Six hundred thirteen cardboard coffins filled the Johnson Student Center quad March 23, one for every person who has been killed by law enforcement in the Los Angeles County since 2000. Occidental students constructed the coffins in an effort to raise awareness of police brutality in Los Angeles.
The coffins were donated to the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), an organization in LA that works to challenge race, gender and class inequality in Los Angeles County’s and California’s juvenile justice systems. YJC is organizing a protest against police brutality April 7, in which attendees will carry the 613 life-sized coffins through downtown Los Angeles. The march will be led by the families and friends of people who were killed by Los Angeles law enforcement.
Approximately 40 Occidental students assisted in the construction of the coffins, Madeleine Resch (senior) said. YJC members then came to campus to help paint one side of them white.
“It was really great to see how many people came out, because it was a really hard task,” YJC participant Jordan Greenslade (senior) said. “We’re really hoping that after people were engaging in that … people will want to go to the protest and get more involved.”
Greenslade said one of the most rewarding parts of the project was to give the relatives of victims of police brutality a chance to honor their fallen loved ones. Since the coffins were given to YJC last week, families and friends of victims have been able to further decorate the coffins to remember those people they have lost.
“It really humanizes these statistics in a really deep way,” Greenslade said.
Several Occidental students became involved with YJC through Politics Professor Thalia Gonzalez’s Rebellious Lawyering class or through work with YJC over winter break. Resch said they fundraised about $2,500 to pay for supplies by asking for support from the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Senate and other academic departments on campus.
According to her, the project was a way to visibly display the realities of police brutality.
“I really believe it will be a really powerful message on the day of the March, that LAlaw enforcement will have to acknowledge what it actually means to have killed 613 people,” Resch said.
According to Aloni Bonilla, an organizer for YJC, the April 7 march aims to shed light on the problem of police brutality in the LA area.
“Since Ferguson, we have had over 20 killings [by law enforcement] here in LA County, and very little attention has been brought to the fact that it is happening here at a faster rate than anywhere else in the nation,” Bonilla said.
Resch emphasized the importance of college students becoming involved in social movements such as the police brutality memorial.
“I think that it’s really important to think about ways that we as college students can engage issues of inequity, social injustice and systemic oppression that are happening out in Los Angeles,” Resch said.
Echoing this sentiment, Bonilla said students involved in the memorial play a large role in YJC achieving its goals.
“I think student involvement is crucial because [police brutality] affects our future generations in the work that we are all doing, whatever field we are in or studying to be in,” Bonilla said. “It is important to understand the social injustice that exists and how the work that we do can uplift this.”
Bonilla hopes that the use of the coffins in the upcoming march will increase awareness of the need to improve the rights of victims’ families, convince the media not to release victims’ names before an investigation is closed and pressure the county to hold law enforcement officers accountable when they are involved in a shooting or use of force.
Additionally, the organizers of the march are pushing for the reallocation of one percent of government law enforcement and district attorney funding to the creation of new jobs and youth centers, as well the establishment of an independent prosecutor position dedicated to investigating officers involved in incidents of brutality.
“We hope to bring national attention to these issues, and that student involvement will help in bringing about this awareness,” Bonilla said.