By Janeal Downs
More than just hashtags and mantras, Black Lives Matter has become a movement among the African American community. With the beginning of 2016, Dr. Martin Luther King day was celebrated by many across the country. As a part of MLK Celebration Week 2016, Virginia Commonwealth University held a Black Lives Matter Symposium the Wednesday following MLK Day. “I think liberation for me has a lot to do with the right to self-determination, that a black child, regardless of where they are born, what circumstances they are born into, have the ability to determine where they go and what opportunities are available to them,” panelist Bree Newsome said once the discussion began. Newsome, a founding member of the grassroots organization Tribe, recently gained attention online and in the news when she scaled the 30-foot flagpole holding up the confederate flag in front of the South Carolina Statehouse, and removed it. She was one of five panelists to speak to a crowd of about 300 people at the symposium.
The discussion, which lasted from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the VCU Student Common’s Ballroom, was led by a panel including Newsome, Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham; Richmond Peace Education Center executive director, Dr. Adria Scharf; VCU student Angelique Scott; and VCU counseling psychology professor and former chair of the VCU Department of African American Studies, Dr. Shawn Utsey. VCU political science professor and author, Dr. Ravi Perry was the moderator and one of his first questions was the panelists’ thoughts on Black Lives Matter not endorsing presidential candidates. “I think it’s wise for Black Lives Matter to not particularly endorse a candidate, regardless of who gets elected, somebody’s going to be president,” Newsome said. She encouraged the audience to not pledge their loyalties to a person, but to the issues they want fixed. Scott, who is also the founder and president of Black Art Student Empowerment (BASE) at VCU, spoke on the importance of the community voting not only in the presidential elections, but local elections as well. “When Obama first ran for presidency, we were just excited to get a Black man in office so you had that vote,” Scott said. “But now people need to know what you’re voting for and seeing how those votes affect us.”
Moving away from the elections, the panelists got into the motivation of the movement: police brutality against people of color. Chief Durham reported that in 2014, 16,000 people were murdered in the country with 10,000 being African American. In 2015, he said 1,014 people were shot by police according to FBI preliminary numbers. “It’s kind of like we’re the opposition, saying blue lives matter … because law enforcement officers are being killed in the line of duty also,” Durham said. “So the question that always comes to me across the country in law enforcement is, do black lives really matter?” Durham asked the audience and panelists if there was never another case of an officer shooting a Black man or person of color, if the Black Lives Movement would still be relevant. He referred to a recent instance when a 12-year-old girl was killed and there was not support from the Black Lives Matter movement at her funeral, and how Richmond doesn’t have a big issue with police brutality. Newsome countered Durham’s statement by saying the situations were not similar, and that while Black people killing other Black people tend to go to jail, police officers killing people do not. “I, personally, think it’s insulting to police to equate the way that police interact with civilians with the way that civilians interact with each other, because if we can’t expect police to conduct themselves with any more control than an average civilian, then what is the function of police?” Newsome said in response.
From a war on drugs, to a war on crime and then the war on terror, Durham said officers have been indoctrinated and “have to go from being warriors to guardians.” With a lack of psychological evaluations of former soldiers becoming citizens, bad cops and the lack of diversity such as with the Ferguson, Mo. police force, he admitted there is a problem within the system. “There is not a police chief in this United States that will look to hire bad cops. There are processes you go through, but no matter what, we are human beings,” Durham said. “Some people slip through the cracks. You tell me another occupation where we investigate, where we suspend, where we terminate, where we indict and we lock up people? The police departments do that.”
During the panel discussion, audience members were encouraged to walk up to a mic and ask the panelists questions. VCU senior Attalah Shabazz was one person to speak and rejected Durham’s comparison of black-on-black crime to police brutality. “The Richmond Police Department does not reflect the fact that there is still a system of issues going on nationwide,” Shabazz said. The fact that you guys have lower rates in police killing citizens, whatever the situation, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is an epidemic.” Earlier in the discussion, panelists were asked to comment on the presence of LGBTQ people of color being both on the front lines of the movement and also being targets of police brutality. “As a queer woman who is always, since I could join the movement have been out there fighting, it’s so interesting that you really deflected that whole thing and went on,” Shabazz said. “You did not talk about it at all and you used language that shows that—that is just not a focus of your police department from using the word of ‘transgenders,’ of turning that from an adjective to a noun.” Shabazz said Durham’s words showed the erasure of LGBTQ people of color and also women in the movement because the conversation became focused on straight Black men. In response, Durham spoke of a new LGBT liaison in his department.
Another speaker, VCU student Jackie Washington gave suggestions to Durham for new police programs, the presence of PTSD in the African American community due to slavery and racism and, also, the concept of the Black extended family. “Some people asked me, why are you so upset that Trayvon Martin was murdered? You didn’t even know him, that’s not your brother, it happened all the way in another state. But it’s like I do know him, he is literally, literally my brother,” Washington said. People were also able to ask questions via Twitter. One such question was how white people and other people of color could support the Black Lives Matter movement. Dr. Scharf addressed the white people in the room and suggested they ask themselves “what forms of privilege, power and domination are you, are we willing to relinquish in order to actually live in a just society.” She also went back to Durham’s comparison of war to protecting civilians. “Dr. King spoke about the particular threats of racism and militarism, a triple threat to our society and Dr. King said, at the time, ‘every bomb dropped in Vietnam explodes in Harlem,’” Scharf said. “We spent a trillion dollars on the wars in Iraq and in my opinion, every bomb we dropped in Iraq exploded in the city of Richmond, every penny we spent was a penny that we did not spend repairing the roofs of the schools in the city of Richmond.”
Throughout the night, racism and police brutality were obviously big topics, but so was education. Dr. Utsey said conversations and discussions like the symposium, continue to happen as history repeats itself. “We must be willing to die for our liberation. If we’re not willing to die, we’re just having polite conversation,” Dr. Utsey said. His closing remarks connected the movement to education. While the movement is “Black Lives Matter,” to him, it appears as if there is a war for the minds of Black people and the movement “perhaps begins with Black minds matter.” He said that the most violence committed against Black people was not at the hands of the police, “but in the classroom where the minds of our children begin to become disfigured.”
The two-hour discussion offered time at the end for guests to speak with the panelists. Flyers with suggested readings and websites to visit in order to follow and learn more about the Black Lives Movement, and the history before it, were also passed out to guests. Before the event which honored both Dr. Martin Luther King and the Black Lives Movement ended, Dr. Perry led the audience in reciting, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Photos: Travis Ellison