On Monday morning, an estimated 100-200 students huddled together in front of Edman Chapel holding up handmade signs in order to protest in solidarity with Ferguson. The Hands Up March On protest was originally sparked by Wheaton alumnus Daniel Aguilar ’13, who messaged one of the organizers and informed the student that various colleges around the country would be protesting that same day. Representatives from a plethora of student organizations, other concerned students and faculty members joined the movement. The student-led protest began on the steps of Edman Chapel before chapel at 10:20 a.m. President Philip Ryken was briefly present to observe.
Some protestors remained outside during chapel to continue to pray and practice the chants, while many others filed in as the bells sounded. Immediately after the students were dismissed from chapel, they reunited outside and began their march through campus.
The procession began its trek first from chapel to lower Beamer Center and then to the Science Building. Next it walked to the Smith-Traber Hall and then to Fischer Hall. The procession ended at Blanchard Hall. At every location, the protestors did a four and a half minute “die-in,” lying down in complete silence to commemorate the four and a half hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the streets after he was killed.
During the march, the organizers led the rest of the students in a variety of chants. A chorus of voices resounded with the words “Black lives matter!,” “No justice, no peace!” and “Who is Mike Brown? We are Mike Brown!”
Only on the walk from Fischer to Blanchard did the leaders ask participants to walk in silence, quietly reflecting and praying. Upon their arrival, protestors filed through the double doors, crowding into the narrow staircases to do their final “die-in,” as Ryken descended from his office to join them.
The Record emailed President Ryken for comments about the protest. On Wednesday, he replied, “As Christians, we have a fundamental unity that can help prevent the distinctions of race, culture, economics, and social class from defining and dividing us. Yet history teaches us that in a sinful world, unity and justice often come through painful and costly struggle. On our own campus, where our early identity as an abolitionist institution has at times been squandered by apathy or obscured by injustice, God has often used the bold witness of students whose faith compelled them to speak up for mercy and justice.”
As they prepared to disperse, senior Michael Rau, who helped organize the event, exhorted the participants not to stop fighting there but to keep striving for racial equality and justice in the United States.
Senior Isaac Butler, another one of the leaders, said he helped to organize the event because he “noticed a severe lack of a voice from the church on systemic racism in the United States, and I believe that Christians should be active in this conversation, not passive and apathetic.”
Wheaton College was the first Christian college to protest. Butler hopes that other colleges will be inspired by Wheaton’s actions and “speak up and speak out against systemic oppression.”
Because of the variety of opinions concerning the guilt or innocence of Officer Wilson and Brown, Butler said, “Regardless of whether or not Officer Wilson was innocent or guilty, the fact remains that a young black man lost his life and that he is not the only black man to lose his life at the hands of a police officer using excessive force.”
Professor of theology Gregory Lee agreed with Butler about structural sins. He said, “It is certainly right for Christians to be on the side of justice, and protests are one legitimate mechanism for demonstrating such support. Evangelicals have often failed to recognize the corporate and not just individual dimensions of sin. This incident is a good opportunity for us to develop a more robust theology of such issues as well as to put our theology in action.”
Likewise, President Ryken commented, “At Wheaton College we want to do more than lament the broken places in our society. We want to ask how God is calling us to practice racial reconciliation as one of his redemptive purposes for us in Jesus Christ.”
Director of the Office of Multicultural Development Rodney Sisco added to the discourse, saying, “(The protest was) directly pointing at Ferguson, but I think the question is raising a broader one … it is directly about Ferguson and Michael Brown, but it’s connecting to a broader question of race relations in the United States.”
Sisco said that the fact that Wheaton students protested on Monday demonstrates that young people do care about what is happening in the world, not only in “Ferguson but in our nation in terms of race relations, specifically with African-Americans and the police … The significance is that you as students said ‘we need to do something about this’ and made it happen in a short amount of time.”
As the protest became public, other colleges associated with Wheaton began calling Sisco to ask his opinion about the protest, and within hours of the protest, pictures of Wheaton College appeared in the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and the Chicago Tribune. Evidently, the action of a couple hundred students has drawn the attention of many other colleges, the media and the leadership of Wheaton College itself.
Butler summarized what the media captured by saying, “I’d like to say that this issue pertains to everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. There is no room for apathy; you must join the conversation if we are to heal and reconcile.”
President Ryken commented in an email to the Record, “I am grateful to God that we live in a country where peaceful protest is an invitation to constructive dialogue on divisive issues. Our campus witnessed students and faculty making such a protest on the Monday after Thanksgiving. It was good to see members of our community following through on the commitment we all make to pursue unity and embrace ethnic diversity as part of God’s design for humanity.”