killing them. They remind us that walking home from a corner store is not a capital offense; neither is standing on a street corner. “Driving while black” should not be a thing, and neither should “the talk” black parents have with their children about how to engage with police officers and make it home safely. They want no one to feel their parents’ anxiety; they want to imagine a world in which their children are not less safe for having black skin. If black people can bear arms abroad to protect this country, then black people have the right to lawfully bear arms at home—and should not be killed when complying with officer instructions to prove licensure. They challenge a system that uses test scores to project the number of prison beds needed, and uses sentencing laws to fill them. When they demonstrate, these students want us to know that a person should not die for asserting their rights.

On Saturday, Carolina students chose the most quintessentially American way to assert their rights: the peaceful assembly. The unsympathetic will ignore the inherent patriotism in relying on the First Amendment to advocate for equal protection. They will distort and malign these students’ true motivations. They will reject and dismiss their demonstration as unpatriotic, as disrespectful of the American flag and anthem. They will characterize these students as jumping on the bandwagon; they will infantilize them and claim to know better with age. They will ignore their message and urge you to care more about inanimate symbols than living peoples’ lives.

I ask you not to be them. I ask you to join us, the 525 proud UNC alumni who saw these students as they are, who listened to why they protested, who reached out to help them live. I invite you to see the Patriotic Protest, and I urge you to help them—help us—by encouraging your elected officials to enact laws and policies to improve police training, to eliminate bias in policing, prosecution and sentencing, to establish independent offices to investigate and prosecute claims against police and to build genuine working relationships with communities. I encourage you to register and vote, in November and in every election.

Most of all, I want these hashtags to be our last. I, these students, black people across the United States, want to live.

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Matthew Patrick Shaw is a Law and Social Sciences doctoral fellow at the American Bar Foundation, where he studies education rights. He holds a doctorate in education from Harvard University, a law degree from Columbia University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Twitter: @DocMattPShawJD)
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