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Professors discuss George Floyd's death, how to advocate for change

<p>Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American studies and a participant in Tuesday's media videoconference, speaks at a 2015 event</p>

Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American studies and a participant in Tuesday's media videoconference, speaks at a 2015 event

Young people can help change a system that perpetuates racial inequality by donating or protesting—and heading to the polls. 

That was just one of the messages given by a panel of four Duke faculty in a Tuesday media videoconference, as protests over police brutality and the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, continued across the country. 

The Duke-organized faculty panel offered advice on how university students can help transform a political and societal system seen by many as corrupt. They explored the complicated process of reforming police culture. They situated the recent protests within a long history of police abuse, civil rights advocacy and racial prejudice.

“What we're seeing right now is the deadly persistence of ongoing stereotypes and stereotypes that have served a purpose—and that purpose largely being the concentration of racialized power in the hands of a very few,” said Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor in the department of history. “...What we’re seeing right now is what happens to a dream deferred.”

How does it change? 

To enact systemic change, young people must engage in the political process, said Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American studies. He also stressed the importance of conversations about the disenfranchisement of Black people.

“Young folks know that there’s a disconnect between these desires and demands for them to vote, and the fact that there are Black folks who are actually losing the right to vote at the same moment that we’re having these conversations,” Neal said, while also acknowledging the importance of street activism and bail funds.

Lentz-Smith argued that voting is important, even if some think it doesn't matter. 

“When we’re seeing the president brainstorming ways to disenfranchise on Twitter, then we need to make sure that we defend—not just for African Americans, but for all Americans—the franchise as an instrument for supporting and sustaining democracy,” Lentz-Smith said. 

The panelists also discussed a favorite tool of young activists—social media. Their comments came against the backdrop of #BlackoutTuesday, a trend in which people posted all-black photos on their social media feeds as a gesture of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Though social media rarely brings about enduring policy changes, Neal said, it can help with raising crucial awareness about instances of injustice—a process Neal called “generating eyeballs.” 

“It was actually after a million tweets about his death that we finally got a primetime news story about Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson,” he said, referring to the fatal shooting of a Black 18-year-old by a White officer in 2014. 

He added that the digital age has changed how civil rights activists present themselves to the broader public, democratizing the faces of civil rights activism. In the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he said, reaching the public meant securing coveted television airtime.

“What we have now is a generation of activists and protestors who simply are incredibly media savvy,” Neal said. “Instead of having to need corporate media to be able to capture what’s going on, they’re able to use handheld devices and social media to be able to tell stories on the ground.”  

What happens to the police?

Chauvin and three other police officers present for Floyd’s arrest have all been fired. But for decades, police departments have hired officers who were once fired by other agencies, said Assistant Professor of Law Ben Grunwald. 

One recent example involves Tim Loehmann, who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Before the incident, Loehmann had been forced to resign from a police agency, Grunwald said, only to be hired by the Cleveland department. Even after Rice's death, an Ohio police agency tried to recruit Loehmann, Grunwald said. 

Grunwald researched this “wandering officer” phenomenon, pinpointing the number of such officers in Florida by using data about officers hired in the last 30 years at 500 police agencies across the state.  

There are about 1000 officers working in Florida's police agencies who were once fired— a likely underestimate, Grunwald said. Once hired, these officers tend to work in smaller, less-resourced agencies in communities of color; not only that, they are twice as likely to receive complaints over their moral character, including over violence and sexual misconduct.

Grunwald noted that agencies may not be aware officers were fired because of deficiencies in national databases about officer decertifications. But he also raised a more troubling possibility: that agencies hire the officers despite knowing about their previous record. 

“In fact, anecdotally, I've seen statements from a police chief saying things like, ‘Well, you think I'm not going to give them another chance. Of course, I'm going to give them another chance,’” Grunwald said.

Coleman said these wandering officers will require the police system to carefully think about officer training. “I would hope that we would find ways to limit, you know, who has a weapon to people who are actually trained to use them and who accept responsibility to use them properly in a civilian community.”

How did we get here? 

The panelists also situated the protests within a broader legacy of societal failure and cultural exploitation. 

“The protests that we're seeing right now are a statement about the cascading failures of the state to take care of a broad swath of these citizens,” Lentz-Smith said. “When people are out on the streets, and they're in pain, that pain is about being hungry and not knowing what's going to happen three weeks ago, that pain is about being disproportionately affected by COVID.” 

Historically, Black communities have had to challenge not only societal inequality but also pervasive and demeaning cultural stereotypes, Neal said. 

One such stereotype involves Black masculinity. Black men are often “criminalized” by culture, Neal said. For instance, they’re often perceived as being able to tolerate higher levels of pain, which explains why four police officers are supposedly necessary to “subdue a Black man in handcuffs,” he said. 

Still, the future doesn’t need to be as bleak as the past. 

Lentz-Smith gave the examples of officers who have hugged protestors or who have taken a knee in solidarity. It’s true that an individual hug can’t bring about systemic change, she said. One act can’t change a brutal police culture or mend America’s flawed justice system. 

And yet, it offers a glimmer of hope, Lentz-Smith said.

“It doesn't change the sort of function of policing overall in disciplining communities of color, but it's the beginning of change, right? And it's the beginning of the possibility of all of us imagining change and wanting it,” she said.

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