At a press conference Monday at the Fulton County District Attorney's Office, Spelman student Taniyah Pilgrim describes her experience with Atlanta police during a downtown protest. The violent scene of police pulling her and her boyfriend out of their car was captured on video and has been viewed nearly 39 million times. The district attorney is pressing charges against six officers for their involvement.
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Spelman College: Fight  ‘impenetrable, unyielding, and sometimes not easily detectable racism’

Many Georgia colleges are issuing statements in support of the protests occurring in Atlanta and across the country. This is one of the more substantive ones.

An Open Statement from Spelman College Faculty and Staff:

More than 50 years ago, the 1967 Kerner Commission (Commission on Civil Disorders) was convened in response to "civil unrest" in major cities across the country. Several recommendations, including improving police-community relations, resulted from the work of the Commission. Following multiple meetings and opportunities for input from members of the Commission, the Commission concluded that, at that time, systemic racism was the root cause of the civil unrest that characterized protests within communities. This important finding, however, did not result in any actual, broad-based sustained change that had the power to address the impact of racism on housing, health, educational, and criminal justice disparities that are normalized in our society.

In 2015, President Obama called for a President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The 11 members of the task force put together a final report which made recommendations for redefining policing in a democratic society. Following a forum that included mayors, police chiefs, law enforcement personnel, and community leaders from around the country, a new division of the White House and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) was added – the Policing Practices and Accountability Section – aimed at providing crisis response resources, best practices, and technical assistance to implement the recommendations of the report. Seemingly, not much became of those recommendations.

Today, we find ourselves addressing the same issues that are grounded in impenetrable, unyielding, and sometimes not easily detectable racism. As a black women’s institution, we urge an intersectional analytical framework to disaggregate how identity markers inform our analysis of the impact of structural inequalities. This framework will better help explain the response of the victims and perpetrators of policies and procedures that render so many of us dispensable.

While we have been watching the coverage of what is happening in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd, we, like many others, are reminded of the countless men, women, and gender non-conforming persons killed by law enforcement officers and those "acting" as law enforcement officers, most recently Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery. 

When we saw Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young, two young people from Spelman College and Morehouse College, respectively, be arrested and tasered by the police on camera, we wondered "what in the world could have justified the response of the officers?" As scholars and staff of an institution invested in Black women’s education writ large, we have studied, researched, and taught about the many and varied ways U.S. society has sustained, maintained, reinforced, and safeguarded a violent and virulent anti-blackness ideology. Still, we ask: Why is there not greater accountability in the arrest and conviction of all police officers involved in the George Floyd case? Why were our students arrested?

We support the protesters, but we are, like others, concerned about those committing acts of vandalism that appear to be designed to intentionally destroy "our city" and other cities across the country. Yet, we have to be reminded that these tensions are the result of other forms of violence that are not criminalized – the violence that is perpetrated by officials and non-officials alike who blatantly encourage race-based insurrections by those whom they support; the violence in the form of inadequate housing or poor educational resources; the violence of racialized health disparities; the violence of systematic economic exclusion; the violence of inadequate food and housing for our children, many of whom without going to school every day would not be fed; the violence of rampant injustice throughout the criminal justice system, including policing, courts, and corrections; the violence of negative labeling of some immigrants; and more.

We do not condone violence, but we understand it. We support our students and their multiple tactics of activism. We hope that the root causes of these lingering wounds and injustices that are grounding and fueling the current protests will remain clear. Let us not get distracted by how to discern "good" protesters versus "bad" protesters. Let us not seek reasons to ignore the reality that every social justice movement from women’s rights to LGBTQ+ rights to civil rights to immigration rights has been catalyzed by longstanding inequities.

The questions before us are: How do we work together to create a more equitable and just society? How do we stand up against leaders who blatantly disregard the plight of those who lack adequate access to resources or to economic or political power to help themselves? How do we overcome the structure of policing that is tethered to violence against indigenous and enslaved populations from which it emerged?

We do not need more commissions, classes, discussions and/or scholarly texts. While all of these are laudable, we know why people were protesting in the street this weekend and other times as well. We live and breathe each day in a racist society. Many of us even benefit from that fact. Black people are being murdered before our very eyes. There are numerous things we can do.

We must organize and support each other. We need to identify the people and groups engaged in anti-racist action. As educators, we encourage our colleagues at all levels to use intersectional lenses of analysis in teaching future leaders, and especially to learn and to teach about historic and contemporary iterations of white supremacy. We must engage in this and other work that brings forth substantive change.

We know that voting is important! And yes, our choices are not always ideal. But we must vote for agendas that move us closer to gaining equity. We must vote for policies that work for all our communities. We must elect national, state and local leaders who will work toward agendas that move us closer to an equitable society. We can all find ways to address inequities in society; many will require us to step outside of our comfort zones.

The struggle is real. BLACK LIVES depend on ALL OF US.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.