By Maureen McMullen
Black Student Union President Lexi Byler remembers being taught from a young age to tread lightly in situations involving police officers.
“I’ve been pulled over, and as a person of color, I’ve been taught, you know, ‘don’t do this,’ ‘be careful how to reach for your wallet,’— stuff like that,” Byler said. “I’ve only gotten pulled over twice, but both times, because I’ve been taught that, I don’t move at all, and that is out of fear.”
Last week, BSU hosted a discussion to address the issue of police brutality, following a slew of highly-publicized reports of police violence, including the killing of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the police department’s militant response to the subsequent protests.
Byler said her learned caution with police is common among people of color, who make up a disproportionate number of those targeted by police violence.
In his spoken-word poem “Cuz He’s Black,” which was screened at the discussion, Javon Johnson recounts a car-ride with his four-year-old nephew, who ducked in fear at the sight of a police car.
“I don’t like that he learned to hide from the cops well before he learned how to read,” Johnson said in his poem. “We both know it’s not about whether the shooter is racist, it’s about how poor black boys are treated as problems well before we’re treated as people.”
After presenting information pertinent to points of discussion, Byler opened the conversation to attendees, who then discussed the topics in smaller groups before sharing their findings. One topic of discussion was white privilege, which Byler explained in an example: When white people are confronted, their first thought probably isn’t “Is it because I’m white?”
“Fargo-Moorhead is a predominantly white area, so naturally white privilege is very prominent here and it’s noticeable, for example one of the students who was here tonight said back home in the cities, it was easy for him to get a job, but once he moved up here, he applied to many places and it was difficult to get a job,” Byler said. “It’s small things like that that make it so prominent and make it such an issue.”
Other topics of discussion included questions like, “Should a college degree be required for officers in every police department?” This question yielded a complex range of answers. One attendee suggested that requiring a college degree for officers should also reflect in their salaries. Others conceded that requiring a degree for officers, rather than the two-year degree or six-week training standard implemented by some police departments, would lead to positive impacts including better minority representation, skills to peacefully diffuse confrontation and improved social awareness.
It was also suggested that college might not necessarily equip officers with all the experience they may need, and that it may be beneficial to spend time within a community to gain a better understanding of one another.
Byler emphasized that, though the discussion addressed police brutality, the goal of the event was not to demonize police officers.
“Not all cops are bad cops, but the ones that do end up taking the lives of innocent people,” Byler said. “It’s an issue that I unfortunately don’t think is going to go away anytime soon, especially with what’s going on in Fergusson, it’s a hot topic right now.”
Deemed “L.A. Riots 2.0” by some, clashes between the police department and protesters in Ferguson have been recently been declared a state of emergency by the governor of Missouri. Though Byler doesn’t believe Ferguson has reached the level of catastrophe of the L.A. Riots, which ignited in response to the 1991 police beating of Rodney King, the issue is one that Americans can’t afford to ignore.
“Education is a big part of the solution; just talking about stuff like this and getting people to realize that it is an issue,” Byler said. “That’s why we are hosting something like this, and hopefully the people who were here can take something away from the discussion.”
One educational resource the discussion highlighted was #CopCoverage, an webinar Fargo-Moorhead People’s Press Project (FMPPP) will host on Dec. 3.
“[FMPPP] recently started this campaign this year in light of police violence and misconduct towards citizens, especially with the situation in Fergusson,” said Nemo Siqueiros, a graphic design senior whose mother co-chairs the campaign. “We don’t want that happening in our community, so we want to inform our citizens of their rights of what they can and cannot do to police and what police can and cannot do to a citizen; that way, there’s accountability for both citizens and police officers.”
More information about the webinar is available on The People’s Press Project’s Facebook page.
A member of Organizacion Latina Americana, Siqueiros was happy with the discussion’s turnout.
“I’m glad I saw some white people here, it means that they’re aware of their privilege, and they want to at least try to help in some way,” he said. “I’m here as a student of color because I’ve been wronged in this community a few times myself, and I’m trying to get the rights of all people. There’s a lot of things I’d even like to see change in this school myself. Not necessarily in police issues in general, but just issues we could talk about. I hope that we can have that conversation at MSUM.”
Also satisfied with the discussion, Byler said she hopes the discussion can extend throughout the community.
“I hope the people here tonight were able to take something out of it and I hope that they continue the discussion outside of MSUM and they take it home to their families,” said Byler. “That’s how awareness spreads, and that’s how change happens.”