By Rebecca Carrillo
“I can’t breathe.”
Three words, uttered almost six years after Eric Garner made them famous, is yet another painful reminder that the United States has not come close to putting an end to police brutality.
George Floyd couldn’t breathe as Officer Derek Chauvin forced his knee into Floyd’s neck, and this country can’t breathe as long as Black Americans are continuously targeted and murdered by the very people who are supposed to keep them safe.
According to a 2019 study, all people of color are at a significantly higher risk of being killed by the police than are White people, with Black men and women at the greatest likelihood of being killed. Another crucial finding is that Black people are more likely to be killed by police when they are unarmed than White people are when they too are unarmed. Evidence from statistics and videos taken by witnesses show time and time again that many police officers have either an implicit or explicit bias against Black people and can end up killing them because of it.
While George Floyd is not the first Black person to inspire global protests (nor will he likely be the last), his death—and particularly the video showing his death—did stir an unbridled outrage in millions of people over the injustices that Black Americans have been forced to deal with, beginning with their ancestors being captured and made into slaves and continuing with the painful, enduring aftereffects of slavery.
Although Floyd’s murder was perhaps surprising to those who have the priviledge of being able to forget how dangerous simply living can be for Black men and women, students of color at Worcester State have been conscious and cautious of this racial disparity for years.
Marcus Vaz, a rising junior, discusses what growing up Black in the U.S. looked like for him.
“The first memory I have about race is a positive one,” he says. “My parents sat me down and explained to me what it meant to be Black in order to instill pride in me.”
Vaz’s parents named their children after powerful Black activists in order for their children to learn, as early as possible, about examples of Black power and leadership.
“My middle names were named after Nelson Mandela and Cheikh Anta Diop [a Senegalese historian]. My parents wanted to make sure I knew about them and why I was named after them.”
Many American Black children have had these talks with their parents about their racial, ethnic, and cultural identity, in part so that they will have a base of confidence and assurance in themselves as they enter a world that is against them from the start, with both personal prejudices being held against them, as well as established systems that White people benefit from and Black people do not.
Vaz recalls how the stereotypes surrounding the color of his skin have affected him in day-to-day life.
“I’ve recognized that I am different from some people, and some people will see me differently. When I got to campus I knew not to smoke or drink or do anything like that. If I got caught, I think I would get a fine compared to a slap on the wrist like my White friends would get.”
Alex Paulino, a biology major at Worcester State and Quinsigamond Community College, has also witnessed his share of prejudices against Black people within the Latinx community, specifically within the Dominican population.
“Oftentimes, Black people in the Dominican won’t call themselves Black; they’ll call themselves Dominican instead and avoid the word ‘Black’ at all costs,” he explains.
Anti-Black sentiments have bled through countries for centuries and are influential enough to make some Black people deny their heritage and internalize racism towards themselves.
Although the American Latinx community, like Black Americans, are killed at a higher rate by police officers, colorism does exist and has benefited lighter-skinned Latino men such as Paulino.
Paulino says that he does not feel unsafe going out in public because of his ethnicity, emphasizing that the reason is “one hundred percent because I’ve got a lighter skin tone.”
The police officers who act on their biases against people of color and consequently kill them are obviously going to be more certain of a person’s race or ethnicity, either consciously or unconsciously, when that person fits the image of popular stereotypes. A Latino man who has darker skin is thus likely to be more easily profiled and perceived as dangerous than a lighter-skinned Latino man who could pass as White. This can give those who are White-passing an advantage.
Still, people like Kelvin San Miguel-Rivera, a rising junior at WSU who doesn’t “look like the stereotypical Hispanic person,” have still experienced racial slurs thrown their way before.
Even while being lighter-skinned compared to other Latinx people, San Miguel-Rivera has “encountered racist remarks like being called ‘spic’”.
Worcester State University has dealt with racist occurrences in the past. In the 2019 fall semester, there were two reported incidents of swastikas drawn in men’s restrooms in the library. For the Jewish community at WSU, these incidents are heart breaking.
Julia Wright, a rising junior at WSU and the Vice President of “Chabad,” WSU’s only Jewish club, explains, “The incidents regarding the two swastikas found on the WSU campus made me so upset, angry, terrified, and sad. It is so gut-wrenching that people still use this symbol.”
In response to the anti-Semitic graffiti, Worcester State held a “Rally for Unity” on February 13th, during which approximately 500 students gathered in the Wellness Center to listen to campus leaders and students discuss the hateful incidents they have personally experienced and how the graffiti had affected them.
“I feel that WSU did what they could following the incidents,” Wright explains. “They did have a rally regarding the hate we see on a daily basis and showed that WSU will not stand for it.”
Chabad is a great source of comfort and strength for those who are Jewish at WSU.
“[The club] definitely helped me in regards to feeling out of place at school,” Wright said. “It’s nice knowing other Jewish students and faculty and makes me feel more at home.”
Indeed, Worcester State is mainly seen as a place where differing cultures can come together and create empowering discussions in the classroom as well as a place that fosters learning about the difficulties that those from different backgrounds face. This is fitting. After all, isn’t one of the main objectives of universities getting their students to look beyond their own experiences and to challenge their own ideas to better understand others’ perspectives?
Regarding class dynamics and how WSU professors handle the different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds in their classrooms, students have only praise to give.
Vaz explained how in one of his classes he was pleasantly surprised when his professor started lecturing about African-American Vernacular English, also known as Ebonics.
“I’m happy the professors are teaching about Ebonics and that they’re understanding,” said Vaz. “Some people don’t think Ebonics is real English, so it’s hard for Black people to be taken seriously, especially by White people.”
Likewise, San Miguel-Rivera emphasized that the professors he has had have supported the racial and cultural diversity in their classrooms. They view it as a crucial part of the learning process instead of something that hinders it.
“I would say that in general, all the professors I have had have respected and embraced diversity,” said San Miguel-Rivera. “They also shed light on diversity as being helpful and good for different perspectives, as well as showing others a new way of thinking.”
While Worcester State fortunately has many compassionate and empathetic professors who inspire a more progressive atmosphere, much of the outside world isn’t nearly as accepting, as many students have been forced to realize, especially those of color.
Vaz, for example, has explicit and vivid memories of his parents sitting him and his little brother down in order to explain the most recent shooting of a Black person that was circulating on the news on a given day. Vaz has a striking memory of his parents discussing the murder of Tamir Rice, the twelve year old boy who was shot and killed by police officers while playing with a toy gun.
“My parents talked to my little brother and I about what happened, and that this is what it means to be Black in America. My parents dissected what happened with Tamir Rice and then encouraged me and my brother to do the same. We each gave our opinions on it.”
After Vaz’s parents had broken down cases like these piece by piece to their children, they made sure to emphasize exactly what to do when interacting with the police so that their sons would have a better chance of making it out alive and safe after doing so.
Vaz described the pieces of advice his parents drilled into him at a young age:
“When you’re with the police, put your hands up. Don’t get sassy. Don’t yell or argue. Just be polite. No attitude. Tell the police exactly what you’re gonna do when you go to reach for your license and registration.”
These rules are more than just guidelines that Vaz can either take or leave. For Black people in America, these rules can mean the difference between life and death. And even when a Black person does follow them all, they still might get killed.
Because of this uncertainty and fear surrounding people of color and the police, parents not only drill directions into the heads of their children when they’re young, but they continue to remind their adult children of the potentially deadly consequences of not doing everything perfectly around the police.
“Even now, my dad was telling me not to go to the protest because he thought I was gonna get arrested,” Paulino explained. “I think it’s based on ethnicity because my family has had trouble with the police before. My uncle owns a car dealership that’s broken into every now and then, but no one ever feels comfortable calling the police because the police won’t do anything for us.”
While Paulino’s father was more than justified in expressing his concern, many Americans across the country—the majority of them young—feel that they cannot simply stay in their houses and watch as the country is in the midst of a rebirth. They have been watching Black men and women being murdered by the police without a just cause since they were children. For them, to not speak up and contribute in some way is to be complicit in the deaths of these Black lives.
Discussing his decision to go to several protests surrounding George Floyd’s death, Paulino explained that he “had kinda got used to hearing about cases like George Floyd’s, until I saw the video. It was a lot more gruesome than I feel like anyone was used to. I have a very racially diverse family, of every color, and we don’t know who’s next.”
While the news has been reporting incidents of rioting and looting during the protests, as well as unnecessary aggression and violence by police officers, the protest Paulino went to in Worcester on June 1st was joyful instead and showed a city united, not torn apart.
“There were lots and lots of people there,” Paulino says. “It was very peaceful. It felt more like a parade than an actual protest.”
Even the rain, thunder, and lightning that lit up the sky could not quell the protestors’ spirits or their demands.
When questioned about the cop’s response, Paulino explained how the cops were not antagonizing the crowd but instead “blocked the roads so that we could march, and they just watched.”
Later in the night, however, nineteen arrests occurred and the police used smoke grenades to break up the crowds that had turned aggressive, according to the Worcester police.
Even with the possibility of violence breaking out, as was the case with the protests in Worcester, people like Vaz pushed through their fears, putting aside their concerns for their personal safety, and took to the streets to demand social justice.
Vaz, who went to the Framingham protest on June 3rd, was “nervous as hell, just because of what I’ve seen on the news with all of the brutality.” And yet his concern and support for the Black community was more than enough to outweigh his anxiety.
“I feel like it’s up to the Black community to really make a difference and to start a change,” said Vaz. “You can’t depend on other people to make the change for you. Even if there is a risk of being injured, I still wanted to go.”
Fortunately, Vaz’s experience with the protest was a positive one. He recalled police officers talking with the protesters about police brutality and also cheering for the protesters, which he found surprising.
Stories like these, with the police and protesters on the same side and with the same goal are heartwarming and may inspire the public to believe that the murders of Black people are simply due to a few “bad apples” in an otherwise good bunch. However, if this argument prevails, police brutality will never be stopped, and Black people and other people of color will continue to be needlessly murdered. It has to do with more than just a few “bad cops.” It has to do with the entire criminal justice system: how police departments recruit officers, what their training is like, and how their systems hold officers accountable. Of course, it also has to do with how people of color are viewed in the United States, and how media, stereotypes, and history are indoctrinating the American people in regards to how minority groups in the U.S. are like and how they should be treated.
Jessie Wallace, a student at Bristol Community College, has first-hand experience of police acting aggressively. Wallace protested in Boston on May 31st, and what started out as a peaceful gathering quickly turned into a chaotic, fervent situation as day turned to night.
“We tried to get out at 8:30, and that’s when the police started blocking off roads,” Wallace said. “From what I saw, the police were corralling people at that point and instigating violence and pushing people back. A lot of the people protesting weren’t there to be violent, but the crowd got frustrated when the police were corralling us in.”
Despite the efforts taken by some to belittle the protesters, there is no doubt that the protests have caused massive changes to occur in just a few weeks. Activists have been trying to get some of these changes, like defunding the police, done for years, and yet the protests accomplished these seemingly lofty goals in an incredibly short span of time.
First, all four officers involved in George Floyd’s death were arrested, with Chauvin being charged with one count each of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The other three officers were charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder and manslaughter.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, facing intense pressure from his constituents, pledged to cut the funding of the NYC police department and give the money to social services in the city, such as youth outreach programs. Likewise, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced that $12 million of Boston’s police budget would be given to social services during the next fiscal year.
Perhaps most significant change though was the Minneapolis city council announcing that it will begin work on dismantling the police force in the city in an effort to create a new, community-based, public safety model. Whether or not you agree with this type of reform, it is undeniable that the power of the people has been, and continues to be, the most impressive and formidable part of America.
Students are aware of the control they have over potential change in this country and are eager to someday receive the benefits of their passion and efforts. Mostly, these students are impatient for broad, sweeping measures that transform how the police handle situations as well as changes to how people of color are viewed and treated in the U.S.
Wallace emphasizes the need for this momentum to continue during small elections.
“I hope people are gonna go out to vote, especially in small elections, because it’s really about the local leaders who are able to make change and keep the police officers accountable.”
She also wants more White people to become involved in putting an end to police brutality.
“I just feel like a lot of leaders in this country don’t take Black people’s voices seriously, so I think it’s really important for privileged people to stand up for the oppressed so that we get people in power to listen.”
Likewise, San Miguel-Rivera expressed his desire to “see change in our systems, as well as change in people’s perspective about privilege. I want to see change in all the systems where racism takes place, not because the people want to be racist, but because the structure has made it so that the workers are part of a bigger problem than they even know.”
Paulino wants police officers to be held accountable, in part by having “an independent investigation bureau to actually investigate police crimes.” In addition, Paulino says that “police brutality statistics aren’t as clear as people want. The information about who are repeated offenders isn’t public.”
On June 12, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did just that, repealing a decades-old law that kept police officers’ discipline records private. This could add some measure of accountability for police officers in the state. This is a move in the right direction, but there is more that could be done.
Vaz believes that real action needs to come out of the recent protests.
“There are people who say they’re for the Black community, but it’s all talk. They need to add action to their words. I do think that having conversations can work, but you need to have action to make a real change. I think we need to do both.”
Real change comes from throwing oneself into uncomfortable situations. Change cannot occur through people who are only half-heartedly against racism in order to keep up appearances. People who idly stand by while their friends tell racist jokes are joining in the inaction. If you believe in something, you cannot afford to drag your feet on acting upon it. Just as the three officers who helped Officer Chuavin restrain Floyd are still guilty in aiding his murder, those who are not striking back against systemic racism are still guilty of protecting and sustaining it. As this country has seen in the last few weeks, when people do show up in masses to protest police brutality, it sends an incredibly powerful message to our leaders that the people of this country will not allow injustice to continue any longer. For systemic racism and violence at the hands of police to end, the protests and outcry must not end when the anger eventually subsides. Everyone across the U.S. will need to commit to fighting—not just when there are protests and public outcry but every day—against official institutions and casual remarks that fan the flames of hatred and brutality which have long been present in this country.