After being delayed for over two months due to inclement weather, the Ferguson and Beyond Teach-In drew over 100 community members to Sudler Auditorium yesterday evening, where panelists discussed race relations and police brutality in America.
The event, which was open to the public, was hosted by the Department of African American Studies and the Yale College Dean’s Office. It featured seven panelists, including New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman, Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins, professor of political science and African American Studies Vesla Weaver, and Yale Black Men’s Union President Will Searcy ’16. Although the event was initially planned as a response to a jury’s decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown, panelists expanded the discussion to cover a wide range of social justice issues.
“Although Ferguson is beginning to become more of a distant past, it’s still incredibly relevant,” Searcy said to the audience.
He added that despite the distance between Connecticut and Missouri, the “seismic waves of injustice could still be felt in New Haven.”
The event began with each panelist expressing their own perspective on the issues of racial discrimination or policing based on their professional or academic background. Many also gave brief synopses of what they hoped to discuss in break-out sessions, where small groups of students discussed assigned issues such as policing in New Haven and at Yale, and the politics of protest art.
Professor of African American Studies, American Studies and history Crystal Feimster opened the event by discussing the U.S. Justice Department’s findings that there has been overt racial discrimination in Ferguson, and that there is an appreciable amount of bias.
Alexandra Barlowe ’17, one of the panelists who also spoke, said the discussion should be about more than just Ferguson.
“One of the things that black students are recognizing is that this is about so much more than Ferguson,” said Barlowe. “It’s about black people claiming their power … It’s about this really big picture of what black liberation really means.”
Weaver said instances like those in Ferguson stem from systemic poverty and inequity in the United States, not individual racism.
Students at the event echoed panelists’ hopes that action would follow from the discussions.
Alina Aksiyote ’16, who attended the event, said she hopes that these discussions mobilize people. She said that too often, after an event has taken place, no further action is taken, and that she hopes to see more activism on campus.
One of the panelists, professor of African American Studies and theater studies Daphne Brooks, spoke of the way in which issues of race relations manifest through protest art and activism. She touched on a range of works, including the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and Beyonce’s Grammy performance to illustrate ways in which activism manifests itself through art.
In addition, one of the major themes of the discussion was the role that police departments play in mitigating or exacerbating racial tensions.
Higgins noted that in order to make changes in urban communities, it is critical to both examine the way community members treat one another and to decide what the community expects of police officers. In spite of the widespread instances of police brutality against African Americans, both Higgins and Esserman said it is important to recognize that much of the crime in urban communities is committed by black men against other black men.
During the “Policing Yale Campus” break-out session Higgins also spoke about the issue of police militarization, saying that it is critical that police remember that they are guardians.
Esserman also stressed that police are not there to serve as an army, but rather to protect the community.
“As a police officer it’s not what you thought you signed up for,” said Esserman. “You didn’t think you sign up to be demonized, you didn’t think you signed up to be treated like an army occupation. You thought you signed up to make a difference.”