On Thursday, May 28, Louis Stein ’20 posted a story on his Instagram account regarding the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer three days earlier. His post included a screenshot of an email he had sent to President Steven Poskanzer asking Poskanzer to take a stand against the Minneapolis police “for the murder of George Floyd, and for the escalation of violence against a grieving community.”
“White people cannot afford to be silent right now,” Stein urged in his email. “We must use our voices and platforms to support those most vulnerable to the systemic racism that permeates American culture.”
In successive posts, Stein encouraged his viewers to follow suit by sending Poskanzer the same email, signed with their own names.
Stein published the same screenshot to his Facebook account later that afternoon, and included the body of his email in the comments section so that it could be copied-and-pasted by others.
Over the next 48 hours, students, alumni and faculty engaged with Stein’s post in several ways and on multiple social media platforms, amplifying its reach with each iteration. As of this morning, Stein’s email has been shared and re-shared at least 25 times, accruing 331 likes and 43 comments.
“I’m actually surprised by the amount of traction it’s gotten,” Stein told the Carletonian.
Since the closure of Carleton’s campus, Stein—originally from Newton, MA—has been residing in south Minneapolis. When hundreds of civilians filled the city’s streets on Tuesday and Wednesday night to protest George Floyd’s murder, Stein felt moved to organize. But he was concerned about the presence of police violence at the protests, and the risk of spreading COVID-19. “I also wasn’t sure if it was my place to go into a community of really angry, grieving people, Stein said.”
Instead, Stein resolved to send an email to Poskanzer. “I felt like I needed to do whatever I could from my computer. The silence from the president and from the administration altogether is deafening.”
The nature of Stein’s activism—online as opposed to in-person—is a reflection of his own identity consciousness. As a white person, Stein worries about inserting himself into spaces not meant for him, or assuming that his voice is warranted or even wanted on issues like these. At the same time, he recognizes the immense privilege his whiteness affords him and his concomitant responsibility to act.
Stein is not naïve to the limitations of online activism, nor does he believe that a statement from the school has the power to affect the Minneapolis PD. “It’s all futile unless there’s real action happening at the top,” he clarified. But the power that Carleton does have to create a space in which black students feel protected and supported, both physically and emotionally, should not be dismissed.
In many students’ eyes, the school’s inaction is a perpetuation of anti-black sentiment. While a statement from the President will not shield black students from racism or ameliorate the trauma it can cause, silence and the apathy it signals will invariably cause harm. As Jancyn Appel ’23, Class of 2023 Representative, told the Carletonian, “silence is compliance.”
“Too often people think to identify as a liberal or ‘on the left’ means you’re immune to contributing to racism, microaggressions, anti-blackness, and racial violence,” Appel stated. “I hope white students at Carleton actually take this time to act. Students of color need to be shown that their white peers unequivocally support them.”
Jelilat Odubayo ’21 is one of many students who reposted Stein’s email on Facebook and sent it to Poskanzer. It was important to Odubayo that Carleton made a statement on George Floyd’s killing because “like many institutions in this country, Carleton has a hand in perpetuating white supremacy.”
“As its white president, it’s important for Poskanzer to speak against this system of violence and oppression,” she explained.
“The President has an important obligation to be a role model here,” Nicole Collins ’22 told the Carletonian. “It’s action and sacrifice that may put us out of our comfort zones, and the longer Stevie P neglects to make a statement on George Floyd, the longer he is basking in his own comfort and privilege.”
The amount of support the email campaign has received online indicates a widespread belief among community members that not only is the college responsible for speaking out against racism, violence and police brutality, but so are its students.
“The point of this movement is to help create a culture of people supporting people of color, and given the response I’ve seen on social media, that’s already happening,” said Stein, who hopes to facilitate a shift in Carleton’s social and political culture. “It’s a drop in a bucket, but it’s a way to get people to start using their voices, and to get white people to stop being silent.”
“In that case,” Stein posed, “we might be successful even without a statement from the school.”
Twenty-four hours after Stein’s first email went out, Poskanzer, along with David Anderson, President of St. Olaf College, released a 203-word statement regarding “the police officer-involved killing of George Floyd.”
In their email, Poskanzer and Anderson stated: “This incident in Minneapolis raises profound and troubling questions about police brutality, violence in our society, and institutionalized racism—issues that are critical for us to explore, teach about, research, study, discuss as a community, and address in our individual lives.”
The Presidents’ statement did not acknowledge Stein’s or any other student’s email.
In asking for a response from the college, students were calling on the administration to not only denounce state-sanctioned anti-black violence and commit themselves to protecting black humanity, but to demonstrate that commitment by delineating concrete steps to be taken now and in the future. What students received instead was merely “lip service,” according to Diana Augustin ’21.
“I am dissatisfied,” Augustin stated in an email to the Carletonian. “I need to see action, not damage control. Black students need to know that if they protest for basic human rights, they will have the support of the college many of them call home.”
Following the presidents’ address, students and alumni took to Facebook to voice their discontent. In follow-up emails too, community members continued to hold Poskanzer accountable by detailing the inadequacies of his address. For many, it was the noncommittal passivity that made the statement so egregious.
“This is a disappointingly weak statement, unburdened by any action or even any specific commitment to act,” Matt Ruen ’07 wrote in a comment to the college’s Facebook post.
“Where are the action steps?” asked Nina Muller ’18. “This says absolutely nothing specific about what the college plans to do moving forward,” Michelle Mastrianni ’16 continued.
“Would be nice if the statement didn’t use the euphemistic word ‘incident,’ which serves to downgrade murder and obfuscate a larger pattern of police brutality,” added Sarah Wolfson ’99. “The Carleton English Department taught me so much about the value of nuance in communication. It’s sad not to see that employed here.”
“It was murder,” wrote Pallav Kumar ’18. “Call it like it is.”
When compared to the responses from other local colleges and universities, Carleton’s statement looks especially intellectualized. On Thursday, May 28—the same day Stein shared his email—Macalester President Brian Rosenberg issued a letter expressing his “grief and anger in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department.”
“I grieve for all of us, but especially for the people of color in our community,” Rosenberg wrote. “I want our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents of color to feel safe. I want them to feel heard. I want them to feel loved.”
In a statement released one day earlier, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel wrote, “We have a responsibility to uphold our values and a duty to honor them. We will limit our collaboration with the MPD.” The university’s contract with the Minneapolis Police Department for additional law enforcement support has since been ended.
The Carleton community’s reaction to Poskanzer’s email has underscored the insufficiency of words alone.
“There is so much more that can be done,” Augustin advised. She and others have encouraged community members to make donations to one (or more) of the many organizations fighting for justice for black communities in Minnesota and beyond: Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, Unicorn Riot, North Star Health Collective, or George Floyd’s Memorial Fund.
The reaction to Poskanzer’s statement is also a testament to the connectivity of the Carleton community. Though separated by state lines and stay-at-home orders, students, alumni and faculty have been able to express solidarity, protesting both the murder of George Floyd and the administration’s response. While many community members don’t feel backed by the college, they remain committed to backing one another.