Why #BlackLivesMatter: an MPC workshop exploring anti-Blackness in the United States

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On Tuesday, February 10, students gathered in the Leung Gallery to learn about and discuss the topic “Why #BlackLivesMatter,” in a workshop conducted by the Minority Peer Counselors. While explaining various injustices black lives have faced both in the past and today, the workshop also asked attendants to think about how they could contribute to the movement moving forward.

The workshop was structured around a historical timeline, looking at three key eras of social control of people of color, beginning with slavery, then moving to Jim Crow, and finally ending with the current state of mass incarceration. Addressing the first two eras, the facilitators drew parallels between the practices and rhetoric of pre-emancipation slave owners, Jim Crow white supremacists, and current policing procedures, in order to historicize and contextualize events occurring today.

One particularly resonant connection was between a statement made in Look magazine by the notorious murderers of Emmett Till–a fourteen year old boy killed for supposedly flirting with a white woman in 1955–and that of Darren Wilson, with regard to the murder of Michael Brown. The audience was to listen to the statements and determine if any similarities could be found. Many determined that both perpetrators expressed a lack of guilt as well as rhetoric which suggested ideological backing by higher institutions, institutions that tacitly or explicitly supported their lack of guilt at taking a Black life.

In the third and current era, three foundational policies of mass incarceration were discussed: the War on Drugs, the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and Stop and Frisk.  500% increase in prison rates since the 1980’s. Most of these inmates are Black or Latino, though these citizens make up a proportionately smaller percentage of the population than their white counterparts. The effects of incarceration are not only detrimental for the duration of the sentencing, but also following the sentence. Former inmates are subject to intense discrimination including lack of employment and, in some states, disenfranchisement, not unlike the policies that permeated the Jim Crow era.

Those who came to the workshop were shocked at the surprising policies which allowed, up until recently, for 100 to 1 sentences for crack and cocaine abuses, and stop and frisk policies that essentially deny those stopped of their right to walk away. Surprisingly, the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and the subject of last year’s Ray Kelly incident, Stop and Frisk, gained the most attention with many students feeling the ramifications of such policies even on Brown’s campus.

Moving to address the specifics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the facilitators explained the movement’s mission of being a “call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” They also accentuated the movement’s commitment to addressing all Black lives, including female, queer, trans*, and disabled bodies which can often get marginalized. One attendant specifically addressed the recent “To My Unborn Son” series that many Brown and Yale students participated in, commenting that the movement is more than just a straight cis-male issue.

Lastly, before diving into questions of the future, the workshop brought into question the #AllLivesMatter hashtag, which some have used in lieu of #BlackLivesMatter. The facilitators made clear that while all lives do matter, not all lives are subjected to systematic injustices. The #BlackLivesMatter movement was made to specifically bring attention to discriminatory acts against the Black community, which, in America specifically, have a long and particularly painful history. As one student commented, for non-Blacks to “hijack” this movement not only defeats the movement’s purpose, but also trivializes the plight of Black Americans.

The workshop ended posing the question, what now? The #BlackLivesMatter movement is only just getting on its feet, and the MPCs challenged attendants to become active participants rather than passive bystanders. They recommended talking about the subjects addressed with fellow peers, as well as continuing to attend workshops and events on these tough subjects.

Outside of Brown, the facilitators encouraged supporting policy changes as well as actions in the Providence community, though they iterated that students should be careful not to abuse their Brown University privilege when involving themselves in local issues. Lastly, the presenters reminded us to always listen and prioritize Black voices in these discussions.

Attendants were left to reflect on what place they would take in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, whether it be in the Brown community, the greater Providence community, or elsewhere. The quote which was used for the workshop by Ferguson activist Shaun King sums it up best, “If you ever wondered what you would do if you were alive in the Civil Rights Movement, now is the time to find out.”

Image via Matteo Mobilio ’16. 

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