Today I sat in class and stared. Stared at the wall, stared at my classmates, and stared at my professor. I couldn’t seem to focus, and I didn’t necessarily want to. Are we actually back here? I thought to myself. I feel empty. I wish I didn’t, but I do. My thoughts are racing at a pace faster than I can handle, and I can’t even seem to reign them in to form cohesive, coherent, tangible feelings. But still we are back here. Back in class, back in precepts, and back in labs. I am no longer sitting in Nassau Hall, no longer sitting in Eisgruber’s office. And I miss it, because, as of approximately two and a half weeks ago, that was the only place where my thoughts made sense.
My professor continues to lecture but I struggle to listen. Instead, I think back to that office. There is a part of me that wishes I could say I walked into Eisgruber’s office boldly, that there were no hesitations. This, however, would be a lie. I was scared, unsure, and confused, and, at first, didn’t know what I was doing. I had to be nudged towards the doors of Nassau Hall, and I still remember nervously laughing at how unreal the situation felt. I remember looking around and seeing so many bodies, and faces, and I felt like I could read those faces. This was just supposed to be a normal Wednesday–what on earth happened? many of them said. I think I tried to make my face say something different, but if anyone looked close enough, they would see through the facade. I thought we were just supposed to chant outside Nassau Hall for thirty minutes, and then go our separate ways. Princeton protests don’t turn into this. I don’t turn into this, I thought to myself.
Apparently I do turn into ‘this’, whatever that means, because at 6:30 PM I found myself still in Eisgruber’s office, listening to a Dean cite the potential disciplinary consequences we would face for staying in the office. Anxiety filled that room, and it was an anxiety that I don’t think anyone who wasn’t there will ever be able to understand. I watched the mood shift as fear permeated the room. It was not necessarily a fear of disciplinary action, but a fear that an entire movement would be prematurely ended. Fear that everything a group had worked for would not even see the light of a second day. And beyond this fear, there was hurt in knowing that a marginalized group would once again be silenced. I took in the pain on the faces of the Black Justice League (BJL) members, and I can tell you that it is a feeling I don’t ever want to experience again. This moment in the office was probably the hardest moment I faced throughout the protest, but I am thankful for it, because it was in that moment that I understood why I needed to be a part of the protest. It was a reminder of how beautiful this hot mess of a Wednesday actually was. In that moment, the pain of the BJL became my pain, and any questions, nervousness, or doubt about what I was doing immediately vanished. In the midst of the fear and anxiety surrounding the protest, I felt calm, and received a peace that steadied my entire perspective for the rest of the protest.
I am not a member of the BJL, and I am not affiliated with the Woodrow Wilson School, but one thing I wish campus (and the media) would realize is that you didn’t have to be affiliated with either to be part of the protest. And to that point, I wish we could remember that the protest was not simply about Woodrow Wilson. Everyone there had their own reasons for being involved, and when I sat in Eisgruber’s office, slept outside Nassau Hall, and later sat in Nassau Hall’s atrium, I kept replaying personal memories over and over in my head. I thought back to the predominantly-white spaces I have occupied my whole life: grade school, high school, and now college. I thought about all the times I have been asked the voice for an entire minority group, because someone’s ignorance had led them to believe that black people all think, feel, and speak in the same way. I thought about the times I have felt silenced as a black person, convinced that my opinions or feelings would matter less. I thought about what it meant that an entire army of P-Safe officers stood inside guarding a building, while not a single officer or car watched over those of us who slept outside. I thought about how belittling it felt to hear that a motion for a new distribution requirement would have to go through four different layers of various administrator, faculty, and trustee groups before it could be considered fully and put into action. I was reminded of just how laborious and radical things seem when an oppressed group speaks up and challenges the status quo. 33 hours is a long time for contemplation, but with each hour, I felt strengthened, even more passionate about why I was there, and empowered by the support shown to us.
Although I felt empowered, it would be remiss to say that there were no moments that were discouraging. I was hurt to see the backlash and responses to a disruption of the status quo (i.e. Yik Yaks, Facebook posts, articles, etc). We as humans are very self-selective creatures and we choose what we want to see, but to quote an article written by a member of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, “we can do better.” In the case of this protest, many chose to focus solely on demands and chose not to see the actual humans behind it all. During the protest, I heard a BJL member say that as a minority, it is important to remember that the onus is not on you to make people see your humanity. This person then said we should listen to what people are saying, regardless of how it’s said, because asking people to abandon their emotions is like ignoring that they are human. There are faces, bodies, and lives behind the demands. There are stories, truths, and narratives. There is validity to what the protesters were saying, regardless of if you believe it or not. One person’s or one group’s experience cannot be quantified, analyzed, or measured; if it is their truth, it is real and deserves acknowledgment. The protest reminded me that I cannot ignore my experiences as a minority, and I cannot ignore the experiences that other black people have faced. One of the biggest reasons I remained committed to the full 33 hours was because I wanted to remind others to look past the demands and see the pain from which they were stemming. The Black Justice League (BJL) did not bring racism to campus, and the protest did not make Princeton an unsafe environment. These two things were present long before the sit-in began. If anything, I am thankful that the protest forced me to wake up from the slumber and haze of apathy that so commonly plagues Princeton students.
But somehow, we are back here. Back in class, back in precepts, and back in labs. The protest is over. The sit-in is done. A document has been signed, and Eisgruber is back at his desk, working “peacefully.” When I was asked to write this article, I was told to write about my experience protesting at Nassau Hall. The thing is, though, that my experience cannot be limited to those 33 hours, because this experience is in fact still continuing. There is so much still on my mind, and so many feelings still in my heart. First and foremost, though, I’m scared that we as Princeton students will not allow ourselves the proper time to work through it all. At Princeton, there seems to be a belief that emotional, weight-bearing incidents have some sort of expiration date, and the shelf-life of these incidents are thought of like the half-lives and carbon dating we learned about in middle school science class. Even as I write now, I worry that the majority of people who see this article will not even attempt to read it, because they have immediately deemed this topic ‘old news.’ In a way, yes, this does feel like old news, but we have to remind ourselves that that is far from the truth. It’s easy to feel detached and feel like the moment has passed, but to do so would be an extreme disservice to what those 33 hours represented.
This week, I came across an amazing quote in a book I read for one of my classes. This passage spoke right into what I have been feeling about the protest, my fears about the future, and the hope that came from those 33 hours. The quote goes as such:
“They hold hands, feel[ing] like they are witnessing something monumental, something that could change things. It won’t, but that feeling, that spirit will live on in everyone here, everyone who sees. The spirit will change things.”*
Yes, indeed, the spirit and energy that came from the protest will change things- in fact, it already has. But I have hope that we can prove this quote wrong, that something monumental will come from what has been started. I can’t see exactly what that will be yet, but I know that I want to keep working towards it.
*This quote was taken from page 194 of Two Boys Kissing, written by David Levithan.