A panel of faculty, staff and students held a town hall discussion entitled “Mobilizing Student Dialogue: What happened in Ferguson? Could it happen here?” to address the shooting of Michael Brown. The event, sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Center for Civic Leadership, had more people in attendance than could be seated at Farnsworth Pavillion.
Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9. His death led to protests and continued unrest.
According to Felicia Martin, Associate Director of the CCL, the purpose of the town hall was to create a safe space for diverse perspectives and inquiry.
“We hope that this conversation will inspire you all to challenge your own assumptions and the assumptions that your peers might have about some of these issues,” Martin said.
Donald Bowers II (Hanszen ‘91), Association of Rice Alumni Board President, served as the moderator for the conversation. The event was divided into two parts; in the first, panelists presented on police brutality against people of color and, in the second, panelists answered audience questions.
Associate professor of history Alexander Byrd discussed the history of the killing of African-American youth in American history, according to Bowers. Byrd said students should educate themselves as scholar-activists.
“The methods of social control and the violence meted out to so-called New Negroes in the late 19th century is of a kind of similar type of violence that is often meted out to African-Americans now,” Byrd said. “I don’t think that 2014, in this context, is a new era.”
Associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese Luis Duno-Guttberg discussed criminalization of minorities and mass incarceration, as well as racial profiling.
“Racial profiling rests in a visual regime, [fed] by a series of cultural discourses that fit into seeing the other as the criminal,” Duno-Guttberg said. “This is not connected to a single policeman who is racist. There is a whole history that constructs that whole visual regime.”
Rice University Police Department Chief Johnny Whitehead said there are reasons other than bias to explain why events such as the Ferguson shooting occur, including poor training, lack of equipment, poor recruitment processes and lack of accountability when these events do occur. Whitehead also said he encourages students to know their rights during police encounters.
“There are some things that we can do when we have an encounter with a police officer, in terms of how we react,” Whitehead said. “Make sure that you’re doing everything to keep the encounter safe as well.”
The three student panelists included Rice Democrats Outreach Co-Chair James Carter, Women’s Resource Center Wellness Coordinator Michelle Pham and Will Rice College junior Abraham Younes.
“I’m proud to be black, but in recent years, being black has been something that has scared me a lot,” Carter said. “With what happened to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, it scares me that I can step outside my home and not come back because of some miscommunication, whether I made it or whether someone else [mis]understood it.”
Younes said a night when he was jaywalking and was passed by police caused him to draw parallels between his life and Brown’s. Brown had been walking in the the street when he was shot.
“How many more black boys and brown boys have to die before we realize that this is not about one cop?” Younes said.
Several audience members contributed to the discussion, causing the event to run longer than its planned 90 minutes.
Paige Polk, a Martel College senior, said she grew up surrounded by black males who were taught to regulate their behavior around authority figures and assumed that females were immune to discrimination. Polk said the discussion had been geared toward black and Latino men.
“Are the conversations we’re having about black and brown men because they do face more targeted oppression, or is it implicit of sexism?” Polk said.
Batter responded to Polk with a discussion on how men of color may behave a certain way in the presence of authority, and how social rules are taught to children. According to Batter, the way people of color must be aware of their behaviors from an early age indicates it has become their responsibility to respond to prejudice.
“Quite frankly, although I appreciate the comments about ‘This is what I have to do when I walk into a store,’ you shouldn’t have to do those things,” Batter said. “Nobody should have to do those things. If men are being told you have to do this so you don’t get killed, know that it’s your responsibility, that’s unconscionable. ”
Carter spoke after the event about engaging students who do not feel involved in issues such as Brown’s shooting.
“While you might look at a situation and say this has nothing to do with me, I’m not a black, young male in Missouri, that doesn’t mean that you or the people you care about are not affected,” Carter said. “Everyone is affected when things like this happen.”