Goshen College students and faculty took a step towards more open conversation on Wednesday, April 1 when the Goshen Police Chief Wade Branson and Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman met with Gilberto Perez, Regina Shands Stoltzfus and six Goshen College students in the Center For Intercultural and International Education at GC. The meeting was called to begin discussion about the Ferguson Solidarity Protest that occurred in downtown Goshen last fall.
“Tonight we are here to discuss what our experience was and what that means for us as people who need to coexist,” said Shands Stoltzfus, who opened the meeting with the instruction “Everyone speak for themselves, and let’s deeply listen to one another with the intent to understand.” Shands Stoltzfus proceeded to give a brief historical background of racism, covering everything from different meanings of recent iconic images in the media from Ferguson to the first fugitive slave law in the United States. She also touched on how the normalization of racism is a part of our history.
“We are trying to help people all over the country and the world be in conversation with people in Ferguson,” Stoltzfus said.
Kauffman continued the conversation by reflecting on his own upbringing in Goshen.
“We didn’t think about the fact that we were all white,” Kauffman said. “Our parents never talked about it and we never talked about why that was.” He discussed how the recent recognition of Goshen’s past as a sundown town raised sensitivities and brought more issues to light. He wanted the conversation to be about the reactions to the protest on both sides.
“A police officer took the protest personally,” Kauffman said. This caused tension with some of the people standing in solidarity that day and the hope was to start conversation and open dialogue about what happened.
“Everyone has the right to feel the way they feel,” Kauffman said. Although the officer who took the protest personally was not present at the meeting, Kauffman said, “[The officer] would want to be able to have a personal experience if he was here.”
“There’s a difference between feeling personally attacked because of your profession and feeling personally attacked because of the color of your skin,” said Dominique Chew, a senior in attendance.
Malcolm Stovall, a sophomore, explained why he organized the demonstration. “I was frustrated with the outcome not to indict an officer who shot an unarmed teenager 6 times,” Stovall said. “I carry the weight that my dad carried. He had to work twice as hard just so I could go to college. I carry the weight of my grandma, cooking meals, taking care of her kids and scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees. I take that burden very seriously.”
Alma Flores, Trevor Emery and Zach Zimmerman all explained their strong personal connections to the issue and why standing in solidarity and continuing discussion was important to them.
“Our history is being erased and [as] the group in power, we’re getting away with that,” said Zimmerman. “It is an issue in Northern Indiana. It’s an issue in my hometown. There are systems there that are steeped in racial histories. That’s something that I’d like to look at how we can move forward.”
“I don’t want this to be easy,” emphasized Stovall. “I had friends ask me, ‘Why are you even going to that conversation?’ If we’re not having this conversation who is? So let’s make those steps that certain people are reaching so far across the table. Let’s meet each other half way about issues of race, class, gender and more.”
Chief Branson, who was not present at the protest, but was contacted about its occurrence, then spoke, giving his take on the situation. “The police [that were present at the protest] tried to make sure they treated everyone fairly, but they all have feelings,” Branson said. Branson reported that although there were no major issues other than blocking the sidewalk or walking out into the road, some officers still took the protest personally because they thought it was against police here, while others understood people were simply standing in solidarity with the Ferguson community.
“Some officers will try to take things personal[ly] if someone spits at them, for example,” Branson said. “What they don’t realize is they’re spitting at the uniform and the position they’re in.”
“What does this mean for the broader issue at hand?” asked Shands Stoltzfus in response. “Rather than stopping conversation that doesn’t feel good, how do we do the work of separating out our personal feelings and move to another place? What I ache for is a community that does the hard work of getting to the next level. Nobody in this room can do it by [themselves]. But we have been fooling ourselves by saying that if we are good people by ourselves, racism will go away.”
“This is the beginning, saying we need more work,” Perez said. “The hard work started today.” The possibility of the police department releasing a statement was discussed, as well as plans for a future meeting with the students of Goshen College and the police officers involved in the solidarity protest.
Erin Bergen, a first year, reiterated the need for and importance of a statement from the police department. “A huge blanket statement such as, ‘We as the Goshen Police Department recognize that we have a racialized history,’ would show a lot of responsibility and would be a way to move forward.”
Branson ended the meeting by saying, “I believe that this conversation is needed. To have some of those police officers here would best for both sides understanding each other.”