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#BlackLivesMatter coming to the Ivy League

Dartmouth College will soon be teaching a course on the #BlackLivesMatter movement to examine race, violence and inequality in America.
Marchers approach the West Side Highway during a protests Dec. 4, 2014 in New York. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty)
Marchers approach the West Side Highway during a protests Dec. 4, 2014 in New York.

The national protest movement sparked by a rash of recent killings of unarmed black men by police and embodied by the now ubiquitous hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, has moved from heady debate to the head of the class, literally.

During its upcoming spring semester, Dartmouth College will be offering a 10-week course entitled #BlackLivesMatter, an examination of the intersections of race and violence.

Borne from last year’s fiery protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown Jr. by white former police officer Darren Wilson (and later a grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson), the course will be designed to use Ferguson as a jumping off point to discuss the broader implications of structural inequality and violence. 

“We hope students will be able to understand that Ferguson is not just an event in 2014, but something that’s tethered in time to a long history and still-emerging ideas about race in the U.S. and how policing works in an age of social media and distributed surveillance,” Aimee Bahng, a professor of English, told The Dartmouth.

The course will be a joint effort between the college’s African and African-American studies program and geography department and will be taught by a group of instructors from across various disciplines, including history, literature, anthropology, mathematical finance, sociology, and religion.

That Black Lives Matter— a demand as much as a protest anthem— is at once being chanted angrily on the streets of cities across America in protest of state sanctioned violence against blacks and institutional racism, and soon in the leafy green and historically lily white Ivy League, is perhaps a testament to the depth at-which the zeitgeist of the movement has bled into the mainstream.

Photo Essay: How the crisis in Ferguson unfolded, in photographs

“I think it’s important for Black Lives Matter to permeate every aspect of our society. That’s the point,” said Alicia Garza, an activist and organizer who co-founded #BlackLivesMatter in 2012, following the killing of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. “We need all of our institutions to be really critical about how society can create a world and a society and an economy where black lives matter.”

Diana Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the college, described Black Lives Matter as a special topics course that will “gather a wide range of perspectives to foster critical thinking on an issue that has focused American society.”

Dartmouth is not alone in incorporating the study of Ferguson into its course study. Georgetown University, the University of Iowa, Duke University and Vanderbilt University have all used the events in that unfurled from that small Midwestern city on in the suburbs of St. Louis to broach matters of race, police violence and inequality.

Garza said that she’s excited that the hard work of activists and allies in pushing the movement’s message into places far beyond the protest line, and that she hopes academic institutions would also lean on the experiences of organizers and activists.

Since founding the Black Lives Matter movement and hashtag with two other black women, Garza said the mantra has become central to various protests across the country and had been gaining momentum in the couple years between the killing of Trayvon Martin by a former neighborhood watch captain and Michael Brown by Wilson, the former Ferguson police officer.

It has been used in protests from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to marches across the Brooklyn Bridge and all through the South when LGBTQ activists rose up to demand equality. It even popped up on an episode of "Law & Order: SVU" during a protest scene outside of a courthouse.

But Black Lives Matter was given new life in the weeks after Brown’s killing. As protests in Ferguson expanded, and became more contentious, organizers there put a call out for reinforcements. Garza said about 500 activists from the Northeast and Canada, including another of the Black Lives Matter co-founders and a number of black medics, therapists and lawyers, organized what they called the Ferguson Freedom Ride from New York to Ferguson over Labor Day Weekend.

“They were saying please don’t come here as disaster tourists. But if you are going to come here, we need you to roll up your sleeves,” Garza said. “We didn’t want to just keep saying Ferguson as code for the black community.” During community actions and community celebrations that weekend, Black Lives Matter took root in Ferguson, she said.

“There’s a way in which I think Black Lives Matter has really touched a core with people,” Garza said. “There’s something about a yearning for freedom that exists in the black community that is being tapped right now and that’s important. But what’s most important is not just that it’s popular, but more so people are using this moment to fight for their dreams.”