Asking the right questions – how can African American men avoid conflicts with police?

 

Asia Key, The Black Bear – As of Sept. 10, 2016, there have been 754 people killed by police in the United States.

Black people account for 185 of those bodies.

It is this topic that was discussed Wednesday, Sept. 8, at the African American Male Think Tank, sponsored by the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) Alumni Advisor group.

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Participants in the African American Male Think Tank listen intently. Photo by Asia Key.

This was the first installment in a series of discussions concerning issues that affect black men. Specifically, the theme for this forum was helping black males avoid conflict with the police.

The event opened with introductions from a panel of speakers consisting of:

  • Alumnus and community activist, Jakal Burrell
  • Senior and former NPHC President, Robert Colyer
  • Admission Counselor for Diversity Outreach and Recruitment, DeAndre Branch
  • Assistant Provost of Diversity, Dr. Gilbert Brown
  • Career Resources Specialist, Gary Stafford
  • Former Springfield Police Department Recruiter, Sergeant Mark Schindler
  • Two Springfield police officers who currently work as campus security.

A moment of silence was initiated by Deandre Branch, one of the three NPHC Alumni Advisors and 2015 graduate from Missouri State University, to honor those who have fallen and felt the effects of police brutality.

Branch also said in his introduction that the main focus of the NPHC Alumni Advisors is to improve retention rates of African American male students at MSU.

“We are in a predominately white institution, so our numbers aren’t great,” Branch said. “We want to build a sense of brotherhood within ourselves – a camaraderie where we can discuss issues pertinent to us.”

Brown, another of the NPHC Alumni Advisors, delved deeper into the theme of the night, opening his presentation with short video clips of media coverage on the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

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Brown speaks during the African American Male Think Tank. Photo by Asia Key.

He used a common analogy to describe the African American man’s experience in America from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to present. He said black people should take pride in the historic role they played in expanding opportunities for many underrepresented groups in America, but there is still work to do.

“There’s a saying I like to use: the jar is half full, and the jar is half empty,” Brown said. “In the last fifty years or so, there has been significant progress in regards to upward mobility of the African American. One of the biggest accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement was making sure the US Constitution was applicable to all Americans.”

“Now, on the other hand, there’s still some legacies of injustice in the United States.”

Brown added that certain institutions of the United States still uphold injustices, disproportionately towards black males.

“When I talk about the institutions of society, we say the rule of law,” Brown said. “The rule of law encompasses the courts, the bill of rights, the court system, the police force. The rule of law has been unevenly applied toward African Americans, and in particular, men.”

Gary Stafford, the last member of the NPHC Alumni Advisors, then opened the floor to the panelists to share their experiences with law enforcement and also give advice to those present on avoiding conflicts with police.

The three law enforcement officials who participated in the exercise all professed that they have had mainly positive experiences in their work, and that their upbringing solidified the notion of treating others how one would want to be treated.  

Contrastingly, each of the five African American members of the panel shared a negative experience they have had with law enforcement. In relaying their stories, they described emotions of terror, powerlessness, of being profiled and made to feel unworthy.

Branch recalled a time he and some friends were playing basketball in a local park and a police officer told them to leave. He said, when one of them told the officer they weren’t going, he came back with two other policemen and slammed the group on the hood of their cars. They were maybe thirteen years old, Branch told the group.

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Photo by Asia Key.

In the next segment of the event, Stafford asked the crowd to share some reactions to the things discussed.

Jakobi Connor expressed discontent with the idea that black people should have to avoid confrontations with the police.  

“Like you said, we have all had these experiences,” Connor said. “All of the time, we are given the task of finding a solution for it not to happen again. But we are the victims, we’re the ones being shot. So, wouldn’t it make more sense for the police to think of more ways to avoid shooting people who are just reaching for their wallet?”

Schindler quickly responded that police departments need more thorough training.

“It’s on us to be trained better,” Schindler said. “If I put an officer out there with no training in those high stress situations, they might react the wrong way. It’s not always going to be perfect, we’re human beings – and that’s not an excuse, I’m not trying to make an excuse for them. The bigger the department, the harder it is to get people trained.”

Stafford then passed out a list of tips for avoiding conflicts with law enforcement. They included, but were not limited to:

  • Keeping your driver’s license on your person.
  • Avoiding making sudden movements.
  • Not running even if you are afraid.
  • Keeping your hands in plain sight.

Senior Adekemi Omoloja felt the list of tips were unnecessary.

“I’m saying, there’s an example of a black male being shot for every bullet on this list,” Omoloja said. “It doesn’t work. It’s just, nothing works. Our parents have told us all these tips, the thing is that it’s not working.”

It’s not that you’re not speaking softly enough, it’s not that you don’t have your ID on you, it’s not that you’re not being respectful.You’re still going to get shot at the end of the day. Psychologically, there’s a fear of black men.”

Stafford asked, was there anything Omoloja would add to this list. Her reply was striking.

“Don’t be black,” Omoloja said.  

Another member of the audience suggested that these tips were akin to a winter coat. That they would add a layer of protection, though you may still feel the biting cold of police brutality.

Branch thought that this dialogue was necessary to bridge the gap between the black community and law enforcement.

“It’s a lot of hostility and distrust between both parties,” Branch said. “(We have) an avenue where we can speak our direct concerns directly to the source. It’s a first step of building some type of cohesion, some type of unity between the two.”

Series two of African American Male Think Tank will be held in November.

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