More than 30 students gathered at Penn State’s West Cultural Lounge on Friday night to cap a week of events celebrating the 30th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration.
They learned a far more powerful lesson than they expected.
The gathering was described as a “peace sit-in,” the quiet, nonviolent protest that marked the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The event would consist of songs, poems and reenactments, co-Director Latasha Stephenson said.
Student Joe Gray was partway through the first performance, a rendition of the protest anthem “We Shall Overcome,” when a Penn State police officer entered the room. She said she’d received a noise complaint, and all the students had to leave, no questions asked.
Surprise gave way to confusion, which soon gave way to frustration. Students refused to move and were outraged that their right to assemble was being threatened.
That’s when Stephenson stepped in and explained it was all an act. Officer Elizabeth Fessler had been asked beforehand to request them to leave, similar to how protest sit-ins were often disrupted by the police.
“I wanted to get everyone’s emotions running,” Stephenson said, “to show what it was like.”
Through the rest of the event, performers used poems, dance and set the stage for important moments in black history.
A South Carolina slave auction was re-enacted, as four black students were brought into the room in rags and chains to be auctioned off by the white owner. The performers held nothing back, including the expressions of the time.
A family of four tried to get seating at a restaurant, only to be chased away when the owner threw water in the father’s face after telling them his regular patrons “might be a bit uncomfortable.”
“In a time when police brutality and violence are running rampant through society,” co-Director Jael Charles said, “we must use the voice we have to fight for ourselves and fight for those who can’t.”
Naeem Holman, a recent Penn State graduate, commented that despite there being so many resources available in this day and age, community awareness remains low.
“That’s the biggest point to drive home,” he said. “Bringing awareness into the community.”