A young black woman is standing with eyes wide and her mouth open, as if she is screaming. Her arms are thrown up in the air. A shirtless man is next to her, shielding his eyes with his red t-shirt. The two are overcome by tear gas. This photograph was just one of the many photos from the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri that were used as a backdrop at Wednesday evening’s panel discussion at Impact Hub in Oakland last week.
Two organizations, OPEN Conversation and 100 Black Men of the Bay Area, hosted the event to facilitate a discussion about the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager. 100 Black Men of the Bay Area is the local chapter of 100 Black Men of America. The members are professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. They mentor young people, and provide scholarships as well as a professional network for the Bay Area. OPEN Conversations is part of the larger non-profit, OPEN. Also aimed at professionals of color, the group holds events to discuss topics important to people in that community.
“The motivation for this talk was the events that happened in Ferguson, Missouri to Mike Brown and the fact that [there] wasn’t a lot of organized dialogue happening around the Bay Area,” said Marco Lindsey, chairman of public relations for the local chapter of 100 Black Men. “It is an issue that affects the black community. Oakland in particular has a very large black community. We see that and recognize that.”
Around 60 people night filled the first floor open space of Impact Hub, a co-working center in Uptown Oakland. Bay Area motivational speaker Karen Kennedy moderated the discussion. Two panelists, Dr. Candice Harrison and Dr. James Lance Taylor, Political Science and African American History professors from University of San Francisco (USF), a private Jesuit university, provided academic perspectives on black history.
The night primarily focused on historical events that have led up to the death of Brown in Ferguson. On August 9, Brown was shot and killed by a police officer; a grand jury is currently considering whether or not prosecutors can file charges against Officer Darren Wilson, who is white. Brown’s death sparked an immediate reaction among Ferguson’s black community, which soon spread nationwide. Protests escalated quickly in the St. Louis suburb, where local police used forceful tactics like tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
During part of the discussion, Taylor and Harrison agreed that historically blacks have been disproportionately linked to crime—unfairly criminalized by white law enforcement officers and society. Taylor said that black people have been especially linked to crimes such as homicide and rape since the 1800s. He also spoke of “black on black crime,” meaning crimes black people commit against one another, and said it was a made-up term by white society to frame black people as a violent race. “You can’t think of another population in this country by which a particular category of crime is known by the race of people,” said Taylor.
On the topic of policing in America, Harrison said white communities have controlled law enforcement—and that public opinion has been traditionally against the black community. Because of this, Harrison argued, police officers tend to respond to the broader community’s fear of black people. “Police officers themselves wind up responding to the community mentality instead of acting on their own,” she said. “Still to this day, in my estimation, our police officers are not held accountable for their own actions, because the weight of responsibility is on the community. ‘Well, we are doing this for the community. We are following community norms and values.’”
The panel discussed economic status and class, as well. Harrison said, “The victims of police brutality historically have been people from the working class and who are unemployed and poor.” She named other black men, such as Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a police officer in New York on July 17, when caught selling untaxed cigarettes; and John Crawford, who was shot to death at an Ohio Wal-Mart by police on August 5. Harrison pointed out that people who shop at Wal-Mart or are committing low-level crimes are usually working class or poorer. “Obviously, Mike Brown comes from the same background,” she added.
At the end of the hour-long discussion, the audience was invited to ask questions and provide comments. An older black man who identified himself as a product of the segregated South and the civil rights battles said, “I am more discouraged about the state of this country in 2014 than I was marching on Washington in 1963.”
OPEN Conversations and 100 Black Men will host two more future discussions that will focus on the legal system and what the Bay Area community can do to prevent the shooting deaths of black men like Brown.