Episode 61: A Nation in Turmoil
With marches and protests in small towns and big cities across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by Minneapolis police officers, we convened a panel of UConn faculty members affiliated with the Africana Studies Institute to help us understand the events unfolding across the nation and the world. Joining us are Melina Pappademos, associate professor of history and Africana Studies and director of the institute; Shawn Salvant, associate professor of English and Africana Studies; Bede Agocha, assistant professor in residence of psychological sciences and Africana Studies; and David Embrick, associate professor of sociology and Africana Studies.
Tom Breen: Hello, everyone, and welcome to episode 61 of UConn 360, that is the only podcast known to human civilization that covers the University of Connecticut from every conceivable angle. We are coming to you from the far corners of Connecticut as we are working remotely during this pandemic. My name is Tom Breen, I’m your facilitator of sorts, and joining me as always are my colleagues, Julie Bartucca –
Julie Bartucca: Hello!
Tom Breen: and Ken Best.
Ken Best: Good morning.
Tom Breen: And obviously a lot is happening in our country right now, all kinds of news happening, major events unfolding, things that may shape the world in which we live, and a great university’s role is to be involved in that. To study and understand developments as they happen in our society, and in fact that’s what our entire episode is devoted to this week thanks to Julie Bartucca. Julie, why don’t you tell us about what you have in store for our listeners.
Julie Bartucca: Yes, so, obviously with everything that’s going on right now with the protests happening around the world, we thought that it was a really good opportunity to bring some experts together to kind of put this in context for our listeners. Talking about protests, talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, and things that are already changing, this conversation is happening just a couple days before the episode is released, so this is as current as we can get here on UConn 360.
So we pulled together four faculty members from the Africana Studies Institute to bring their perspectives on this. We have the director of the Institute, Melina Pappademos, who is an associate professor of history and Africana studies; Shawn Salvant, an associate professor of English and Africana studies; Bede Agocha, assistant professor in residence of psychological sciences and Africana studies; and David Embrick, associate professor of sociology and Africana studies.
Julie Bartucca: On June 4th, the Africana Studies Institute called for the University to take a number of steps to help end white supremacy, systemic racism, and anti-black violence, in response to the protests that are happening worldwide now. So I was wondering if you could first tell me about the proposed steps that you all would like the University take and what they’ll accomplish if they’re enacted. Melina, maybe it makes sense to start with you.
Melina Pappademos: Oh, sure. So we have some basic steps that we think would be important to start with. Certainly not the, the sort of spectrum of what can possibly be done to change structural racism here at the University. But one thing we think is really important is that the Africana curriculum would be required not sort of an elective as it currently stands in quite literally every major, minor program across the University, because that’s, that’s really the scope of things. I mean, you know, we’re looking at it as an institution, as our institutions across the country that have really been sort of fostered in a climate of, and not necessarily reflective enough about, racism and anti-black violence.
So, that’s what we’re trying to encourage there. We think that every incoming freshmen should take a course that is really engaging the ways to dismantle anti-black violence and racism – r acism more broadly that affects native peoples, Latinx communities as well.
We think it’s important that the UConn community see the creativity of people of African descent, so we’d like a permanent yearlong, artist in residence program. That’s just one, again, these are sort of ideas, initial ideas, and certainly not the full discussion of what changes could be made.
We also think that, you know, you kind of need to actively search out and appoint nonwhite leadership. That’s really critical to having a spectrum of voices heard and some policy shifts that will actually get to the heart of, of the issues.
We also think that there should be c ampus-wide, high level recognition for scholarly excellence in terms of Africa, African-descended, Afrikaana, could be Latinx ,could be intersectional sexuality, but really these things have to be placed at the fore and not – institutions on a much lower level are looking at these questions and valuing them. We need to see that kind of significance and importance given higher levels at the university.
Julie Bartucca: Absolutely. I mean, when we’re talking about systemic, higher education institutions are one of these systems.
So, what role do you think, higher education institutions have in this movement? And, we focused a lot in recent years on diver, — said at least that we were focusing a lot on diversity and inclusion, varying levels of success there, but what, how do we move beyond just that and teaching students to actually be anti-racist.
Melina Pappademos: Yeah. So, I’m not an anti, a scholar of anti-racist education. Let me just put that out there. But I will say that I think, diversity as, as a word, as a term, really have much specificity, doesn’t really get to the heart of the historical legacy.
For example, I’m a historian, there’s a really significant historical legacy about anti-black violence, that something like diversity kind of misses the mark. And, and so, you know, we’re suggesting that that could be one of the issues that, really focusing on the legacy, the structure, how it’s all come into being, is really significant. Otherwise we’ll just kind of continue on our hamster’s wheel. Another thing I wanted to say is that, I think as, as faculty, as instructors, educators, we do think it’s important that we’re teaching students maturity, depth of perspective, awareness, and self-possession, all of these are things are important to foster their role in a healthy society.
And so for entitled students who benefit from white supremacy, we really believe that it’s important to pull back the curtain on that and to expose for them for their own benefit the ways that they may have expectations of opportunities and the resources that they actually haven’t earned.
We also think that for students of color we need to really make sure that we’re supporting their humanity, recognizing it, removing roadblocks and obstacles from their advancement and development. And so there’s a kind of reckoning, the balancing of the scale that we think is absolutely possible here at UConn and structures across the country, in terms of the way that higher ed has typically operated.
Shawn Salvant: If I can just add to that. You know, I think that one of the premises or claims behind a curriculum is these are the things that you ought to know, or these are the things that we as an institution or department think that you should know.
And in, in that respect, absences sometimes speak louder than words of presences of things.
So if there’s an absence of teaching forward, anti-racist pedagogy or ideology, sometimes that absence speaks volumes. So we needed to be proactive about putting those elements into the curriculum.
David Embrick: Yes. As someone who has spent his career studying diversity, ideology and rhetoric, I’m, I totally am in agreement with Melina.
it’s the language, it’s ambiguous language that doesn’t cut straight to the facts. And I think we need to engage in specificity. The problem with ‘inclusion’ for example, is that they assume right, that, that, existing issues of inequality are already solved and we don’t have issues on campus.
And so we should be inclusive, sort of be inclusive while we have existing issues just exacerbates the problem. And so, you know, if we’re gonna talk about racism, let’s talk about racism. If we’re going to talk about sexism, let’s talk about sexism.
Julie Bartucca: It does feel like we’ve kind of been in this, this new past couple of weeks, this movement that’s been happening, we’ve been calling it what it is. And for so many years, it almost seemed like people, at least white people, it seems thought, you know, we solvde it with Martin Luther King and civil rights, and now we’re above that, but we have these things going on really underneath the surface that have not been addressed. You did talk about in the statement from the Institute, how anti-black violence has been the status quo.
This is not something that’s new and it’s not an escalation, but now we’re all bearing witness to it thanks to the smartphone technology, that easy access to videos. Can you talk about how smartphones have kind of brought this to the fore and what their effect is on how people are perceiving this right now ?
Melina Pappademos: One great thing about smartphones is that everybody runs around with a video camera and there’s a sort of, there’s a, a text or a, you know, an image. Right. Irrefutable in a way, right. It’s right there in front of you. Somebody on the, the street and in the public space has been able to record things that have happened like the Amy Cooper, sort of aggression or terrorism, Mr. Cooper was able to pull out a cell phone. And, obviously, with the, with the murder of George Floyd, the same can be true. I think one of the things that are important is because again, historically the narrative of anti-black depravity and guilt and assumption of guilt before anything else, coupled with the lack of sensibility around black humanity, blacks having rights, you know, violation of civil rights is commonplace. And so I think the police or citizens, white supremacist citizens, for example, can just make all kinds of claims knowing that their version of events is going to be the version that’s validated.
And so that way that black voices are just, are disempowered. I think the cell phone technology helps to throw, a piece of metal in that cog and really disrupt that. I think they’re important in that way. I’ve heard some debates about the problems with using cell phone to capture violence and whatnot. But I think at least at the point where now it’s really helpful to challenge some of those widespread and widely believed narratives about black humanity.
Shawn Salvant: I think it’s also important to recognize that this effort to document anti-black violence and atrocities against black bodies goes way, way back.
If we go back to the work of Ida B. Wells in the 1890s, she didn’t have a cell phone, but she had her pen and she had her journalistic skills, as a journalist there in Memphis who was documenting lynchings. In the 1890s, all the way up to, you think about the importance of television cameras and the media during the civil rights movement, documenting those, those fire hoses and dogs turned on children coming out of schools and coming out of churches in Alabama and other parts of the country.
You think about, currently, the work of the Equal Justice Initiative and the work they’re doing in Alabama to document lynching. So there’s a long history of this kind of documentation that is so, so important to making sure not only as, as Melina points out, that we frame the narrative, correctly, but also that these things are not lost to history.
David Embrick: I think it’s important to sort of try to understand technology moving forward and not just cell phone technology, but also the media and media outlets. And so the media as an institution is part of a larger racialized system, right? And so, but the, the good news is that we’re seeing, all types of other media outlets, right?
Because the media in general, at least mainstream media, can easily transform some of these narratives or change some of these narratives in front of video. We’ve seen that already happening when, especially with some folks commenting that, you know, George, Floyd had drugs in his system, he was a very bad person. Right? And trying to bring it down to the individual level as this, this was an isolated case takes. Yes. Again, right. And here we have cell phone technology that’s capturing this and then we have another narrative. So the good news is that as we sort of expand that media platform, through other social media outlets, we can have other voices being disseminated.
Bede Agocha: And, one thing I also wanted to add to dovetail to that, as you can also see the converse right? Where, the absence, right, of witnesses can also have a profound impact. And so, last week in celebrating the 99th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre that back then, a lot of newspapers actually covered and documented what occurred and the tragedy, but because there were some people who were in the vantage point to remove all those newspaper accounts, most people today are completely shocked. In fact, a few journalists that were interviewed both the New York Times, Washington Post journalists, they didn’t know what to make of it. Like they couldn’t believe that that many people were killed in broad daylight and over a sequence of days. And that’s just not something people learn in school.
So, so I, I very much agree with my colleagues that the advantage of modern media is placing more and more witnesses in a critical vantage point. Even though we readily accept that that’s not the same as journalism, but it certainly adds a perspective that, that can’t be denied, which all too often is what happens.
The police report that those officers that Minneapolis had already filed had indicated that George Floyd was resisting arrest repeatedly. And so, thankfully not just the young woman who has the most famous video, but even other videos from different angles show that there was no point at which you could legitimately call his behavior resisting.
Julie Bartucca: I’m just thinking about, I’m sure you saw the Buffalo, the older man that was, you know, they said he tripped and fell and then once they saw all the pressure on social media of people just outraged because we’re seeing it with our own eyes, then they started to change their tune.
Shawn Salvant: Going back to your other question about why things have changed as far as the language being more explicit. Now, language against white supremacy and against police violence has been used by writers of African descent forever. I mean, going way, way back. I mean, you know whenever, you know, you read James Baldwin, Angela Davis, you read DuBois, nothing is, you know, nothing is new under the sun there, but as far as the, the documentation, the video documentation, at some point, people have to be asked not to believe their own eyes.
And there’ve been so many cases where there’s always been, as Bede and David were pointing out, this kind of area where people have been able to say, but, Oh, but we didn’t see this on the camera. We didn’t see the beginning of this encounter say with Trayvon Martin or whoever it is. But as, as the videos get more and more explicit, more and more detailed, and this George Floyd video in particular, and there are many, many others. I mean, you know, I’ve, I’ve seen plenty of videos going back, you know, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, and we can name all the many that are explicit to me and that don’t require any further context.
But this video that we see with George Floyd, you really have to have some kind of bad faith not to believe that this man was brutally murdered right in front of your eyes. You see that happening right in front of your eyes. So it’s very, very hard to, hard to argue with.
Julie Bartucca: We’ve seen protests this time in all 50 states, hundreds of cities, you know, every little suburb in Connecticut, even all over the world.
How from your historical perspectives, what you study, does this compare to things like the civil rights movement, the LA riots, even more recent unrest like Ferguson? I’ve felt personally and seen some other say, you know, this kind of feels different. It feels like something’s really going to happen this time on a structural level.
Do you believe that? Do you think it’s different?
David Embrick: I may be the skeptical one here. I’m not too sure.
Not cynical, but skeptical. I’m not, I’m not too sure. Certainly with media technology, we’re starting to see a lot of, a lot more events, right? So, so you can say, well, maybe, this is not just about the 50 states, globally, all throughout Europe, South Africa and, and, and such, sort of, people standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter sort of, talking about their own issues in those particular countries, but, you know, the Black Lives Matter has, has been, in those countries. Maybe recently they’ve been supported by specifically Black Lives Matter, but people have been talking about anti-blackness and white supremacy in these countries for awhile, right? And so I think we may be, we may be seeing more of, of what this looks like, because we have the technology in real time to see what’s going on and so we can stand in solidarity together. But I’m not too sure. I mean, certainly there are businesses out there, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
I mean, there’s, there’s certainly a lot of businesses, the NFL, and even, even some magazines coming out, you’re dropping a, you know, authors like [unclear] that you wouldn’t have seen in the past. And, and perhaps, and talking about, we stand with Black Lives Matter. I think everything has – Starbucks.
Right. But the issue for me is really like, you know, is this another propaganda about, let’s buy our products? Where’s the actual substance, right? And so that’s my question. And again, I don’t want to be cynical, but I’m skeptical until I see that kind of support. Then those will be the real changes that we haven’t seen.
in the past, certainly the movement captured on video is, is large. I think we’re at nine days now or something like that, but, you know, Ferguson was, 14, maybe 20 days, long if we’re talking about that timeframe, you know, I think the LA riots was only about seven or nine days.
But still, you know, I mean, I’m not too sure.
Julie Bartucca: Does anyone have an opposing viewpoint to David’s?
Melina Pappademos: Well, I’ll just say quickly. The one thing I have seen, and this is not necessarily oppositional to what David just said, but I do think I see more white activists on the ground. I do think that, I don’t want to reveal my age, but I was around in the ’60s and certainly went to enough, was dragged to, and went to enough marches of my own volition.
And there is a way that, for example, sexuality is being is, is sort of weaving itself in and out. And I see much more than I recall, and this is more from a personal perspective, of white activists sort of, joining together with Black Lives Matter, Movement for Black Lives, you know?
So that, that to me feels different and the length does feel different as well. I think we’re actually around day 13, and this weekend was supposed to be, you know, there was really no calming down of the amount of activism. So, that’s not quite disagreeing with David. It’s just, I do kind of feel that there is a little something… I agree with David, let’s see what happens.
Bede Agocha: Yeah.
David Embrick: I, I do have to, I just have to say again, I’m not, I mean, again, the length of time, I mean, Ferguson was 20 days. It’s like August 9th to August 25th or something like that. It may be a matter again, that it feels like it’s more, I mean, this whole idea of it’s more multicultural, more sort of multiethnic, more like we’re all coming together.
I’m not too sure if that is a real difference other than what we were able to capture on video than in the past. The civil rights movement, you know, however you agree or disagree about it, it was a collection of movements, right? That came together that at the time was really focused on overt manifestations of racism, sexism, and all these other things.
I mean, had the Brown Berets and the leadership council, you had the red power movement, you had the women’s March, you had all these different movements to come together. And so, you know, it may be a at, at, at different times. I don’t know, we just weren’t exposed to the different types of people that were collectively engaged in. It’s, it’s an empirical question, I guess, but I just think that we should be a little bit careful because we’ve, we’ve already been here again and again and again and again and again, right? And to say that, Oh, something, something new has sort of come up and, you know, again, I don’t want to be cynical, but I want us to sort of to look at this and say, okay, these corporations say black lives matter, put your money where your mouth is. UConn says black lives matter, put your money where your mouth is. Right? ‘Cause, consistently we know that that has not happened.
Bede Agocha: Yeah. So I, I definitely agree with David that, ultimately, what we’re talking about is social change, right? Then a lot more has to happen in the future, right, for us to regard this event as different from all, all the many that have preceded it.
But you know, of course there’s a variety of factors that make this one look different, feel different. Whether it’s ultimately different in, in having the impact of lasting change that’s going to be the ultimate arbiter of how different it is. So, for example, some of the psychology of the protestors.
I think some people would point to, the way COVID-19, this pandemic has impacted people. One way you can see that big difference is, had this occurred in the middle of the academic year, many of the same people in that same age group might find what they would consider a greater impact to be either marching on campus or even taking over some particular building on a university campus and much of that doesn’t televise the same way as the ability to have drones and just so many overhead shots gives people a sense of scale. That’s much bigger than anything they’ve seen. Typically they’ve only seen that many people at the March on Washington, at the mall. But to see news programs keep identifying different cities, it’s certainly, I guess – Melina mentioned about age – many of us old enough to have seen, sadly, way too many of these. The one thing we absolutely readily acknowledge is the number of small towns and smaller cities in the U.S., so the idea that 415 different Places in the U.S., so not different places in one city, different cities and towns have had protests and marches.
That is something new, again. So we can point to that as being a little different. The number of places outside the U.S. That have also had large protests also can be seen as again, a variation on the past. But of course at the end of the day, we always have to point out the big similarities. One commentator pointed out that, with the exception of a few things like the assassination of Dr. King, Martin Luther King, Jr., that you can see all through history. Most of these kinds of civil disobedience, civil unrest, and protests have come about as a reaction to police action or some other overstepping of government. So like, LA riots after the verdict in the Rodney King case.
There’s nothing new about people when they no longer see, or they see a break in, what we’re at least, putatively, right, thought to be legitimacy of government. And so when people see a break with that and start to consider what they’re either reading in newspapers or seeing on TV or nowadays, on the internet, that break with legitimacy is part of what gets people mad enough and energized enough to go out and protest.
So that part isn’t new and in fact is the strand that connects all of these things. But people are obviously protesting because there are things they want changed or things that they don’t like. So if those things remained the same and the media no longer sees it as a critical thing to cover on it, day by day.
Yeah, then it’ll die down. But all the factors that created it will still remain. So it’s going to happen again. The only difference will be if there are some changes, and that reassures people, reinforces or reinstalls the sense of legitimacy and then a chunk of the people that that’s really what got them out there, of course, won’t protest nearly as much if they think some legitimacy has been restored. So that part of it, I think, is really the strength of what David is arguing is that we’ve seen it all before.
Different sizes, different scales. Even the Boston Tea Party. Most people weren’t there, they read about it.
But the legitimacy of the grievance in that case is what gives it a lasting impact is that, yeah, that certainly sounds quite legitimate is that if you feel your tax dollars are taken from you and you don’t see anything locally resulting from being part of that system, that yeah, one day you might react to a break and saying, Nope, no more.
So all of these young people, I agree with Melina that, again, being able to see so much taking place outdoors that I think it surprised people, places like Washington D.C. And New York City, but especially Washington, D.C. The idea of seeing images where it appears that white protesters equal and in some cases outnumber black protestors, that’s a powerful thing for the white majority in our country to see. Because again, it gives people a very quick sense that, Oh, okay. This thing, the White House is saying that it’s just a handful of disgruntled people seems ridiculous in the face of, again, those aerial shots, particularly in some of the tinier places, they showed Dubuque and Des Moines, so places where, it’s hard to make sense of what the White House is saying when you’re seeing people protesting in these different places. And so that captures, I think, the attention of the public and most people are watching to see, well, what’s the result, right? If it were, if it results in change, everybody will mark this one as different, but if it doesn’t, it’ll be just one in a long line of protests.
Melina Pappademos: The other thing that strikes me, and maybe my colleagues have thoughts about this, is that in some cities – and here in Hartford we are one of them – police or state police have actually marched with the marchers, and in other cities they’re very violent and abusive of the protesters and marchers.
And so I’m just, it just makes you wonder, because I’m sure everybody has heard about Minneapolis voting to defund police, which is kind of amazing and historical –
Julie Bartucca: I wanted to talk about that too.
Melina Pappademos: – and of course other reforms are sort of in discussion around the country, but it just, it, it makes me want to understand as a scholar.
And if I were a sociologist, I’d be really interested in this, but also, psychologists, it might make me wonder about language, all these things. Why are some police departments so organized against, and abusive of, protestors. And why are others finding solidarity there?
They’re finding that there really is not a kind of contradiction between who they are as police and who the protesters are and what they’re demanding. So that’s just my, my, curiosity and scholarly wanting to get to the bottom of racial politics. I’m not sure I can answer that.
Bede Agocha: Well, I’ll just give one example that may at least lead to a potential answer for Melina’s question, which is that there have been protests and things that have led to substantive changes within the local area.
Houston would be a really good example, where, because they’ve had recent issues in Houston, in fact, some famous ones were, some police officers were ambushed and killed. And so the reaction of the Houston police to protest against whether it was police violence or other things that people were unhappy with, that heavy-handed reaction led to a local interest in, Hey, we can’t have this keep happening. And so, that police chief that preceded the current police chief was actually quite successful in telling the city council, people won’t believe anything I say as a police chief if there are no changes, so changes that the Houston, city council, in terms of actual monies and things that they said, okay, we’re going to fund this, but then they also tied money to the police, to seeing specific changes where the chief of police was then able to tell all of his captains and precinct heads, yeah, we need to do this and you need to show me it’s happening. Otherwise we’re going to miss out on funding. So that’s one of the biggest Shortfalls of the media right now to not explain to people what the defunding police movement actually is about because people hear defunding and they think abolish, free for all, and, with the exception of maybe a handful of people out of thousands, that’s not what people are talking about. But even police several police chiefs, who’ve sat down and talked to some of the protestors, they’ve come to understand what is being requested and they know that it’s actually good for police.
So the defunding movement has to do with where monies and budgets are put. And so, New York city’s six point something billion dollar police budget. Yeah. One has to ask when you put that much money into the police, then the expectation is that when an elementary school teacher or principal has a problem with a fourth grader, they call the police, which a lot of people see sort of absolutely crazy use of police, but we’ve seen it documented where police go to arrest some child, similarly when somebody with a mental health challenge, something occurs, the police are called in many of those instances.
That’s really, both for taxpayers and police, absolutely wasteful use of resources because the police aren’t trained for that. And so defunding police means actually gauging what’s appropriate police and law enforcement business. And so when the police don’t have to be called to be, social workers, to be, you know, clinical psychologists, it’s in their best interest.
The same way that police, it took them a long time to actually accept negotiators into their midst. Police were highly resistant for decades [to] the notion that someone else was going to tell them what to do in a criminal standoff. But once they saw that professional negotiators are somebody who actually knows how to deescalate, given this specific circumstance that exists, then many police officers said it would be crazy not to use this. But all along, you always see resistance.
Right? But when the especially money, when those resources are moved and are, you know, zero-sum pies, then you’ll get movement. Like you see, not only in Houston, but even the chief of police in Minneapolis, part of the reason why he fired those four officers is that he’s relatively new and he’s responding to existing problems that Minneapolis police force has had.
That’s the reason why you can get the city council to vote what they’re suggesting is a veto-proof majority, to disband the police. That’s actually not a new thing. So city council in Minneapolis, the police chief, he knows this. He actually knows, he’s been told that if the things that they’ve try to do, if they don’t appear to work, then that will tell them what a few cities in the U.S. have done, where they’ve actually disbanded the police and started over. And by start over, I mean, they simply ask every police officer to reapply.
Julie Bartucca: Thank you for explaining that because the defunding the police, like, I mean, for me, I had no idea that, Oh, we’re going to just disband police departments. What do we do? I was one of those people at first who was kind of confused. But it, it kind of comes down to, and what Melina was just kind of asking about, it almost seems like it’s that, okay, we have the people making the argument that I know great policemen. I know policemen who are hardworking, great men and women. It’s not about that. It’s about the system. It’s about making sure the system is the best thing to protect the people in these communities.
David Embrick: I want to add. just to kind of give a quick and dirty sociological answer to Melina, it’s variation, right? So we talk about anti-blackness and white supremacy and, and sort of racialized social systems. We can talk about how sort of we are all affected. Like the U.S. in general is affected about the sort of larger macro level systemic racism, but we know that regions vary, right? There’s a social, historical context that we have to tie into how cities are formed and how they’re shaped. And, you know, the Texas Rangers, for example, created as a vigilante group to keep black and Brown people in line, along with the KKK.
And so you have that long lingering history, within a state like Texas that may be different than, say, Illinois or Vermont or Connecticut.
Melina Pappademos: That’s right. That’s right. You know, as a historian, I would say that, you have to look at the emergence of the police in a given, just expanding on what you just said, the occupation is racialized. So if we think about the racial politics of a particular region, perhaps the police who are in those really aggressive areas where they’re acting so aggressively, perhaps occupation is racialized, or is equivalent to whiteness.
I’m not saying that that’s a, that’s a kind of scholarly argument I’m making, I’m just saying that that’s the kind of work that a historian would do is really think about that, those regional specificities or those city specificities to think through why some police are joining in and others are pushing old men down on the ground, bust open their head and have it bleed open, and walking by, you know, walking by or, yeah, anyway.
Shawn Salvant: Just, just to that point, you know, one of, James Baldwin’s most, one of his strongest, essays against police violence is called “Report from an Occupied Territory,” where he refers to Harlem as a territory occupied by the police.
Melina Pappademos: Mm Hmm.
Julie Bartucca: So we’ve been talking about the police and the police brutality that’s just being shown at these protests. I wanted to talk a little bit, which we’ve touched on about the rhetoric and, you know, Is there this – there’s the protesters who just want a peacefully protest, then there’s the looters, then there’s the rioters. Is everybody working towards the same thing? Are they, do they have different reasons? We’ve got this ‘outside agitator’ narrative of kind of blaming, you know, Antifa or whoever. Let’s talk a little bit about that and how that’s all portrayed.
Shawn Salvant: The language is definitely important and there, and there have been debates about this language going way, way back, you know, there’s, there was a an event that some people would call a coup d’etat back in the 1890s that Charles Chestnut, African American author writes a novel about, and people are still debating whether or not that event was a rebellion, a coup d’etat, a riot.
That’s one thing that’s important to note here that, you know, back in the 19th century, when people talked about race riots, they were talking about white actors going into black neighborhoods and committing violence against black people and black bodies. That was the standard quote-unquote race riot in the 19th century. It’s only of late that that term is, has been mostly applied to black, urban communities, quote-unquote rioting in their own spaces.
Language is definitely important. And you think about the, what people know that now is that the quote-unquote the LA riots, many people would call that more of a rebellion.
And I think that term has a sense of wielding power against an oppressive system that’s in power. It’s trying to overcome that system or rebellions that has more of that connotation, but the connotations are definitely very important and they do get racialized as Melina points out.
I think about the term “looting.” My family is on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and we were affected by Katrina. Of course, remember the language of Katrina was all about these folks who were looting when they were actually trying to survive in this situation where there was no help for them and no, literally no food to survive on, and they had to go out and find food on their own. It’s interesting to me that this term gets used, “looting,” in these types of situations with protesters against racial violence. But we don’t use that term, “looting,” when it comes to investment banks looting my 401k or looting in the global economy, which they definitely did.
So I think the, I think the language does – pay attention to what, to the, to the context in which this language is used. We can see that it’s it’s, it’s definitely got an agenda behind it.
Bede Agocha: Yeah, I completely agree. And just to tag onto something we already talked about in terms of the impact of technology and modern media.
So, of course nothing happens without, you know, there’s some positives and there’s some limitations, or negatives. So in the case of, the internet and a social networking, one of the challenges is that yeah, so bad actors, they have access to technology as well. So some organized criminals, as well as some organized political interests in violence, have sort of found themselves converging to use the legitimate protests and legitimate public stance to essentially commit acts of crime that they’ve wanted to [but] just didn’t see an opportunity. And so in many cities, the fact that people were out there presented the opportunity for criminal elements.
I think the, the best example would be in New York City, where, I’m blanking on his first name, but, Kelly, is a former CBS, antiterrorism analyst who went back and rejoined. So he’s a longtime former police officer who then after 9/11, got very involved in anti terrorism training.
And until eventually he became a CBS analyst. And then when the mayors changed – so he actually went back rejoined the police force to try to teach them about using modern technology to apply to law enforcement. So he’s actually come out in several interviews and acknowledged that the kind of looting that they saw in New York City, particularly of those high end stores, he said he considers it a failing of intelligence and holds himself chiefly responsible because that’s his job to be able to understand and weave together strands of communications on the internet to see, I think people are planning something here. So he said, yeah, after the fact they’ve looked at that and they saw, in addition to some left-wing, politically left, activists who wanted to destroy, these, you know, symbols of opulence and wealth.
There was a much, much bigger organizing element of political right-wing activity to commit violence to delegitimize the protest. And in the midst of all of that, there was a strand of criminals, organized criminals who knew when to hit the stores and what to use in terms of material. They didn’t just pick up things from the street. They came prepared with equipment. And so he admitted that once you are able to look at that, you clearly have to acknowledge that most of those protesters don’t leave their house with things to shield them from a certain glass to know the difference between glass that won’t break into pieces versus glass that will break, but still stay relatively large pieces.
And these criminals knew that they knew which stores to hit and they just mingled with the protestors. So it’s important. And I think the media eventually got wise to it. One is that they were doing a disservice to themselves by talking about peaceful protest, but constantly showing the very few instances of criminal activity.
And so once the media stopped doing that, and people started seeing that the vast majority of people are out there to try to make a political statement and the violence isn’t serving them. And they, most of them know that. So you saw people protecting stores, you saw people protecting police officers.
And in some instances, all of those things are a part of the thrust of people who are fighting, what they consider illegitimate. Right? And as long as they still have the hope – one of the interesting things about government responses that are heavy-handed is that heavy-handed response is essentially the government telling people, don’t have hope.
Because when people protest peacefully, they’re saying they still have some hope that somebody, on the other side or whatever the government governmental system is, will hear them. And so, as long as that’s viable and you see several mayors and several police chiefs understood the idea of militarized police on American streets is not a helpful thing. And once they had police in regular police uniform, and then these SWAT and the other tactics, right, somewhere far, far off, of course the protests all look peaceful. That’s the major threat that was there to begin with. And so when the police start acting heavy handed, they’re again straining that legitimacy. When that legitimacy snaps, even the most nonviolent person will act in ways that will be surprising even to people who know them. So, so most people, when they see somebody and go, Oh my God, I never knew that person would do such and such. Well, yeah, if they think, Oh no, there’s a snap in the trust, in the legitimacy, people will act in all kinds of ways, but, as long as the police can act in some kind of a good faith, same thing with lawmakers, most people will in fact continue to operate with some belief in the system.
Julie Bartucca: All right. We are almost at an hour here, so I’m going to ask one last question to kind of bring it all home. So we’ve talked about a lot, and whether or not this bears out and becomes something that actually achieved real change remains to be seen.
But how do we get there? We have seen some changes, yesterday with the Minneapolis city council vote on the police department. And we see a lot of individuals and corporations speaking out, whether that’s performative or legitimate, saying they’re going to start the process of listening and unlearning some of their biases and ‘doing the work,’ as they say .
If this all continues, is it really possible to kind of dismantle this structure that is so baked into our country and once the protests are over, what does that look like in your ideal world?
Shawn Salvant: It’s going to take a long, long time to completely dismantle these systemic racist issues. But I think that what people can do is not only support and call for and vote for the changes you want to see on a legislative level, policy level, but also take some specific action towards structural change in your own corner of, of society or the world or wherever you live and work. Make at least one, hopefully more, structural changes in what you do every day, that will, that will help bring about some sort of positive change.
David Embrick: See, I want, I want to emphasize the part of structural, systemic racism. I think that – and all of us here and lots of other colleagues have been talking about this until their face is blue in their classes and with their colleagues – so the issue for me, is, is that we’re, we’re so ingrained in the U.S. I think about the individual level, right.
We should think about – it’s people, right, and, and, and I’m not saying that we need to throw out sort of agency, but we do need to sort of think more deeply about what it means to have these deep roots of white supremacy. Right? And so I’m glad I’m, I’m glad that people, that individuals are using the term racism and maybe throwing around the term white supremacy.
I’m not, I’m not too clear. It’s not clear to me that they actually understand what that means.
Melina Pappademos: Hmm.
David Embrick: I think that those two things, those two things are different, right? It takes the formula. It takes both. In order to dismantle racism, you have to do it at both the individual and the structural, systemic, institutional levels. It can’t be just one. So teaching students to be tolerant, which I hate that word, or teaching or the educational system is one thing it’s, it’s not the key. It’s perhaps a key of a bunch of things that when you do.
So, so talking about at the mezzo level, taking care of institutional racism and in the educational system, in the law enforcement system, in the prison industrial complex and the media and those institutions, to address the larger structural societal level racism is what we need to do.
But just saying that, you know, I’m going to be a better person, I’m going to learn about … doesn’t really cut it, right? I’m glad for you, right?
It doesn’t cut it. To fix the whole, it takes the whole equation.
Bede Agocha: So very quickly I agree completely with David and Sean. And the only thing I would add to that is so, they both mentioned structural and institutional racism, and those are definitely things that once people start seeing changes.
They will recognize it. Right? So calling yet another commission to examine this or that, nobody is going to consider that in any way a legitimate change. And in fact, most people won’t even consider it a legitimate avenue to change only because many commissions have come and gone, including some very powerful ones, you know, the Carter commission, the Campbell commission, you name it, there have been some big ones, but at the end of the day, if the report doesn’t have teeth and resources, it’s not going to be meaningful. So, institutional change is definitely a big deal, but some of the biggest challenges for all of us and America is that racism, sexism, and a whole bunch of other negative -isms are part of the cultural fabric of the country.
And so those will be some of the toughest to change, but there’s a reason to be hopeful that they can change because those are human inventions. They’re not in the human DNA. People have to learn some of these things. And so the same way that it’s possible for people to learn how to dislike people, who they put into this box or that box.
They can unlearn it. But part of it is that they have to feel a vested interest in that. And so, if teaching young people anti -racism, if that’s thrown into school as yet another requirement, that students are actually going to see as a hindrance to their real goals, then it’s not going to have much of an impact.
It has to be where young people are shown they have a vested interest in these things. The same way that people used to see computers as this tiny fringe thing for nerds. Well, yeah, teaching computers in schools now, it’s so ubiquitous that nobody sees that as interfering with their future.
In fact, they see it as integral to their future. So introducing things like anti-racism are very good, but the much bigger challenge is that whether it’s municipalities, universities, all of these stakeholders have to put the resources behind actually retraining people, helping them to see what interests they have in a better society. You know, it sounds lofty, but not everybody actually thinks improving sexism and racism and heterosexuals making the space for people who weren’t heterosexuals, not everybody sees that as a win0win. If in their mind, I have to give up and lose what I have, a lot of people will resist it.
So those kinds of efforts will be important. And then the last thing I’ll say is for police, there have been documented instances where police have gotten better at serving their community.And so some of those are structural changes, others are what psychologists call procedural justice, where the actual process of what police do has to be done in such a way that the police officer knows the legitimacy, but they can also communicate that to the public.
So for example, there was a study that showed when you pull people over for a DUI check, they did a field experiment where they had some police officers telling people why they were doing it and how it was done and showing how Nope, it’s completely random.
And then others where the police didn’t tell them anything. They just did the usual. Of course, the people who were told here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we’re doing it, here’s how we’re ensuring public safety and even asking people to comment. Of course, those people, regardless of whether they got a ticket or not, whether they got a fine or not, actually all thought of it as legitimate.
So that’s what we mean by procedural justice is that you have to be able to have processes that are legitimate and the legitimacy can be shown and talk to people in a transparent way. And then the last piece that I think David implied, this was – actually, maybe it was Melina – Because many police enforcement groupings in the U.S, have their historical ties to things like the KKK, the FBI acknowledged that there’s a presence of white supremacy in virtually every police department in the United States.
So it’s sort of funny to listen to people in the White House saying no. And so whether it’s Ben Carson or Mark Esper, whoever it is, or President Trump, what they’re saying flies in the face of available evidence from not us, the ASI faculty, but from the FBI, from the Supreme Court, who’ve acknowledged the data are pretty clear.
So that’s systemic racism, systemic racism doesn’t mean 99% of police are racist. It means that racism has permeated the system so much so that even if it’s 1%, it doesn’t require John Smith and Joe This to activate it and maintain it. So the system has to be changed, including the way police are hired and fired.
Making those changes and telling the public, oh yeah, we hear you. You shouldn’t fire a bad police officer in Cleveland for giving Tamir Rice two seconds of his time before he shot him. No human being would ordinarily think that makes any sense. Two seconds from the time the police car stopped till the time that child was dead.
But once they fired that policemen, they found out that they really couldn’t cause the union could force the rehiring. And also that he’d been fired before for other forms of misconduct, but there was no registry for anybody to check and the few voluntary registries that exist, not that many municipalities participate.
So as a psychologist, Oh, I know there’s ways to test people. And there are ways to legitimately test and you can pick out people who you can’t guarantee they’re going to be bad, you simply see signs that suggest this, the person’s own sense of legitimacy and authority doesn’t work well with policing, where the public is supposed to have the last say in what constitutes legitimacy.
And so getting rid of those people. And I understand that many of the good people have stood by and watched bad people do things then starts to have a conversation around yeah, even a good police officer who doesn’t turn in this fool who did that is essentially making the entire system suspect. So that’s sort of where we, the faculty, come in, we’re happy to help the university if they put resources to actually say, how can anti-racism benefit Connecticut? Well, we know it can. I made my colleagues laugh once by telling them how people resisted the idea of soap. Medical doctors, medical doctors resisted the idea of soap as being of any value. They really did. It’s documented because they didn’t understand what it could do, but once they saw the data, it was night and day. You’re killing people with your dirty hands, sticking things in, all of a sudden, even two- and three-year-old children have some basic understanding of soap. So the fact that people resist anti-racism, isn’t the reason to not do it. It’s the value in making a better society.
Andthere are people available. My colleagues are among those people who have the resources and the wherewithal to take us through the long route. It’s not a, there’s no shortcut, no magic bullet because it already has permeated the system. And so we really want it out and put those resources. And the long view, of course we can. And soap, seatbelts, computers – there’s all kinds of examples of things people use to resist that just seem commonplace now. That’s my take.
Melina Pappademos: I’ll say two things, I’ll say maybe three or four things, but bulleted:
White supremacy is real. It dehumanizes our entire population, not just, people of color, people of African descent, it dehumanizes white people as well.
The, the change comes about through mode of force; the mode of force of change actually is activism and making demands; and as Frederick Douglass said, power never concedes power. It never has. And it never will. So people in the streets right now is absolutely what we need and, you know, like David said, let’s see what comes of it.
Tom Breen: Alright, well, that was a great conversation. Julie, thank you for bringing those folks together. I think that’s very timely and important stuff for our listeners. And that’s all we have for this week, that’s a lot for folks to digest and I hope you’ll follow along on UConn Twitter, @UConnPodcast or @Main_Old. Is there anything else we want to let folks know before we go? Julie, do you have anything?
Julie Bartucca: You can find the statement from the Africana Studies Institute at africana.uconn.edu. They also mentioned that they have a lot of resources there for those that want to learn about anti-racism and all of the research that they talked about. And, I did notice that the Neag School of Education has been posting some resources as well and their dean, Gladis Kersaint, did an op-ed that appeared in the Hartford Courant about being a black woman and having the position of privilege as a dean but also struggling as a black woman in America right now. You can find all of that at education.uconn.edu.
The Africana Studies Institute is also planning a discussion of Ibram X. Kendi’s book, “How to Be an Anti-Racist.” This was originally scheduled for September 24, but obviously things are kind of in flux with campus reopening plans and all of that, so stay tuned to africana.uconn.edu for more information on that.
Ken Best: There will be an announcement about a major grant that the University is receiving in connection with these issues, sometime within the next few days, we think, but certainly within the next week.
Tom Breen: So stay tuned to today.uconn.edu for more information on that. Alright, well thank you for joining us and we hope you’re healthy and well, and we’ll see you next time!