On Tuesday Feb. 24, Trinity hosted its first Diversity Dialogue, titled “I Can’t Breathe,” exploring the issues around police brutality following high profile cases such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
The panel, hosted by the Black Student Union and TDC, consisted of five professors from different departments: Keesha Middlemass, assistant professor of political science; Carey Latimore, chair and associate professor of history; Sarah Beth Kaufman, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology; Rosa Aloisi assistant professor of political science; and Katie Blevins, visiting assistant professor of communication. The five panelists explored a variety of topics on police brutality, using the incidents of Ferguson and Eric Garner to shape the discussion.
Providing an international perspective to the discussion, Aloisi offered insight into international treaties and laws, stating how, while agreeing to many of these formal rules, the United States ignores the laws it supposedly endorsees.
Citing international treaty on police powers, Aloisi quoted “police officers should refrain from using excessive force and excessive force is a force that goes beyond the stopping of the criminal.”
The notion of excessive force is a prominent issue in the various cases of police brutality, with critics often accusing police officers of using extreme methods to deal with criminals who were not posing a real threat.
Expanding upon these ideas, Latimore discussed Ferguson and Michael Brown, showing the stark representation of blacks in the media and how society has yet to come very far on these particular issues.
“In some sense, Ferguson really is a sign of where we haven’t gone, even the idea of the Ferguson riot in and of itself is an example of how far we haven’t gone,” Latimore said. “What about Aggieville, San Antonio, Las Angeles, West Virgina versus Baylor, tailgating; these types of riots, which typically happen with all-white audiences, typically do not receive the type of media attention or demonization that the one car in Ferguson that was pipe bombed received.”
Latimore continued, stating how this contrast highlights the two respective worlds that African-Americans and whites respectively live in and the continuing disparity.
“So in a sense Ferguson represents””even in the idea of the Ferguson riots, these two worlds that African-Americans and others, whites, live, two worlds in which you see the unemployment rate for blacks being higher than in 1968, the wealth gap really not closing and the property ownership gap not closing in over 100 years,” Latimore said. “So you must keep Ferguson in light of all these other kinds of things, the criminalization of poverty is part of this, now most people feel poverty is a black issue.”
Middlemass also noted the issue of media and societal representation towards African Americans, and notably how policies currently in place continue to create stereotyped and biased laws perpetuating the gaps between races.
“We criminalize black people, but we don’t criminalize the entire white population,” Middlemass said. “If there is a black person that commits a crime now the entire black community are criminals, when a white person commits a crime the entire white community is then not guilty or vilified for being flawed or having bad culture.”
Aside from the representation and punishment given to the community of African-American’s, Middlemass also noted the disparaging policies embedded in the political system.
“The hardest part is undoing some of these putative criminalization policies, trying to undo some of these entrenched policies that look at the confluence of tough on crime politics, the influence of race, the influence of where people are located, it is very hard to undo these issues. It will take of lots of conversations and Ferguson is just the tip of the iceberg,” Middlemass said.
Middlemass continued, noting society and policies often perpetrate the criminalization of African-Americans.
“This idea of being “˜soft on crime’ as a politician will never get elected so we now have to talk about crime in a different type of way to change the policies, to take race out of the calculation of how we create criminals. Criminals do not create themselves; it is through something embedded in culture or in policy,” Middlemass said.
Offering statistics regarding punishment and societal acceptance of African-Americans, Kaufman presented a study showcasing the likelihood of whites versus blacks in getting a job, with or without a criminal record.
“What happens if you are black without a criminal record? It is about 15 percent, so if you are black man without a criminal record applying for a job today you have less of a chance of callback than if you are a white man with a criminal record,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman continued to elaborate on the further disadvantages facing African -Americans particularly in a system where those coming out of jail are unable to function in society.
“You are sentenced to a set of years, but your punishment continues well after you are out of prison,” Kaufman said. “It continues well after you are out of prison if you are going for employment, and well after you are out of prison if you are going to vote.”
Following up on the ideas of misrepresentation in the media, and the notion of accountability, Blevins offered insight into the oft-recommended solution of body cameras.
“Studies have shown that [body cameras] can lead to some accountability and police violence,” Blevins said. “Eric Garner’s death, which was caught on camera, didn’t lead to an indictment; it didn’t lead to any changes currently. Just because we tape and record these instances doesn’t actually mean there is any accountability in place.”
The talk concluded with the panelists taking questions on a topic of issues, ranging from police militarization to education and prison reform policies.
“I Can’t Breathe” marks the first of the Diversity Dialogues hosted by TDC and the Black Student Union, who have hopes of continuing the talks with various issues in years to come.