Rage erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, Nov. 24 after the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown Aug. 9. Since then, the fire has caught on and spread throughout the nation.
Coming just a week after this decision, a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict police officer Justin Damico after he put 43-year-old Eric Garner in a chokehold in July. Garner was killed by a neck compression caused by the act, which was banned by the New York City Police Department.
In the wake of such current events, AKEBA, Plattsburgh State’s Black Student Union, hosted the event “Justice for Michael Brown: The Aftermath,” to provide a judgment-free zone where community members could express their opinions on the situation. This is just one of many events recently hosted on the PSUC campus that have centered around this controversy.
Facilitators of the event, AKEBA President Anthony Dorcena and PSUC Public Relations representative Sonia Bennett, asked questions to fuel the conversation, hoping ideas for solutions would rise.
Some students thought change would be hard to come by.
“I personally feel like we’re going to continue to argue about this and complain about this and stuff like that, but it’s going to happen again. In two weeks, we’re going to forget about this, just like Trayvon Martin,” PSUC student Jaylen Edwards said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
Attendees agreed that it’s not just one case of a police officer shooting a young, unarmed person who happens to be a minority. It’s a recurring issue.
Graduate student Jake Goldblum spoke about his ancestors’ history in the Holocaust, relating the racism to Brown’s case.
“This is a 500-year-old problem that’s been indoctrinated in our society for hundreds and hundreds of years, and that’s not going to change overnight,” Goldblum said. “And that’s not going to change based on this conversation we’re having tonight.”
Some students questioned whether the case was an issue of racism or a power struggle, since it seems the police officers get away with barely a slap on the wrist.
A video was shown of a black man who was taken down by a group of police officers for breaking up a fight. He told them not to touch him, but he was not aggressive. The officers toppled him and held him down to the point where he voiced he could not breathe. It did not stop them.
Mariah Santiago was disturbed by the video.
“With this Eric Garner case, they want to enforce cameras on police officers, but if a video like this cannot charge an indictment, you think that a camera on a police officer is going to do any better?” she asked.
PSUC student Taj Ellis, who shared how he’s been discriminated against, said whether people know it, they are being racist.
“People see black and that’s all they see,” he said. “They don’t see facial features: eyebrows, eyelashes, face. They just see skin.”
Njeri Wright, also a student at PSUC, spoke passionately about it being a blend of both.
“Being black in America is fatal,” Wright said.
Wright mentioned that in the 50s and 60s, police officers would kill black people in broad daylight because they felt threatened. She asked where that fear and hatred went, and whether those emotions were taught to their descendants because their bodies “are still not mattered.”
“So to say this is not about racism, white people just happen to be empowered — they’ve been empowered when they came and took this land, genocide of one race and enslaving another,” Wright said. “It’s always been about race, always, always, always, always. It’s about a power struggle — it is, but it’s about race.”
Wright and other students said education and voting are strong solutions for minorities to get into positions of power, and that’s the best way they’ll be able to make a real change.
A New York Times article discussing what happened in Ferguson stated only four of the 53 police officers commissioned in the Ferguson Police Department are black, when 69 percent of the population is black.
These positions of power don’t only include law enforcers, but journalists as well.
AKEBA Treasurer Lateef Wearrien pointed out that all news media is controlled by only eight corporations. He said he thought they did terrible coverage because of how one-sided the situation was presented.
“They’ll show you black people looting and rioting, but they won’t show you white people looting and rioting after Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State for a child molestation case,” Wright said. “That’s not something we see because it plays into the stereotype that black people are animals.”
Graduate student Sarah Robinson presented a different position, putting some blame on the attendees.
“The media isn’t not talking about the peaceful riots — we’re not searching for it. I was on Facebook today and Beyonce was the No. 1 search,” she said. “We’re searching for the angry protests. We’re not looking for the positive things and how we can bring up our community.”
Graduate student Aaron Schwartz said he thought a good way to instill change is to make arresting black people an unworthy investment.
“What if we started investing in, say, education the same way we invest in the prison system?” Schwartz asked.
Director of the PSUC Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion J.W. Wiley was visibly upset by the suggestion that this was not an act of racism. He said it keeps happening because society keeps denying it’s real.
Wiley said discussing the problem is good, because it needs to be discussed, but people need to talk about how to change things.
“You know how we affect a change? We start caring about somebody other than ourselves because we’re selfish-ass people, and we care about ourselves and nothing else,” he said.
He questioned if the lecture hall would be full of black people if it was a gay person who was killed instead.
All of Yokum 200 stared in silence.
Vice President of Student Affairs Bryan Hartman said in order for change to happen, people need to start engaging in conversations that make them feel uncomfortable and accept the fact that everyone is biased.
Necks turned as Hartman admitted a truth most people are too afraid to even acknowledge in their minds: “I have racist thoughts. Again, I’m not proud of it. I work really hard not to act on those things, but that’s the reality. I’m biased.”
Hartman said the way people are raised influence these biases. He encouraged campus members to participate in the new bystander intervention program Step Up.
University Police Chief Arlene Sabo asked students and faculty for help.
She said an email was sent out from the commissioner of SUNY-wide University Police delegating police departments to develop policies and procedures specific to their individual communities.
Sabo invited interested individuals to contact her for ways to get involved, so the community has a voice in the new policy.
“Help me make sure, help me prevent, that our community does not become a statistic, people in our community don’t become a statistic,” Sabo said.
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The facilitators of the discussion showed attendees these two videos in the beginning as a starting point of the discussion: