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I Can’t Breathe: Hundreds join FIU experts for online conversation on George Floyd, racial unrest

I Can’t Breathe: Hundreds join FIU experts for online conversation on George Floyd, racial unrest

Faculty in criminal justice and law join students and community for virtual event.

June 4, 2020 at 5:59pm

As the nation responded to news that new charges had been filed in the killing of George Floyd, more than 1,000 members of the FIU and South Florida communities joined an online conversation to examine racial unrest in America – and what steps might be taken to bring about change.

“We want to have justice – and not a sip of justice but a full cup of justice,’’ said H.T. Smith, founder of the trial advocacy program at FIU’s College of Law and a nationally known civil rights advocate who has represented families in police brutality cases.

“A full cup of justice is for that officer, beginning with him, to be convicted and sentenced to a long term of prison which will require him to spend probably the rest of his life in prison,” as well as the three officers who “aided and abetted him,” Smith said.

Moderated by NBC 6 anchor and FIU alumnus Willard Shepard, the event began less than an hour after prosecutors announced they would also charge three officers who stood by as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, killing him.

Beyond just analyzing the case that has sparked worldwide demonstrations, the online gathering served as an outlet for people outraged and hurting from the tragedy. Hundreds of comments and questions poured in via Zoom and Facebook throughout the hour and a half event – some angry and most calling for action.

“I want to stress the idea that we’re not okay, we’re not fine,’’ said Carleen Vincent, associate chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice in the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs. “We are angry, and we are outraged at what has happened over the past week.

“People aren’t sleeping, we are dealing with heightened levels of anxiety and we are crying out in anguish over what continues to happen to black people all over this country. We see ourselves in each and every one of them.”

FIU Police Capt. Delrish Moss, who served as police chief in Ferguson, Missouri after the police shooting of Michael Brown prompted nationwide protests, said he understands why the community is hurting.

Not only has he worked to bring about reform – he has personally experienced the feeling of being a target. As a 15-year-old boy, he was stopped by police and told not to walk downtown after dark. At 16, an officer pushed him against a wall and “frisked and degraded him” with no explanation.

“Those were some of the things that made me want to become a police officer,’’ he said, to “make a difference and bring my experiences to policing in my community.’’

“Not one of us who saw that video (of George Floyd) was not emotionally impacted by what we saw,’’ he said. “This is not something that person was trained to do. This is something that should not have happened. I have never seen or heard of someone placing their knee on the neck of a human being in order to subdue them.”

While demonstrators around the world chant “I can’t breathe” - words spoken by Floyd in the moments before he died - the brutality faced by blacks in America is not a new phenomenon, several panelists noted. It is centuries-old, dating back 400 years to 1619, when the first slaves were brought to America and sold to the colonists.

George Floyd’s murder – captured on video for the world to see –  was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,’’ said FIU Black Student Union President Artrice Shepherd, a junior studying public relations and advertising.

“We’ve seen our parents have to endure this. We’ve seen our grandparents have to endure even more,’’ she said. “We’re tired. And we’re saying no more. This has to change, now. We have to apply the pressure.”

For Candice Ammons-Blanfort, a graduate of FIU’s international crime and justice program and now an instructor in criminal justice, the issue is not only the focus of her research, it affects her daily life.

“As a mother of young boys, I don’t want my sons, my husband, my father, my brother, my nephews, I don’t want them to become hashtags,” she said. ““And if no one else is going to say it, I’m going to say it. Black Lives Matter. My life matters, my children’s lives matter. My colleagues’ lives matter.

“A lot of people are really uncomfortable with that phrase,’’ she added. “We are not saying Black Lives Matter more. We are saying that Black Lives Matter, too. We understand that every house is important but right now we have to address the one that’s burning.”

In closing the event, FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg said he is committed to continuing the dialogue but more importantly, to working for change. He reflected upon the beating death of Arthur McDuffie – an FIU graduate – at the hand of Miami police more than 40 years ago.

“Here we are today having practically the same conversation and from my viewpoint we’ve got to do a lot better,’’ he said. “This motivates me … to work with our entire community to figure out specific things we can do. We want to work with the entire community of concerned people to figure out how we never have to be back here again.”

At 3 p.m. on Friday, FIU will host a virtual town hall to discuss diversity, unity and action within the FIU community. 

View the full conversation here: