An event last night in South Quad brought stories of police brutality against people of color to University students.
Cleo Silvers, an ex-Black Panther and civil rights activist, spoke at an event sponsored by the Michigan Student Assembly Peace and Justice Commission, MSA Minority Affairs Commission, the NAACP and South Quad Minority Peer Advisors.
Silvers, along with Luis Davilatoro, a Washtenaw Community College student who grew up in New York City, answered questions from a crowd of about 50 students regarding the nature of police brutality and effective ways to combat it.
Silvers and Davilatoro painted a vivid picture of random searches and unnecessary violence to enforce unfair drug laws in New York City neighborhoods heavily populated by African-Americans and Latinos.
“The history of policing is all about controlling the element in society that has been deemed criminal,” Silvers said. “Deemed criminal why? Usually because of the color of our skin.”
Felix Lopez, vice chair of MSA’s Peace and Justice Commission, was the lead organizer of the event.
He said that after the death of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, who was shot by the FBI in Dearborn last month, he realized that students on campus were unaware of police brutality, even though it was occurring so close to the University.
“Ann Arbor is a bubble and I sometimes feel like I don’t know what’s happening around me,” Lopez said. “I just thought about this idea especially after the murder of Abdullah by the FBI in Dearborn. It really just struck a chord to me in saying like ‘Hey, we’re students and we’re people too and it is affecting us.’”
Lopez said with last night’s event he hoped to bring people together on campus and inspire them to work for change.
“We have to really be conscious about these issues and really be conscious about our own surroundings and realize that being in the University and having all this access and resources that a lot of people just don’t have, that we can actually make change,” he said.
Kim Miller-Tolbert, chair of MSA’s Minority Affairs Commission, said police brutality needs to be discussed more on campus.
“I think that police brutality is an issue that affects a lot of people and its something that really needs to be talked about and brought to the forefront,” she said.
Silvers explained how a cycle of poverty, crime, police brutality and incarceration continues to repeat itself. She said the core of the problem rests in the fact that people are hungry and desperate for money. From there, she said, come petty thefts, which leads to incarceration, the inability to find employment after that incarceration and then more poverty.
“If we were more concerned with making sure people had food to eat and a place to live we would lessen the crime in our society,” Silvers said.
Davilatoro, who said he was imprisoned for possession of marijuana, said he would never call the police in any situation because he has never had a positive experience associated with them.
“I would never call the cops, not at all,” he said “They ain’t saving my life, they’re ruining my life.”
Silvers told students that grassroots organization is the best way to fight police brutality, but that the process could take decades.
“It takes a long time to really develop the kind of organization you would need to stand up to police brutality,” she said.
John Oltean, chair of the Peace and Justice Commission, said that he was pleased with the discussion that took place at the event. He said that Silvers was able to give advice to young activists.
“I liked the discussion about the activism and possible solutions to organizing,” he said. “I think it was pretty inspiring for some young people of color and some activists in the room to hear her stories and how she’s had success combating these types of issues.”
Max Nwabara, co-chair of the NAACP Political Actions Committee, said that he was impressed with the diversity of the event participants.
“It’s actually a more diverse crowd than I thought it would be,” Nwabara said. “I thought it would be mostly minority students but there are a lot of white students who came out and I guess it’s good to hear.”