Dear AU Community,
Noose or knee, lynching or suffocation, the result is still death at the hands of the very law enforcement institutions meant to serve and protect. We have all seen the gruesome video of the last minutes of George Floyd’s life, lying on the ground in Minneapolis, handcuffed, helpless, clearly within police officer control and custody, yet with one officer’s knee still planted forcefully on his neck, holding him down while he cries, sobs and begs for his life, pleading that he could not breathe. “Please Momma, I can’t breathe.” His death rips at our hearts. The officers’ callous and reckless indifference to human life shocks our conscience. Yet, it’s not unique. George Floyd was just the latest in a long history of police brutality and excessive deadly force, and a history of vigilante-style murders of innocent men, women, and children of color, a history that has sparked the “Black Lives Matter” movement. A couple of weeks earlier, it was Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
Some have said, “this is not the America I know.” Unfortunately, it appears to be the America we have. It is an America with a deep and long issue with race, an America first experienced by blacks–as slaves. Our notions of equality are contaminated by history. While the Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created equal,” those words were written by a slave owner. The word “men” did not include blacks. To the extent there was any confusion about that, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1857 in the Dred Scott case that slaves were not “citizens” under the Constitution. They had no rights of citizenship; they were chattel. And while that notion was changed by the adoption of the 13th and 14th Amendments and The Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, in 1868, they were followed by a century of Jim Crowe laws that enforced racial segregation. Those laws had court protection resulting from the US Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, (1896) that “separate was equal.” That was the law of the land for another 58 years until Brown v. Board of Education, (1954) in which the Court held that “separate was inherently unequal” giving blacks the full and equal protection of the laws. And even then, it took federal legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to put any muscle behind those words.
But while the laws have changed over our tortuous history, culture has not kept up. Many still regard America as a white, Christian nation, in which others are not true citizens but mere subjects, and interlopers. Even our immigration policies favor whites. For many, “equal protection” is a nice notion, but some people are more equal than others. Black men are ten times more likely to be killed by police than white men. Jogging while black can be deadly. Walking through a white neighborhood to buy Skittles while black, can be deadly. Playing with a toy gun while black will get you shot and killed before the police exit their car. But storming the state house of Michigan, armed with an arsenal of AR-15’s and other semi-automatic rifles results in no police action. This is what white privilege looks like.
Some have argued that what is needed is a deep conversation about race relations in this country, not more policy and legislation. But, I believe it’s both. We need immediate changes to our law enforcement systems. Police hiring and training need to change now. Police officer discipline needs to be reformed with national standards, and national licensure. Police fired in one jurisdiction must not be allowed to be hired in another jurisdiction. We have a “few bad cops” for a reason; they move around. Decisions about whether to criminally indict police officers for brutality and murder must be removed from those officials with the clearest conflict of interest, the local prosecutor’s office. And police brutality should be made a federal offense litigated in federal courts.
Changes in culture will require strong national leadership, something that is now woefully lacking. Culture starts at the top. Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, fought hard in Brown v. Board of Education for a 9-0, unanimous decision and he got it. He knew that any dissent in the opinion would lead to widespread civil unrest. The same is true today; the winks and nods to white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazi organizations fuel the culture of hate and the culture of police brutality.
We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the culture of police brutality and racially motivated excessive force in this country. We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the culture of racial supremacy, hate-filled racist ideology, and violent actions that are part of our historical legacy and still part of our culture. We call upon our state and national leaders to take swift action to improve our institutions of law enforcement and justice and to unequivocally condemn racism, bigotry, and intolerance that continue to infect our culture as a nation.
As an academic institution, we will work as a community to continue discussion, debate, and dialogue around these important policy and cultural issues. Each campus has worked on various forums and groups for this purpose and I will work with the University faculty and administration to determine what else Antioch University can do in this regard to foster social justice and a culture of equality. Please look for more announcements over the next weeks about these and other opportunities to share your experiences, your civic engagement, and your perspectives.
I know that many of you are hurting in a year already marred by pandemic, economic stress, and political tensions. My heart goes out to you. Just know that you have a safe place at Antioch University and, despite our social distancing, we stand with you and continue to care deeply about you. Together, we will succeed in making America the kind of country we want to pass on to our children.
In deep sorrow and resolve,
William R. Groves, JD