… and justice for all?

A new student organization brings attention to social justice issues

University of Nevada, Reno students commemorate Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

University of Nevada, Reno students commemorate Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Photo/Anna Hart

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/RenoJusticeCoalition.

“We are here to remember those whose lives were taken due to police brutality, vigilantism, or hate crimes. Not one more,” read one of the signs at the Reno Justice Coalition's most recent exhibition, a memorial of lives lost to hateful acts, held on Feb. 19.

The Reno Justice Coalition formed in the fall of 2014.

“The purpose of the Reno Justice Coalition is to have a voice on campus about racism and other forms of social injustice,” said the coalition’s vice president, Madeleine Poore. “It was created to have a forum to talk about these issues and do something about it, because there are students here who care about these things and want to change it. We needed to join together to do that.”

On the University of Nevada, Reno campus, the Reno Justice Coalition has provided an outlet for students to explore activism and community involvement.

“It encourages student participation and raises awareness about important topics,” said Cheney Arberry, the coalition’s treasurer. “There is a want for good change on our campus. People are really quick to write off young people as they don’t care or they’re lazy. But this proves that we do care. We are organizing this change.”

Since forming, the collective has made bold moves in opposition to acts of social injustice. The first events hosted by the Reno Justice Coalition to garner the attention of UNR students, as well as local media, were last fall’s protests held to commemorate the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, both unarmed African-American men. Public safety officers asphyxiated Eric Garner and shot Michael Brown.

With several people bearing signs with phrases now indelibly written into modern society’s consciousness, like “I can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter,” dozens of participants laid down at a busy university building for 4 minutes and 50 seconds to symbolize the hours that Brown was left in the street before his body was moved, ending with a chant of “I can’t breathe” to commemorate Garner’s last words.

In the months following the “die-in,” the Reno Justice Coalition has continued to host events to bring issues of discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation and identity to light, most notably with their recent “Week of Action.”

Several events during the week were planned in conjunction with other groups, such as the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, the UNR Gender, Race and Identity Department and the Center for Student Cultural Diversity.

The “Week of ACTION” gave the Reno Justice Coalition the opportunity to bring in several individuals, including members of the American Civil Liberties Union and Terry Marshall, an activist from Ferguson, Missouri, who has been working with the Black Lives Matter campaign, all in an effort to encourage the Reno community to commit to social change.

One of the events was a screening and a discussion of the 2013 movie Fruitvale Station. The film is a dramatization of the last day of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African American who, after being involved in an altercation on a train, was shot on Jan. 1, 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer at the Fruitvale station in Oakland, California.

“How does an ’Oscar Grant’ come to exist?” asked Dr. Albert Lee, the moderator of the discussion held after the movie.

It’s a question that brings the focus away from the incident itself and toward the lifestyle Grant led: as a man who loved his mother, girlfriend and daughter, but lived in poverty and struggled between the choice of selling drugs to provide a comfortable life and finding a job that would provide a meager, yet honest, income.

While the answers vary from social inequality, a flawed capitalist system, and conditioned racial bias, altogether it equates to one of the truths that the Reno Justice Coalition holds to be self-evident: Injustice is not simply one isolated incident. Discrimination and inequality don’t arise from a two-dimensional, one-to-one ratio between the oppressor and the oppressed, but from a collection of multiple points of intersection between various types of discrimination and the systems at play. It’s the origins and mechanisms behind prejudice that the Reno Justice Coalition seeks to raise awareness of, in order to rectify inequitable norms.

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The most recent exhibition the Reno Justice Coalition presented was a memorial in which attendees held posters emblazoned with statements like, “Blackness is not a weapon,” and “There are no 'good cops' in a racist system,” along with signs marked with the names and ages of persons whose deaths were attributed to police brutality, vigilantism, and hate crimes.

“The fact that we’re holding these signs so that people can see these names is important, because these weren’t just names,” said Ally Messers. “They were people. Their lives were valid and were taken unjustly. Their voices need to be heard, and since they’ve passed we want to help that happen.”

Many of those who participated in the Week of Action felt compelled to do so, not merely because of a passing fad to be up in arms about discrimination but because of a moral obligation within themselves.

“Inaction or indifference breeds the hate that exists in this world,” said Daniel Putney. “If we don’t fight against it, nothing will change. We have to demonstrate and make our voices heard to affect change in the world.”

Although the Reno Justice Coalition had its beginnings mainly among UNR students, participation and attendance of events have drawn out numerous community members, including educators, attorneys and small business owners who believe in the cultural upheaval that these young people endeavor to accomplish.

“I’m not a student,” said one participant. “In fact, I’m missing a business meeting right now to be here. But I couldn’t help myself from taking the time to stand with them.”

With the events that the group has put on, there has been an outpouring of positive feedback praising the organization for its bold stance. But that’s not to say that there haven’t been harsh critics.

“What they are doing is wrong,” said one bystander. “One police officer kills a man and suddenly people a couple thousand miles away think they should be holding signs screaming ’Racism’? It makes no sense.”

“The idea that there’s racism in this day and age is ridiculous,” interjected another passerby. “We’ve gotten so far from it. The only racism present today is the fact that this protest wouldn’t be happening if it had been a black police officer and a white victim.”

Although, not to be ironic about one critic’s lack of racism, there were protests when black University of South Alabama police officer shot and killed Gil Collar, a naked, white 18-year-old freshman.

With such a controversial position, it’s not surprising that some people find the message the Reno Justice Coalition sends to be particularly unpalatable. But that hasn’t stopped them. In fact, by striking a nerve, it’s brought them one step closer to bringing forth a solution.

“I think it’s really important to have these kinds of dialogues in society,” said Jose Olivares, a journalism student at UNR. “Talking about these things and bringing attention to issues is going to bring them to the conscious minds of the people. That’s the first step to inspire change.”