In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many other members of the black community, University of Connecticut students are using their voices to advocate for justice for the black community, including fifth-semester finance major Rita Tonleu.
Growing up in Randallstown, Maryland, Tonleu was surrounded by a diverse population of students, predominantly black like her. She knew that around the country, there were other black kids still facing microaggressions and overt racism.
But Tonleu had never had those experiences.
“When I was back in high school I was very ignorant to these things,” she said. “These realities were never my own, so I never truly felt them.”
She said she’s not afraid to admit that when it came to white people using racial slurs, she used to think it wasn’t even any of her business to say something about it.
Tonleu’s mindset changed drastically once she arrived at the University of Connecticut and began to experience some of these microaggressions she had only heard about. People around her used racial slurs with their friends in her presence, but claimed they would never say it to a black person. She attended a party and when the song “Freaky Friday” came on, she said she remembers everyone singing the racial slur – but none of them were black.
Determined to prevent other students from ever having to feel how she felt, Tonleu became involved in Undergraduate Student Government as the 2019-2020 Multicultural and Diversity Senator and helped to bring the Cultural Appreciation Series, cultural events in collaboration with the campus’s various cultural centers celebrating diversity, to life.
The social justice activist within her awakened.
Now faced with fighting for justice for those who have died at the hands of police brutality, Tonleu and her peers are taking to social media and to the streets to educate and advocate for change.
“The problem with racism is the fact that it is rooted in ignorance,” she said. “And I feel like the only way we can truly fix this is by educating people.”
Tonleu said social media is how she’s been educating herself and her community. There are over 19 million Instagram posts with the #blacklivesmatter and Twitter feeds are flooded with information about petitions to sign, places to donate to and protests to attend. Tonleu said it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, you can always help inform others.
“Whether you have ten followers or 10,000 followers, you can use your platform to educate people that may not really know what’s going on,” she said. “What I’ve come to learn during my time is that people out here truly are unaware of what’s going on in the world.”
Social media has also become a widely accessible platform for those in the black community to tell their stories of racism in their everyday lives. Fifth-semester allied health sciences major Maia Moscova used her Instagram to share the levels of racism she has experienced throughout her life, beginning in kindergarten as she played pretend on the bus with two of her friends.
“We made up all these games on the bus, and this one was Tarzan,” she said. “I remember we always said, ‘Tarzan, Tarzan, watch out for that tree!’ And then we’d pretend to hit the back of the seat in front of us.”
One of the girls suggested they all hold hands for support as they swung through the jungle, but Moscova’s other friend opposed.
“So the girl who said it, she said I cannot touch your hand, it’s dirty,” Moscova said. “In that moment I looked at my hand and I did not see a speck of dirt or anything going on and I was just honestly confused. But I still felt the hurt.”
For Moscova, that moment was the catalyst that set off a perpetual chain reaction of feeling like she was constantly being judged for the color of her skin. In that same year, a girl told Moscova that black people could not use the playground she was enjoying at her brother’s football practice.
“I’ve never been so embarrassed,” she said. “You know when you feel a pit in your stomach? I remember that feeling so clearly.”
Her entire life, Moscova has dealt with a shyness that inhibited her confidence in her ability to stand up for herself in other racist incidents she found herself in through the years. But she said that she’s grown so much as a person because of all of those experiences, that she found it in herself to share her story with her Instagram followers, and the rest of the world to spread the message that racism comes in all forms, not just those you see make it in the news.
“I wanted people to feel that same level of shockness that I felt when I received those comments,” she said. “Just so that they know a little bit of how it felt.”
Fifth-semester psychology and human rights major Christine Jorquera acknowledges that allies to the black community will never understand exactly how racism has impacted black lives. In addition to using social media to spread awareness, she said being a good ally requires knowing that you have a privilege.
“I identify as Latina in that I still have white privilege where I’ll never know what it’s like to fear for your life when there’s a cop following behind you or as you’re walking down a street and someone is looking at you strangely just for the color of your skin,” she said. “Once you really start to understand the social construct of how skin gives you that kind of privilege in every aspect of your life, then you really see the complexity of a racial caste system.”
Jorquera said she wished all UConn students had the opportunity to learn more about human rights, whether it’s their major or not, to aid them in addressing the omnipresent influence of the color of one’s skin on their everyday lives.
She said constantly learning and spreading new information is a crucial part of showing your support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There really is no end to fully understanding the entirety of such a complex, ingrained systematic oppression,” she said. “I think just holding on to that fight and knowing that this is bigger than us, this is something that we’ll never truly be able to understand from a black person’s perspective.”
When the Waterbury Black Lives Matter protest crossed I-84 on Sunday, May 31, Jorquera said she’d never felt such unity amongst a protest. She said crossing the highway, together, made their actions feel that much more important.
“If one person is driving on a highway and they see this kind of protest and it puts them at a stand still and makes them feel trapped, it’s like a metaphor for how black people feel in their communities,” Jorquera said.
Governor Ned Lamont condemned the protestors making their way to I-84 and said that it was “not where they should have gone” and it was “dangerous.”
“We worried a lot,” he said, “in terms of it’s unsafe. We wanted to get those people off of I-84.”
From the highways to the streets, all 50 states are seeing people marching in solidarity with the black community, so it’s no surprise that she is just one of many UConn students that have found themselves at protests in the last couple of weeks.
Third-semester acting major Ammon Downer marched onto I-95 in New Haven with protestors at another massive, but powerful protest on Sunday, May 31.
“It was a surreal experience,” he said. “I’ve heard of protests in other states that were doing something like that but that’s the first time that a New Haven protest has gone that way.”
Downer said something he always loves about Connecticut protests is that when the protestors say they will keep it peaceful, they stand by their word like they stand by their cause.
“I have nothing against if people start rioting because honestly it’s a fair reaction to everything that’s been going on,” he said. “But I always liked how when we say we’re going to keep it peaceful, we’re going to keep it peaceful just for the safety of everybody who’s involved.”
But after Downer had to leave the protest early that Sunday afternoon, things unfortunately took a more aggressive turn. The crowd headed toward the New Haven Police Station at around 4 p.m., he said, where they were determined to enter the building to speak to New Haven mayor, Justin Elicker, after he supposedly tweeted that he was “monitoring the situation” from inside the police department. A video posted to Facebook by the Connecticut Bail Fund shows protestors announcing their right to be in a public building, and the pushing and pepper spraying that came after the crowd tried to push past the line of officers.
“I think what happened was since of course, there’s a large crowd of people, some people are angry, some people are getting personally close, the police thought that we wanted to put harm on our mayor and do anything we could to make him listen,” Dower said, “not just have him listen to us as regular people.”
As June progresses, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain traction in Connecticut with over a dozen protests held across the state just on Friday, June 7. The UConn community continues to find ways to educate the world on racism and support the black community. The UConn NAACP is selling rubber bracelets and donating all of the proceeds to organizations working to end police brutality and UConn Nutmeg Publishing released a list of Fall 2020 courses that “further our education on race, privilege and criminal justice.”
“I want to make sure that every Husky knows that they’re a part of the pack and an important part of the pack as well,” Tonleu said.