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On Teach-Ins, State Violence and Institutional Racism

By Imagining America | February 03, 2015

By Elyse Gordon, PAGE Co-directorElyse Gordon

I rescheduled my day to attend a teach-in on #BlackLivesMatter, Ferguson and state violence. It was organized by scholars of color. Public intellectuals, all of them. Many, from communications and history. I looked at the time of arrival. 9:30. Then I looked closer. 9:30 – 10:00 was check in and breakfast. I reassessed. I arrived at 9:50, taking my time. Wanting to meter my energy, knowing the day would be long. I scanned the room. No one I knew, save for a few familiar faces from other events. I sat next to a man, leaving a seat between us. Then I changed my mind and sat next to him, closing the space. From Uganda, been in Washington for 5 years. His whole family is here – wife, kids, mom, dad, cousins. Home is where family is, he says.

Introductions were made. Appreciation offered. The Provost said a few words. They were somewhat violently rejected afterwards by an audience member. Ground rules were shared for the day. A white boy near the front shrugged his shoulders and said, “Safe space…”, almost casually. I grimaced. Safe for who? For white folks to say ignorant shit? For our friends of color to speak their experience? For the provost to share her words of support, however clumsily, and not be rejected from the audience?

Photo: Scottlum via Flickr. Seattle protestors on 12/4/14. Published with Creative Commons license.

The first teach-ins, according to Wikipedia, our facilitators told us, were led by white male faculty in the Midwest, in protest of the Vietnam War. They were academia lite. A sharing space rather than a lecture. A chance to learn context and history. To be together to learn and understand the atrocities of the moment.

Collective learning is nothing new, of course. Oral history and storytelling have long been key components to many communities of color, and the teach in is one form of democratizing knowledge and taking back collective history.

So ours began with histories of state violence and the growth of hostility against Black Americans.

We heard reflections on the haunting similarities between freed Black saves in the South proclaiming, “We is human flesh” to today’s cries of “Black Lives Matter”.

We were reminded of the long history of US state violence against Indigenous peoples, slaves, freed slaves, Chinese immigrants, Japanese immigrants, Latino immigrants, and again, today, Black Americans.

We listened about the rise of the Prison Industrial Complex and it’s long tentacles that grew out of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

We heard about the myth of the ‘model minority’, and how the media positions Asian Americans to distance, alienate and shame Black communities (cue, Bill O’Reilly: “If they can do it, then it must be a cultural thing, and Blacks just need to get with the picture.”

We saw many statistics showing us the aliveness of institutionalized racism: the excessive disenfranchisement of Black communities that expresses itself along metrics of education, health, wealth, policing, incarceration, home ownership and more. These are not isolated incidents. These are not aberrations. They are symptoms of a living system that has racism built into its roots, that are intertwined into its genomic code.

And then we heard about the police.

Since my first #BlackLivesMatter march in November, I found myself uneasy with calling out racist police. I struggled to say the words “Fuck the Police” as many protesters did. I wanted to empathically connect with both protestors and police, realizing that most of these cops are just people trying to do their job. Of course there are explicitly racist folks there (the ‘bad apples’ of legend and lore), but many people are just carrying out their orders within an otherwise broken system. Anger against the cops themselves struck me as somewhat misdirected.

Photo credit: Mark Dixon, from Flickr. Published with Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: Mark Dixon, from Flickr. Published with Creative Commons license.

But then I went to this teach-in. And I heard again and again how the roots of the police were always meant to antagonize Black folks. The first police forces in the South hunted down escaped slaves. The police protect property and people (of which Blacks were the former and Whites the latter, until much more recently in our nation’s history). How sheriffs are elected by their constituents, but disproportionately fewer African Americans can exercise their right to vote. Where de facto segregation and gentrification has pushed communities of color into suburbs that were never built to support robust community or public transportation. How “to serve and protect” appeals implicitly to those deemed worthy of protecting, and attacking those that are not.

I started to see why anger against racist police pulsed so fervently at the marches and protests. As a white woman, I am afforded the chance to *choose* whether I empathize with a cop or not. I get to give them the benefit of the doubt, because they probably won’t [shoot me, pepper spray me, taze me, arrest me] if I approach them unprovoked. For my friends of color, especially my Black peers, this extra grace with cops has never been on the table. It is “avoid the police”, “keep your registration on the visor, not in the dash”, it is, “yes, sir, no, sir”, and, “how many times have *you* been pulled over?”

Why would a parent teach their children to trust an institution that has never demonstrated that trust?

Photo credit: Rose Colored Photo on Flickr. Published with Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: Rose Colored Photo on Flickr. Published with Creative Commons license.

No, not all police might be explicitly racist. But there is a deep entanglement between individuals and the institutions from which we’re born. This is the blessing and the curse of institutions. We can create great strength and morality in them, of a shared commitment to diversity, to mutuality, to intersectionality and collective history – like the teach-in was trying to do within the University of Washington. And, of course, then there’s institutions like the police.

So, yes. In solidarity now, and with empathy, I feel I can call out an institution with racism in its roots. An institution that gives its employees no choice but to exercise their jobs under oppressive constructs and assumptions. That limits individual police officers opportunities to practice empathy and instead labels people as threats or ‘demons’, as we well heard via Darren Wilson. The police are not an institution I feel I need to ‘go easy on’ or to lighten my blows. Hey hey. Ho ho. These racist cops have got to go.