Since the police killings of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, and the proceeding grand jury decisions not to indict, protests have rocked cities throughout the United States. The message of the protesters has been simple: Black Lives Matter. Given HEART’s commitment to social justice issues, it quickly became clear to me that we could not ignore what was happening on the streets all over America in our classrooms. We could not do lessons about stereotypes and bias-based bullying in schools without also addressing and facilitating discussions about stereotypes and bias in policing and in our country’s justice system.
Over the last several months, I have had the opportunity to do a handful of such lessons with high school students about police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. What has been clear in every instance is that students are deeply disturbed by the pattern of black people—especially young men—being the targets of police suspicion, and far too often, killings.
I usually begin the classes with an open forum, asking students what they have heard in the news and how they feel about it. We usually have to address some of the biases and misconceptions that come across in the mainstream news coverage of protests, as students tend to only hear about so-called “rioting,” with little context of the realities of nonviolent protest across the country.
We then look at several recent cases of unarmed black people who have been killed by the police since last fall. Most have heard of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, but almost none have heard of Darrien Hunt, a 22-year-old who was shot six times and killed in Saratoga Springs, Utah for carrying a toy sword. Or 22-year-old John Crawford who was shot and killed because he was holding and looking at a BB gun inside a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio. Or 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot in the stomach and killed, holding a toy gun on a playground in Cleveland.
One junior at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan responded by asking, “Why are they lynching us?”
I ask students why there appears to be such a pattern of police violence in African American communities. This usually leads to a rich and complex discussion of the ever-present stereotypes of black people, especially black men. Students are quick to point out that many people, including many cops, think black men are dangerous. Criminals. Drug dealers. Violent. One student explained how he has been followed around in stores before because the owner thought he might steal something.
After unpacking some of the common stereotypes, we move the discussion to accountability, and the often apparent lack of accountability, when it comes to police killing unarmed black people. To give students more context, we watch this informative short video about the outcomes of four infamous cases of American police brutality.
Students are angry after watching the video and grapple with why there have been such minimal, if any, consequences for police officers who have used force, sometimes lethal force, against unarmed black people.
One student at the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn, a young woman of color, was upset because she felt that others were implying that all cops are racist. She explained that an NYPD officer helped her when she was in trouble once, and that made a big difference in her life. Students went back and forth on whether cops are “good” or “bad,” and eventually, I tried to emphasize that regardless of the intentions (or race) of any particular police officer, we are seeing a trend of the targeting of black communities—and trying to understand why that is and what we can do about it.
We close each lesson by brainstorming how to change this pattern of violence. When we have time, I show them some photos and video footage from Black Lives Matters protests and interviews with organizers to inspire their ideas. We discuss why a movement might have called itself “Black Lives Matter” and why that might even be needed today, in 2015.
Students tend to have lots of ideas for solutions. At Washington Irving, multiple students suggested that the police department needs to be more diverse. “I know there are a lot of black cops,” one young woman explained, “but I don’t see them around my [mostly Black] neighborhood. If the cops understood our community and our culture better, that would make a big difference.”
Another student added that officers should receive better training—both on diversity issues and on how and when to use force. Another questioned whether all cops should even be carrying guns.
Time and time again, students point to the racism in our society at large as part of the root of the problem. “We can’t get rid of this issue [police violence] without ending racism in our broader society,” says another student.
As with many of the issues of injustice we address in our work at HEART, this is a daunting problem with no quick fixes. Hopefully by proactively bringing these discussions into the classroom, we are taking an important step in encouraging students to think critically about current events and ask important questions that will deeply affect the future of our country.
Photo Credit: Scottlum/Flickr