Black at FIU: Discussing the state of policing in the United States

Two recent panel discussions on campus addressed the use of police force against men of color. The SGA-BBC lecture series brought journalist Soledad O’Brien‘s “Black in America” tour to BBC to examine relations between police and the African-American community. The African and African Diaspora Studies Program separately presented a roundtable on “Police Stereotyping and Fatal Brutality Against Unarmed Black People in the U.S.,” which brought together students with local community leaders and politicians.

“Of course black lives matter. Obviously black lives matter,” O’Brien said to a crowd of about 250. The phrase is a reference to the movement that gained momentum in 2014 after the deaths of several unarmed black men, including Michael Brown and Eric Garner, at the hands of police.

“What is happening, culturally, that we have to state and underscore that certain lives have value?” asked O’Brien, who showed portions of her documentaries and invited experts to join her on the stage. She cited statistics that 70 percent of African Americans believe they are treated less fairly by police than whites are, while only 37 percent of whites feel that blacks are treated unfairly. “And,” she added, “fewer than half of all Americans of any race believe the U.S. had made any substantial progress toward racial equality.”

Although O’Brien believes all the news is not grim, she conceded that, “Things are complicated, and anybody who wants an easy answer to a challenge that has, frankly, plagued this country for hundreds of years, that’s just not going to happen.”

FIU’s black community weighs in

Emmanuel Jerome, a 2014 FIU alumnus, personally feels the double standard in policing, one that treats black men much more harshly than others.

In reacting to the difficult scene, shown by O’Brien, of police carrying out an unprovoked beating on Louis Paulino in New York City, Jerome acknowledged that the reality of such brutality “messes you up emotionally, psychologically.

“My dad would always tell me, ‘Watch what you say and do in front of the police. Do everything they tell you to do. Don’t make any sudden movements.’ And I’ve been taught that since I was a little kid. So it kind of makes us a little afraid to be ourselves when we go outside.”

Givens Cherilus, a 2011 FIU alumnus, talked about facing suspicions when he walks through stores at the mall. “You experience that all the time, and I think it becomes normal and that’s part of the problem. It’s become accepted.

“It’s extremely frustrating. We’re stereotyped as angry, but the reason we’re angry is because we’re being treated this way.”

Donna Weir-Soley, an English professor and the mother of three sons, understands where Jerome and Cherilus are coming from.

“There is no real respect for the black community. [The police] criminalize the whole community,” she said. “There is a basic lack of respect for the humanity of black people.”

With that in mind, she said she does worry for the safety of her children.

“I don’t live in a state of fear that cripples me,” she said, “but I do have my concerns about their being in certain environments, how they are going to be viewed. I do counsel [her youngest son] about ‘you may want to tighten your belt a little, you may not want to wear that hat,’ things that white mothers don’t have to say.”

Cheryl Nowell is an assistant vice president for Student Affairs and the mother of a son who attends FIU. She has seen how inequality and unfair treatment, be it from police or others in authority, affects young men of color.

“College is stressful. Our students are working. They have a lot of responsibilities. They are trying to navigate this environment. And then on top of that, you have to deal with discrimination. It’s just one of those additional stressors our students are dealing with.”

And that can have a negative effect on academics and graduation. “People don’t understand how tough it is for black males to survive in general but in particular in an academic setting,” said E. George Simms, assistant vice provost for Student Access & Success. “When these students walk around campus and try to feel a sense of belonging, it’s a stretch. They wonder,” he said, “‘Am I really supposed to be here, anyway? Do I fit in? What are the expectations people have of me?’”

Expanding the conversation

Most of the attendees at the two campus events were black.

“I expected the turnout to be this way, but I can say that I am disappointed that [members of] other cultures have not [participated],” said Todd Bethell, a 2014 alumnus who attended the Black in America event at BBC. “If it was a more diverse crowd, it would have [promoted] a wider, more broad understanding.”

Esi Fynn-Obeng, a junior majoring in communication arts and sociology and co-founder of the African Student Organization, agreed with Bethell and added a local perspective by bringing up the recent shooting death of a mentally disabled black man in Miami Gardens. “But it’s not something that’s talked about and circulated around in the community,” she said.

And while race can be a difficult subject for many, Fynn-Obeng hopes that a setting can be found in which whites and others will enter the dialogue.

“In order for us to include them into the conversation, we have to create a safe space for them actually to talk about these real issues. In order to make the topic comfortable, we have to bring it into the open.

“The more and more we continue to put it beneath the rug, the more and more we shy away from it, the more it becomes an uncomfortable and awkward situation we don’t want to talk about. It’s just the dirt underneath the rug.”