The arrest and subsequent beating of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year- old Black man, is sparking conversations across campus about the impact of police violence on students’ mental health and academic success.
Memphis, Tennessee police officers stopped Nichols for what they called “reckless driving” on Jan. 7. The stop escalated into a violent confrontation between police and Nichols, where officers beat Nichols, leaving him hospitalized in critical condition. Nichols died from his injuries on Jan. 10.
On Jan. 27 the Memphis police department released the video footage of the traffic stop and subsequent beating. The release of the video caused many Cal Poly Pomona officials and offices to release statements. University President Soraya M. Coley released a campuswide statement in anticipation of the release of the footage.
“To speak up for justice, to protest peacefully, and most importantly to deepen our understanding of the root of America’s anti-Blackness and to join together in eradicating it,” said Coley condemning the actions of the officers and calling on the community to take action.
The African American Student Center also released a statement condemning the police officers’ actions and hosting two reflection and healing spaces for students “to cultivate a culture of comfort and support.”
For many campus offices and organizations, conversations about race do not start and stop with large-scale events.
“It is in these moments that we can continue the momentum,” said Jonathan Grady, senior associate vice president and dean of students. “This cannot be a moment; it must be a movement.”
Grady said that the campus can feel unsafe for certain student populations.
“What we know to be true at Cal Poly Pomona, we know that for Black students, staff and faculty, this place for many is psychologically unsafe,” said Grady. “People are fearful for their lives, their livelihoods, even on this campus.”
The additional struggles that Black students face in academia is something Grady acknowledges.
“We know that Black students at this institution are struggling the most to persist and graduate,” said Grady. “We have to think about new ways of support, new ways of being, new ways of accountability and new ways of just operating as an institution.”
Grady also works with Cynthia Cortez, interim executive director of Equity, Access and Belonging, on the Black Thriving Initiative. The Black Thriving Initiative works to make the campus community more equitable towards Black students, faculty and staff.
“Our future as a university must be linked to the success of Black communities and demands racial healing, building capacity and consciousness, and accountability of all,” the Black Thriving Initiative website states.
Cortez highlights the university’s role in changing these inequities. Cortez says, “It’s our commitment to listen.”
Cortez, along with the BTI, has launched a learning series for faculty and staff to develop diversity, equity and inclusion competencies.
Some faculty members take matters into their own hands. Melissa Barragan, a sociology assistant professor, tackles the issues of police brutality and systemic injustice in her coursework.
“I always refer to incidents in my classes, whether it’s Kalief Browder, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, they’re always names that are referenced in my courses because I want to make sure that we’re keeping our students abreast of what’s happening,” said Barragan.
Philosophy Professor Cory Aragon acknowledges that even if these events happen away from campus they have an effect.
“I’ve been teaching about policing and specifically within the context of racial justice movements for a long time,” said Aragon. “You just see the same thing happening over and over again.”