After Ma'Khia Bryant's killing, Ohio State University students demand the college sever ties with Columbus police

Destiny Brown, a senior at the Ohio State University, breathed a sigh of relief in her dorm room on Tuesday when the guilty verdict came down for former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. But the moment of respite proved short-lived. Minutes later, she scrolled on Twitter and learned that a 16-year-old Black girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, had been shot and killed that afternoon by Columbus police.

“I can’t even begin to process the fact that we live in a world where people’s lives — regardless of what they’re doing, what they have going on, guilty or not, innocent or not — their lives just do not matter,” Brown told Yahoo News. “It doesn’t make sense to me and never will.”

Overcome with a feeling of helplessness, Brown fired off a group text message to her friends Tuesday evening. “I’m ready to organize again,” she told them.

In a matter of hours, Brown and her friends had planned a sit-in to be held the following day at the Ohio Union, the university’s student center in Columbus. Their goal, Brown said, was simple: to demand that the school sever ties with Columbus police over Bryant’s killing and its mistreatment of students of color.

On Wednesday afternoon, in the midst of finals week, more than 400 Ohio State University students, staff and faculty members attended the sit-in, where attendees chanted, “Say her name” and “Black Lives Matter.” The participants also observed 16 minutes of silence to mark the number of years Bryant had lived. Organizers told the crowd that the protest wasn’t for police reform but for abolition. Following the demonstration, the crowd marched to the Ohio Statehouse, chanting Bryant’s name.

Ohio State University (OSU) Students staged a sit-in demonstration in reaction to the police shooting and killing of Ma'Khia Bryant, 16, the day before. Activists demanded that The Ohio State University sever ties with the Columbus Police Department to keep their minority students safe. (Photo by Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Ohio State University students demonstrate Wednesday in reaction to the police killing of Ma’Khia Bryant the day before. (Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But with a student enrollment surpassing 60,000 on the Columbus campus alone, many OSU students disagreed with the protests.

“A protest can get out of hand just as much as a party can,” one student wrote on the OSU Undergraduate Student Government Instagram. “It’s funny that the ‘peaceful’ protests get out of hand far more often than parties.”

As of Friday afternoon, many details surrounding Bryant’s death remained unclear. Her family says she called police about 4:30 p.m. to report that a group of “older kids” was threatening her. Police arrived at the home where she lived at 4:44 p.m., and in police body camera footage, Bryant is seen holding a knife while fighting with another girl.

An officer approaches the girls, asking, “What’s going on?” before yelling at them to “Get down!” three times.

Moments later Bryant lunges at a second girl as a Columbus officer, later identified as Nicholas Reardon, fires four shots at Bryant.

“She’s just a kid,” a bystander is heard saying. “Damn, are you stupid?”

Bryant falls to the ground as Reardon says, “She came at her with a knife.”

Ma'Khia Bryant (Family photo)
Ma’Khia Bryant. (Family photo)

Paramedics arrived at the scene in six minutes and attempted lifesaving measures “almost immediately,” said interim Police Chief Michael Woods, but they were unable to save Bryant.

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther called the shooting a “tragic day” and said the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation will look into the officer’s actions. Reardon has been taken off street duty pending the results of the investigation.

The shooting took place just 30 minutes before the guilty verdict was read in a Minneapolis courtroom against former Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murdering George Floyd. With emotions running high over that case and details of Bryant’s encounter with police scarce, her death was quickly held up as yet another example of racist policing.

“As we breathed a collective sigh of relief today, a community in Columbus felt the sting of another police shooting,” Floyd family attorney Ben Crump tweeted Tuesday. “Another child lost! Another hashtag.”

Columbus police did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment. City officials, meanwhile, have asked the public to avoid drawing conclusions until all the facts in the case come out.

Some conservative commentators, however, have already made up their minds about the incident, hailing Reardon as a “national hero.”

"This incident isn't as clear cut as the murder of George Floyd or other police shootings that spurred the events of last summer," Cal Ruebensaal, chairman of the Ohio State College Republicans told Yahoo News in an email. "I personally believe that the officer did what he was trained to do and therefore no blame should befall him."

Brown, however, believes more could have been done to deescalate the situation.

“You have a choice,” she said. “There’s a gun and there’s a Taser. He made that choice to pick the gun up.”

When Woods was asked by reporters about the policy on the use of Tasers versus handguns, he declined to comment on this specific incident but did offer insight into protocol.

“If there’s not deadly force being perpetrated on someone else at that time, an officer may have the opportunity to have cover distance and time to use a Taser,” he said Wednesday. “But if those things are not present, and there’s an active assault going on in which someone could lose their life, the officer can use their firearm to protect that third person.”

At Wednesday’s sit-in event, student speakers called out what they felt was a double standard by Columbus police, which is 85 percent white in a community where 30 percent of residents are Black. Data from Mapping Police Violence, a site that tracks police killings, shows that Black people in Columbus are also five times as likely to be killed by police than their white peers. In 2017, Columbus police ranked No. 1 in police killings of Black people among the country’s 15 largest cities.

Black Lives Matter activist addresses participants in the mass sit-in on OSU campus during the demonstration. (Photo by Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A Black Lives Matter activist addresses participants in the mass sit-in on the OSU campus. (Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

So far, the school has not given any indication it will agree to the demands of the student activists to sever ties with the city’s police department. In a statement to Yahoo News, the university said it supports both students and faculty exercising their First Amendment rights.

“Ohio State supports the right of our students, faculty and staff to peacefully express their views and to speak out about issues that are important to them,” the statement read. “Freedom of speech and civic engagement are central to our values as an institution of higher education.”

The university also explained the nature of its relationship with the Columbus police.

“The Ohio State University Police Division (OSUPD) is the primary law enforcement agency on all of our campuses,” the statement continued. “In Columbus, we contract with the Columbus Division of Police (CPD) for specific services, largely traffic control for athletics events. We also have a mutual-aid agreement in place that allows our OSUPD to assist CPD off campus.”

But some students say this isn’t enough.

“Black students here continue to feel left out as repeated instances of violence against our community go unaddressed and disregarded,” said a Black female junior at OSU, who agreed to talk to Yahoo News on the condition of anonymity.

“This week was truly, and unfortunately, a perfect example. The beginning of the week saw a largely white OSU student crowd destroying property during ChittFest [a local block party], while CPD turned an eye. The killing of Ma’Khia Bryant … in the same week really struck a nerve with Black students on campus,” she added. “All we have asked of our university is to truly make us feel safe, seen and heard by divesting from CPD.”

Black Lives Matter activist holds a placard protesting the police killing of Ma'Khia Bryant, 16, during the demonstration. (Photo by Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A Black Lives Matter activist at Wednesday's demonstration holds a placard protesting the killing of Bryant. (Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“As a white student, I will never be able to understand the pain and suffering of the Black community,” Claire Pitrof, a senior, told Yahoo News. “I understand that part of my role as an ally to this movement is to show up, to stand with the Black community and demand justice. That is what yesterday [Wednesday’s demonstration] was about.”

But Pitrof also acknowledged a “split” on campus between those who are seeking reforms and those who advocate for something more drastic.

“I know there are plenty of students who feel that reform is the appropriate response to police brutality, whereas those of us at the protest yesterday demanded abolition,” she said.

For Brown, the divide is stark and was epitomized by the fact that fewer than 1,000 students turned out for Wednesday’s demonstration.

“The dynamic on campus is clearly divided,” she said. “The majority of students do not feel like this affects them. The majority of students have this privilege and this entitlement that they only have to exist as students and don't have to exist as Black people that are seeing children and other people just being slammed by police and wondering if they're next.”

Not all students agree there is a need for police reform.

In an image from police bodycam video that the Columbus Police Department played during a news conference Tuesday night, April 20, 2021, Ma'Khia Bryant appears to wield a knife during an altercation before being shot by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio. (Columbus Police Department via WSYX-TV via AP)
In an image from Columbus Police Department bodycam video, Ma'Khia Bryant appears to wield a knife during an altercation before being shot by an officer. (Columbus Police Department via WSYX-TV via AP)

"It’s all about following the law and having some respect,” one student wrote on Instagram. “I’m not targeted by police because I don’t break laws. It’s that simple."

Ruebensaal, of the College Republicans, believes, "If we keep treating justified police actions this way, there won't be any cops anymore...just coroners."

Pranav Jani, Director of Asian American Studies at the university, was one of many faculty members at Wednesday's sit-in.

“This [protest] happened for two reasons: the national mobilizations around the murder of George Floyd, and specific local incidents, including the long history of the violence and racism of Columbus police and the targeting of protesters, including our students, last summer,” Jani told Yahoo News. “Today, people want to see some real change, and part of that is rejecting a system of policing that brings safety only for some of us.”

Many students who participated in Wednesday’s sit-in and march had final exams to study for and papers to write, but they chose to raise their voices instead.

“We should have been studying for finals yesterday,” the junior added. “None of us want to be activists, none of us planned to spend our afternoon marching to the Statehouse, but we felt we had to to stand our ground and let it be known that the inaction we’ve seen thus far is unacceptable.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images (2)


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