A panel of college professors memorialized Black Lives Matter and the movement’s icons, Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. At the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) annual conference in Philadelphia, these professors praised Black Lives Matter’s activism and criticized police officers.
Ashley Perez, an Ohio State associate professor of comparative studies, mentioned she had to rewrite her latest book, “Out of Darkness,” because at the time, “the Black Lives Matter movement did not yet exist” and she had to live “in the shadow of Trayvon Martin’s death.” She claimed that this “robust activism has brought about [progress]…this movement has changed for what is possible for [her book].” To her, America has a “post-racial or post-racist society [with] painful continuities between past and present.”
She said, “Like Trayvon Martin, because George Zimmerman believed that his black body didn’t belong in a gated community…white supremacy [manifests] itself.” Perez continued, “As in Trayvon Martin, [the] state’s indifference enables racist violence” against black Americans. She blasted the oft-used narrative of “shortcomings or alleged criminal activities” whenever a black American is killed by a white American, which she said was a tactic dating back to the lynching days of the South.
Perez referred to black American poet Langston Hughes’s poem, “Bouquet,” and a specific phrase in the poem “underscores the need to make something beautiful from the very depths of despair.” To her, “The emergence of Black Lives Matter activism…could demand readers attention to justice in 2017.” In her mind, “Imaginatively entering diverse realities will help us understand what America was and is.” She said, it could lead to understanding “current racism” and “current anti-racism activism” in America.
Elizabeth Wheeler spoke next, who is an associate professor of English at the University of Oregon, and focused her remarks on Freddie Gray’s past and police brutality. She claimed that Freddie Gray suffered from lead poisoning as a child and it led to the development of learning disabilities. As a result, “For Gray, the slow violence of mental illness, culminated in the sudden violence of police.” She added, “He died at the hands of the Baltimore police” and blamed the city. She said, “In the absence of a prosthetic community, the Baltimore police stepped in as a sorry substitute” for the black community and for the likes of Gray. Wheeler quoted author D. Watkins, “Poverty, injustice and reading comprehension issues go hand in hand, like White cops and innocent verdicts.”
Not recognizing the poverty created by decades of Democratic Party governance in Baltimore, Wheeler criticized the lead poisoning problems that Baltimoreans faced. She quickly turned to police brutality and criticized the police officers for “arresting Freddie Gray for running away from them.” She continued, “The officers drove Gray around without a seat belt, making four stops while making a plea for medical attention… All the officers were acquitted of wrongdoing in the case.” Wheeler lamented, “During that rough ride in the van, the criminal justice system …denied him of care.” She blamed “the environmental racism that caused his disabilities in the first place.” Wheeler noted, “The criminal justice system has become the only sorry substitute for disability services.” She said, “With a strong prosthetic community in place…Freddie Gray could have lived a long life.”
To Baltimore’s police force, “Making arrests has been the easiest path to promotion,” said Wheeler. She said, “African-American bodies supplies the numbers” for police and promotions, but also said that “the war on drugs opened the door to arrest without probable cause.” Then-Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley did not escape her ire, “O’Malley, seeking statistics for his bold run for higher office” had pushed for stringent policing. She quoted the same author, D. Watkins, who said, “Police have been consistent terrorists in our neighborhood.” She concluded and said that Freddie Gray was not in school because “he was running away from the police” and “caught in the cycle of Baltimore PD’s catch and release.” Wheeler said, “Most of the cases did not result in conviction and his family paid thousands of dollars in bail” and “the only job training he received was behind bars.”
Wheeler pointed out, “Unlike white heroines in YA [young adult]” novels, black Americans “won’t make it to a sequel.” In her mind, “children’s blood had to become quantifiable data” to make a difference. Baltimore’s neighborhood called “Sandtown” demonstrated “the flow of capital, the flow of liquidity” in the form of “young black bodies.” She criticized Baltimore’s politicians, “non-residents profit from Sandtown” through “electoral politics.” She claimed, “predatory finance companies” prey on the poor of Baltimore and alleged that Freddie Gray sold his lead poisoning settlement of around six figures for $18,000 to one of these companies.
Samira Abdur-Rahman, University of San Francisco literature professor, referred to the Sandra Bland case, where a black woman was shot and killed by a police officer after a traffic stop. The case led to the “Say My Name” activist campaign. Abdur-Rahman said that this campaign was to act as counter-narrative of forgetting black women and policy brutality against them. She said, “I’m not suggesting a disengagement of public discourse…and police brutality,” but that this is a new “way to think of black [culture].”
She criticized “the militarization of police, which received increasing attention…in Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Mike Brown.” She asked the audience, “Was the SWAT style invasion of the home in the need to create compelling hour of television?”
Abdur-Rahman lamented, “Despite the evidence of anti-police brutality activists,” the counter-narrative died as the media carried the main narrative of Black Lives Matter versus the police. She wondered if “outside of the logic of colonization…of being armed with blackness” and if it has an effect on the reporting of police brutality.