On George Floyd and the struggle to belong

head shot of denise herd

Denise Herd

Associate Director

May 29, 2020
By Denise Herd

Like you, I've been inundated these last few days with painful images of police abuse, heartbroken families, and growing protests.
 
This is our national ritual—a black American like George Floyd, Tamir Rice or Breonna Taylor is killed at the hands of police. We cry with grief and rage, we re-experience the trauma of every other black or brown life cut down, and we demand change, only to find ourselves in the same place a day, a week, a month later.

It is exhausting, it is painful, and it can leave us feeling helpless and hopeless.

But while you may feel at times there is no end in sight, I believe that there is. There must be. As Dr. King stated, time is neutral. If things are to change, we must participate in that changing.

Despite many limitations, I want to shine a light in the right direction, both because that is how change might happen, and because it helps to keep our humanity intact.

I will do this by illuminating a few of the policies and practices we have explored at the institute to create a world in which black, brown and indigenous people, and all marginalized people, are fully and truly valued.

And while we insist on the valuing of all people, we know people are not situated the same, and there is often a lack of symmetry, or uneven power. Changing this imbalance isn't just our work at the institute, it’s the work of an infinite number of movement builders, storytellers, educators and others like you who have been doing this your whole lives.

Despite the constant reminders that we as black people are criminalized, the truth is we do belong. And all of us together have a role to play in making that true.

To help you play your part, I want to point you to some of the vast body of work my colleagues at the Institute have already published that can deepen your thinking and sharpen your analysis so you can push for systemic changes in your community.  To help us do our part, we also invite you to share what you are doing.

The names and dates may have changed, but the thinking is as relevant as ever. I am fortunate to work with colleagues with incredible depth and breadth:
 
Erin M. Kerrison, Assistant Professor at the School of Social Welfare, has built an impressively deep body of work on criminal justice, racial inequity and health, like this research on how stop-and-frisk causes a wide range of emotional and psychological harms. You can hear her on KPFA discussing why COVID is impacting the black community the hardest in Alameda County, or read this important profile of her work in Philadelphia showing how, when police think they’re seen as racist, they’re more likely to use force.

In their in-depth report, The Road Not Taken, Institute Research Director Stephen Menendian and Senior Fellow Richard Rothstein took a look at what has and hasn’t changed since the Kerner Commission concluded that racism was the root cause of some 100 uprisings in American cities in 1967, very much like what we’re seeing today in Minneapolis. Critically, they identify a range of concrete recommendations for policing reform. 

Osagie K. Obasogie, Professor of Bioethics in the Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health, and chair of our Diversity and Health Disparities research cluster, wrote this piece in The Atlantic about the myth of the "bad apples" framing of police violence. He also had a piece in the Cornell Law Review that looked at how police perspectives on what counts as "reasonable" use of force are uncritically adopted by federal courts to deny civil rights claims by victims of police violence. 
 
If you'd prefer to watch video, here is an illuminating short AJ+ video featuring Institute Director john a. powell talking about Michael Brown and Black Lives Matter, and an extended interview with Amy Goodman on DemocracyNow! “The black community tends be overpoliced and underprotected,” powell says. 
 
And finally, Ivan Natividad’s recent profile of my work linking COVID-19, racism and police violence: Among the reasons COVID-19 is worse for black communities: Police violence.
 
I’ve spent my professional life studying racial inequity and health, and I can speak personally to the impact of feeling not just pain for those we have lost, but ongoing fear for those we might lose. When my 19-year-old son leaves the house, I think about how he might encounter a law enforcement officer who sees him as a threat simply because he is black.

While these killings may happen quickly, the change required to reshape policing, indeed all of our institutions, will take a long time and us. We are here for the long haul.