Notes From the Field: The fight for racial justice

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Connecticut Collaborative on Poverty, Criminal Justice & Race and other panelists discussed the relationships and intersections that have developed between people of color, the criminal justice system and police brutality, based on “Notes From The Field,” a play by Anna Deavere Smith through Zoom on Tuesday at 7 p.m. 

This was the fourth installment of the series, “One State One Film,” where participants watch a film on racism and have conversations on the issues of poverty, criminal justice, race and reimagining the criminal justice system. 

Smith starts off the play portraying Freddie Gray, a man who was arrested and later died in police custody due to spinal injuries. She then goes on to portray 17 other real first-person stories of interviewees from different backgrounds and perspectives about racial and criminal justice in “Notes From The Field.”  

“It was so beautifully intricate and the theater and language has a powerful way of taking horrific stories and making them so poetic so that we can receive them,” Councilwoman Trenee McGee said. “Quite often, if we were to see certain things, visually or hear them, it would be so hard to receive – we shut down, our triggers go up, things become very traumatic for us. But the way she interconnected every character – although different stories and 250 interviews that she literally condensed – what was so powerful to me was that it seemed like one big story.” 

McGee emphasized the play shows how as human beings and as a nation we have failed each other because of these persistent issues in our society. Enid M. Rey, chief executive officer of Our Piece of the Pie (OPP), an organization empowering youth through skill training, said the play is powerful because the combination of individual stories act as a call to leadership and need for change.  

Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Collaborative website.

 “I have two young sons,  three and one years old, and I personally at some point in time will have to have that conversation that my father had with me when it comes to interaction with the police,” Pastor AJ Johnson of the Urban Hope Refuge Church said. “I just feel like in this country at this moment I think we can do so much better than offering our young people these interactions with law enforcement like this. I’m not looking forward to having that conversation. I don’t ever want to have that conversation with my son. I hope that my sons won’t be viewed as Black, that they just be will be viewed as Americans and can be able to ride to any suburb or any town without being racially profiled.” 

Johnson also said he hopes to see more diversity among police officers and in executive roles at police departments. Rey added she has seen three instances where kids of OPP were killed due to police brutality. 

“Yes, I want to see more diverse officers, but my relatives who I know are cops are just as militaristic in their mindset as a White officer who doesn’t live in Hartford,” Rey said. “How do we introduce a different mindset in our community to really take our community back? And I got to tell you, this whole experience for people of color is being triggered every day when you turn on the news and see another case. For my friends that are non-people of color, it has been an awakening and it has been an affirmation that we people of color are not crazy – this stuff is really happening because it has been too easy for folks to dismiss it.” 

McGee agrees with Rey that the police department has become way too militarized. She said the phrase “defunding the police” may freak people out, but actually it would just mean reallocating funds. She said she’s seen thousands of dollars being dedicated to riot gear in Los Angeles, when in some areas, riot gear isn’t even needed. On the other hand, McGee said when investments are made to theater workshops or basketball tournaments, it’s seen as anti-police.  

“I just want there to be accountability and I think in order for there to be a sense of community and unity in the community, there has to be engagement and accountability,” McGee said.  “Yes, empathy, yes conversation, yes understanding but accountability. And I think that is where our justice system has failed us where police systems have failed, and it’s unfortunate but I think conversations like these really do start powerful movements.” 

David Embrick, an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at the University of Connecticut, said that the origins of law enforcement started with slave patrols and night watchmen that were built to control slaves during slavery. And then continued to target Black people in response to the fear that erupted after the Emancipation Proclamation.  

“As a sociologist, you know, I think we often get caught up in the whole ‘Let’s identify bad seeds and let’s identify bad apples.’” Embrick said. “And yes, of course, there are good apples and bad apples. But the reality is how do we sort of explain the continued persistent racism that occurs in our society where people go in and out of these institutions that are racialized.” 

“I think part of how we deal with it is changing already, and that is because our youth have a very different tolerance for these issues than people my age and people older than me,” Rey said. “They have already demonstrated through their activism and the raising of their voices in the Black Lives Matter movement and even through the elections. They are expecting a different solution. They’re not going to be satisfied by what has been considered kind of the appeasement of the past and the solution is not just a policy solution or advocacy solution, it’s one that focuses on the redistribution of resources.” 

Panelists agreed that redistribution of wealth is very necessary to see change in the criminal justice system. Johnson added that if a theater group or small organizations needed funding the government won’t be as willing to help out compared to a large business organization because they are not equally valued.  

“How do we as organizations collectively put our money together to start moving up that power pattern to be seen as equal to negotiate power,” Johnson said. “You know until that, we’re going to have single movements, we’re going to have movements that die out, but we have to figure out how to create the economic stability to keep a movement going. I’ve seen movements come and go.” 

Johnson also said there needs to be encouragement about education, particularly for students that go to community schools. He organized a program in Hartford where students in elementary schools are greeted by Black men on the first day of school to generate positivity about education and also organized a program to mentor 8th graders. According to Johnson, the education system puts students from lower-income neighborhoods at a disadvantage, especially in areas like standardized testing. Rey added it’s not that students don’t have the skills, but rather they don’t have the opportunity and exposure to grow and learn.  

“I don’t want you to just be an ally,” Rey said. “I want you to be a justice warrior for everyone – for yourself or communities of color, for the new community we’re trying to build. So we can have other conversations about inclusion, about the needs of youth who don’t have an opportunity and that we can focus on race.” 

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