The University of Michigan’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People invited local law enforcement officers to the Afro-American Lounge in South Quad Residence Hall Monday evening to discuss prominent social and legal issues facing African Americans on campus. Students voiced their perspectives and questions regarding the treatment of Black individuals by police officers and the legal system — many expressed they themselves have faced undue suspicion that non-minorities aren’t subjected to.
LSA senior Isaiah Land, president of the University’s chapter of the NAACP, felt it was important to give students a chance to educate themselves and have an open, honest conversation especially given the current political climate.
“We wanted to be able to let people know what their rights are, what you can do, what you can’t do,” Land said.
A video was shown at the beginning about having “The Talk” with children of color. The Talk is known as a conversation teaching the caution and hyper-awareness many Black and Brown parents impart to their children on dealing with law enforcement. Students agreed they were implored to be extra respectful and extra careful in order to avoid ending up another fatal statistic.
Eddie Washington Jr., executive director of the Division of Public Safety and Security, said he had The Talk with his children, and felt that there was an opportunity to still remind people of color that they should take pride in who they are.
Crystal James, DPSS deputy police chief, was also in attendance and stressed the importance of talking about the issue with family members and not shying away from the topic.
“The parent should have The Talk,” James said. “I can pay a ticket, but you can’t bring your kid back to life.”
An interactive quiz at the beginning of the meeting highlighted several startling statistics about crime and police force: Police have initiated force in 81 percent of interactions with youth ages 16-18. Only 308 racially motivated crimes were reported in the state of Michigan in 2016. However, 82,000 African Americans were arrested in Michigan during the same year.
Students told stories of being pulled over by police and having a gun drawn on them simply for reaching for their license and registration. Others recalled times when they were warned against wearing hoodies at night, told to say “yes sir” to officers no matter what and to take other precautions when dealing with cops.
Engineering sophomore Peighton Childress is a member of the NAACP University chapter and was glad the groups were able to get together and have a productive conversation about the matter.
“I think this is a really good event to have considering the climate in the country right now,” Childress said. “I think it’s important to let (people) know that there are (those) who aren’t on the negative when it comes to their safety with police.”
The discussion emphasized the importance of building relations between community members and law enforcement.
Orlando Simon, Student Legal Services attorney, explained how respect toward police was important to practice for everyone, but that the effects were magnified for minorities. Simon felt that fostering a relationship between police and citizens is crucial for helping understand one other better.
“I think bringing people together is always a good thing,” Simon said. “It’s easy to go in (a courtroom) and look at the police as the other side … But I find, over the years, a greater difference is the relationships. It’s crucial to bring law enforcement into the dialogue.”
Many students were concerned that even knowing your rights and doing everything right might not be enough to protect their life. They cited cases like that of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in a jail cell after she was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. Some students asked the panel what change they can expect, if any.
Washington had some advice for such students who felt disillusioned about their ability to change the status quo. He explained during an altercation, people have to do what they can to remain safe. However, he encouraged speaking out and writing complaints to the police department after the fact.
“Don’t believe nothing happened,” Washington said. “Just by making some noise, you’re helping yourself … and officers too. It’s one incident at a time. We can’t police without you as partners, and I don’t think the problem can be solved without us as partners … This is how we get better.”