Oberlin Holds Teach-in on the George Floyd Uprising
June 16, 2020
Individuals in the Oberlin College community joined the virtual presentation of “After Minneapolis: A Teach-In on the George Floyd Uprising,” led by Oberlin faculty members on June 9, 2020.
Moderated by Gina Perez, professor of comparative American studies, the cross-departmental discussion was prompted by the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the subsequent social uprising.
The hour-long panel session included presentations by six faculty members and served as a space for faculty to share their perspectives and insights about the recent events, along with information and context for understanding the history of white supremacy in the United States, as well as the ongoing calls for justice that are currently taking place across the country. Through their presentations, the panelists demonstrated that systems of racial and social control are actually nothing new in the United States.
In individual talks, both Matthew Rarey, assistant professor of art history, and Charles Peterson, associate professor of Africana studies, examined the media’s framing of the events in recent weeks.
Using historical photographs, paintings, and images from today, Rarey challenged viewers to resist the urge to classify images from the protests as “depictions of baseless black anger,” explaining that, “Actions by black protesters and artists are often, if not always, occurring in the context of deep histories of colonial violence, directed at specific locations and memories.”
Peterson examined the concept of “militant black action” and explained that, in most cases, certain types of civil disobedience have been interwoven with militant action. “I encourage you to not fall into the idea that it’s a sign of a lack of control or is a complete contradiction to how African peoples have been fighting for their freedom for the past 400 years,” he said.
Both Renee Romano, professor of history, comparative American studies, and Africana studies, and Jenny Garcia, assistant professor of politics and comparative American studies, each see the possibility for sustained change as a result of the recent events.
Romano said that the current events feel historically familiar, but the movement also feels new and disruptive. She cited a recent striking shift in attitudes, explaining that the number of Americans who say that racism and discrimination is a big problem in the U.S. is up 26 points since 2015. “It feels like this could be a historical moment,” she says. “This is everyone’s fight for justice and a truly democratic country.”
Garcia explained that she sees possibilities for real change, citing research that examines how emotions, particularly anger, are important when it comes to participating in politics. Garcia said that political research has shown that when there are greater levels of anger among black individuals, it translates into greater political protests and demonstrations, similar to what we’re seeing now.
Assistant Professor of Politics David Forrest offered a glimpse into Floyd’s home town of Minneapolis and the city’s widespread efforts during the last 30 years to gentrify low-income neighborhoods. He also gave an overview of the city’s collective organizers who have helped bring about recent social change.
Justin Emeka, associate professor of theater and Africana studies, closed the presentations by reminding the Oberlin community that they are part of a legacy—Oberlin has essentially been part of the Black Lives Matter movement since the 19th century. He suggested that if individuals want to contribute to social change, there are some steps they should take, including studying the history of black people, examining policies for fairness, and investing in changing hearts and minds.
Watch the Teach-In
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity by the participants.
Gina Perez: So, good afternoon everyone and thank you for joining us for this important conversation titled “After Minneapolis: A Teach-in on the George Floyd Uprising”.
My name is Gina Perez, and I am professor and interim chair of the department of comparative American studies here at Oberlin. And it’s truly an honor to be here and to be your discussant this afternoon for what I know will be a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion with six of our distinguished faculty.
The grim reality of the recent police killing of George Floyd is sadly what brings us here together today. And our goals with this teach-in are to provide a space for faculty to share their perspectives and insights about the recent events, as well as other important information and contexts for understanding the history of white supremacy in the United States, as well as the ongoing demands for justice that are taking place across the country today.
All of our panelists comments today will demonstrate that systems of racial and social control are not new to this country. And while recent protests and organizing and responses reflect the incredible rage and frustration and anger that many of us feel, this moment is also an invitation to recognize what my colleague Professor Meredith Gadsby reminded me of this morning, which is Audre Lorde’s important insights about the restorative power of anger.
It is this restorative power of anger that I would argue informs not only the work that we do and come together with you to share with all of you today, but it also informs the sentiment shared by civil rights attorney and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, who recently observed on her reflections of the past two weeks that, “Our only hope for our collective liberation is a politics of deep solidarity rooted in love.” So, it is this restorative, righteous anger as well as hope that guide our conversations today.
I will begin by introducing each the speakers in the order of their appearance.
We will begin with Professor Matthew Rarey, who is an assistant professor of art history. He teaches and researches African and Black Atlantic visual culture and representations of enslavement from the 17th century through the present.
Professor Charles Peterson is associate professor of Africana studies. His research in teaching interests include Africana philosophy, film, and Africana political and cultural theory.
Professor Renee Romano is the Robert S. Danforth professor of history and professor of comparative American studies and Africana studies. She writes and teaches about white supremacy, racial violence, and the legacies of long-standing historical injustice.
Professor David Forrest is assistant professor in the politics department. He studies social movements and the politics of inequality in the United States.
Professor Jennifer Garcia is an assistant professor of politics and comparative American studies. Her research and teaching focus on American political institutions and race and ethnic politics.
And Professor Justin Emeka is associate professor of Africana studies in theater. He is a director, writer, and actor in Capoeirista who teaches courses in directing and writing here at Oberlin.
Matthew Rarey: Thank you everyone for the invitation to speak, and for allowing me to share some thoughts on the images of the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
In a photograph taken on the night of May 27th, a participant in the uprising playfully poses in front of a burning AutoZone in Minneapolis. In the ensuing days, this image and others making use of the stark contrast of dark night skies, black skin, and burning buildings, proliferated in social and mainstream media where they documented the smoldering awesomeness of Black rage.
Three days after this photo was taken, activist Tamika Mallory castigated white Americans for their perceptions of the protests as unprecedented or unrestrained. “America has looted Black people,” she said. “America looted the Native Americans when they first came here. Looting is what you do. We learned it from you. We learned violence from you, and if you want us to do better, then, dammit, you do better.”
I want to build on Mallory’s point through the work of bell hooks, Christina Sharpe, Simone Browne, Krista Thompson, and other Black visual theorists who tell us that the work of dismantling white supremacy can’t be disentangled from the work of interrogating the proliferation of the media meant to serve it.
Images remain crucial to the project of erasing explicit antiblack violence. This painting from 1655 depicts at lower right a group of enslaved Africans in northeastern Brazil [Brazilian Landscape with a Worker’s House by Frans Post]. Framed against a pastoral background, the artist’s emphasis on the Africans’ docility and merriment makes it seem as if their labor is natural, even beautiful. In so doing, this image obscures the violence committed by white slavers and erases indigenous claims to the land and its care. I submit that this is actually an image of explicit antiblack violence precisely because it does not appear to be as such.
Yet Black people in this hemisphere have long strategically and artistically protested these forms of violent erasure. Between 1957 and 1972, a section of Interstate 10 was constructed above Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, which was then the oldest Black main streets in the country. Despite residents’ objections, the government bulldozed 500 homes and closed many businesses, destroying the community’s lifeblood. A major economic slump followed in the area, which in turn led to increased policing of Black residents who had stayed. Jobs and social services disappeared, too. But each year on St. Joseph’s night, New Orleans’ Black Mardi Gras Indians march up and down this section of Claiborne Avenue, their music and song echoes under the highway. This sequined, feathered form of reclamation was particularly strong in 2018, when the Creole Osceola tribe presented striking images of U.S. national symbols on their suits while defiantly stopping traffic on the avenue.
Over the coming months, experience tells us that white supremacists’ ideologies will find a way to weaponize the stark and fiery images of so-termed “property destruction” that resulted from protests. Indeed, they always have.
This engraving [Révolte des Négres à St. Domingue by G. Jacowick] from 1796 depicts the early stages of the African revolt against the white planter regime in what is now Haiti. The cacophony of bodies and plumes of smoke served to confirm upper class French viewers’ perception of Blackness as inherently unrestrained in the absence of white surveillance. But the engraver lies to himself: those hills in the background look far less like than the Haitian landscape then like piles of refined sugar, themselves the products of enslaved laborers. In the words of activist L.S. Pearce: “So when I hear people complain about the riots… or rather, the REVOLT… I hear people crying, ‘But why would you burn down your own plantation?’”
White violence so often manifests as banal and quotidian. We must be ready to call out the centuries of narratives carefully constructed by those in power, which urge us to interpret images like that with which I began as depictions of apolitical, generic, and baseless Black anger. Resist that urge, because actions by Black protestors and Black artists occur in the context of long, location-specific histories of colonial violence. Look carefully, listen intently, and continue to fight against the invisibility of violence on which we all live.
Charles Peterson: Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for this opportunity and I’m proud and pleased to be here.
I want to pick up in a certain way on Professor Rarey’s point about the question about, in quotes, “violence,” and I want to think about the ways in which the events of the past week and a half have been framed by the media, the questions of violence, or what’s happening in the streets, or the destruction of property. And I also want to think about it briefly in terms of what I think about as a misuse of Martin Luther King Jr. There’s this media desire to show some image of a building burning and then quote King, as if King would, from his resting place look down in shame and disappointment at contemporary Black activists. Certainly, King was not an advocate of what we would call violence, but he certainly was an advocate of direct action, or civil disobedience. The media would have us believe that King did not believe in some sort of social disruption, and that’s not the case. So, in that sense, I think the activists today are in line with him.
But I want to speak and think about how this thing we call violence, or militant black action, is a very real, and a very long and enduring part of the struggle of African-descended peoples within the United States. And much of it is grounded in an understanding of the implacability of white supremacy, and the implacability of those institutions, and the failure of those institutions, say post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction, that were unwilling to deliver upon the promises of freedom. We can look at the earliest rebellions in the 17th century. We can think about the rebellions in the 18th century we can think about, what I believe, arguably, the first theorist of militant action David Walker, and his writings in 1827.
We also have someone I’m studying now, Ida B. Wells, who advocated for self-defense in the face of lynching. We certainly have to take very seriously within the Civil Rights movement not just the Black Panther Party, which most people know about, but we also have to think about the Deacons for Justice, a militant self-defense group in Louisiana. And I think most notably, and unheralded, Robert Williams of Monroe, North Carolina who, as a member of the NAACP, armed and organized his followers.
So that’s an important point but what we have to realize is that these instances are assertions of an idea about Black humanity, which is going unrecognized by white supremacists’ violence. So, David Walker argues Black humanity in light of a Christian-based belief. Africans are the children of God, and inherently should be granted certain respect. Ida B. Wells is attempting to reclaim and fight for—literally fight for—the rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. And El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, in his articulations for Black self-defense, stood upon the ground of the fundamental human rights that Black people have. And these are human rights as understood and established in the post WWII period with the rise of the United Nations and its various doctrines. So, it’s important to understand that in most cases certain types of civil disobedience have been aligned with and interwoven with, complementary to, militant action, or what we call armed aspects or militant struggle. This is important in terms of understanding how the media will frame this. How you hear certain political thinkers or politicians frame this. And I think it’s important going forward to understand that is a tool in the traditional toolbox of Black activists. That this is something that I would not be surprised if it moved in certain conditions. Understand that this is part of a tradition. There very disciplined, very specific actions that can take place, but I encourage you not to fall into the idea that these are people wilding in the streets. Or this is a sign of lack of control. Or this is some sort of action that is in complete contradiction to the ways in which African peoples in the United States have been fighting for their freedom over the past 400 years.
Renee Romano: Thank you.
The events of these past two weeks have felt to me distressingly familiar: another chapter of the nation’s very long history of white supremacy and racial violence. But the protests and demonstrations around the country, the incredible leadership and work by young people of color in demanding systematic change, and the impact these demands are already having, feels to me somewhat new and different. So, in my brief comments I want to try to put both the familiar and what feels new in historical context.
George Floyd’s murder is further reminder that this country has never grappled with or effectively addressed this centrality of racism, white supremacy, and antiblackness in its history. We have never effectively undermined or fully displaced the ideologies of racial difference or the stereotypes of Black criminology that developed as a result of the history of slavery.
Those ideologies still shape our political systems, our institutions, attitudes of both implicit and explicit bias. We have never offered meaningful reparations or economic compensation for slavery or Jim Crow, and instead, over and over again we have seen policies and practices that protect and augment the privileged economic position of whites.
When I see the video of Derek Chauvin looking straight into the camera while in the act of murdering George Floyd, I think of lynching photographs where crowds of white people stand looking into a camera, with a Black body hanging in the background. They could look straight into a camera because they had no fear they would be held legally accountable for their actions. They knew that in the United States there was widespread acceptance of racial violence to construct, maintain, and uphold white supremacy,
Yet this history has long been ignored, denied, and obscured by white people in the United States. And historically this denial, this unwillingness of white Americans to acknowledge and recognize the depth and extent or systematic racism and racial violence has been one of the key ways in which white supremacy has been upheld and maintained.
In his 1963 masterpiece The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin despaired of whites’ unwillingness to recognize the reality of racism in America. White people, he wrote, “have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it, and do not want to know it.” This willful ignorance has only gotten worse in the years since the Civil Rights movement, as the nation embraced a mythology of racial progress that portrayed civil rights laws as rooting racism out of public life.
So, when I look at what is happening in the country today, I see familiar patterns of violence, but I also see a disruption of the capacity of people to remain ignorant and to deny the reality of systemic racism. In the past few weeks there’ve been protests in nearly every American state, in cities, small towns, suburbs, and rural areas. The number of Americans who say racism and discrimination is a big problem in the United States is up 26 points since 2015. The Washington Post reported that over two-thirds of Americans believe George Floyd’s killing reflects broader problems in policing. After the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, two-thirds of whites insisted that his killing had nothing to do with race. And we’re not just seeing a change in polls but momentum for political positions that until now had rarely been discussed in the mainstream, like the defunding of the police.
These changes are due to the incredible activism of the contemporary Black freedom struggle and especially the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been fighting to bring attention to systemic racism and to force Americans to reckon with the nation’s history of racial violence. It is due to their work that more Americans today are facing up to the existence and persistence of systemic racism and beginning to take action to change things.
So, it feels to me this could be a historical moment, and I urge you all to be part of this history and not to just watch it from the sidelines. Get involved in whatever way you can, because this is everyone’s fight for justice and for a truly democratic country.
GP: Next is David Forrest.
David Forrest: What happened in Minneapolis on the evening of May 25th was nothing new. For the last 30 years, officers like Derek Chauvin have acted as the foot soldiers in an elite-driven, city-wide effort to gentrify neighborhoods like Powderhorn Park, the historically diverse and low-income neighborhood where George Floyd was killed. A study in 2015 showed that Minneapolis PD aggressively targets these neighborhoods, using low level offenses as a pretense to detain Black youths, homeless people, and other allegedly suspect individuals. The killing of George Floyd was but an extreme instance of this more general pattern.
But if what happened to Floyd was nothing new, what was new was the response that followed. The uprising that has followed Floyd’s death is the biggest that Minneapolis has seen since at least 1967, when young African Americans in north Minneapolis rebelled against the continued marginalization of their communities by demonstrating and by burning several properties. What’s more, today’s uprising has drawn in a much larger and more diverse group of residents. And it has already provoked an unprecedented response from local officials.
When moments like this happen, moments that mark a potential sea change in the politics of the city, it’s important to step back and ask how they happened. In particular, it’s important to ask how ordinary people helped to bring them about. Because contained within the answer to that question are some general lessons about how to affect substantial bottom-up change in American politics.
In this particular case, if you look beyond the headlines, you’ll find that since the Great Recession, a growing collective of organizers have really broadened and radicalized progressive politics in Minneapolis.
These organizers have helped to dismantle popular acquiescence to the city’s increasingly unequal and highly racialized political economy. They have developed a large and a diverse community of activists who possess the capacity to break rules and build majorities in support of egalitarian change.
By the time of Floyd’s death, this community of activists were already among the nation’s most engaged participants in protests against police brutality and other inegalitarian practices, such as exclusionary zoning, eviction, and wage theft. They also helped to elect and influence a new cohort of local officials, who have further stoked popular opposition to the status quo. People like city council members Steve Fletcher and Jeremiah Ellison, themselves former organizers, have led successful charges to eliminate single-family zoning, create inclusionary zoning, increase subsidies for affordable housing development, provide free legal assistance to renters, mandate paid sick leave, and most recently, begin the process of redesigning institutions of public safety.
On their own, these localized reforms are not enough to reverse growing and racialized inequality or to save lives like George Floyd’s. They do, however, further legitimate the aspirations for a better world witnessed in the events like the George Floyd uprising.
To be clear, I am not trying to suggest that organizers are solely responsible for Minneapolis’s recent political shifts. A series of social crises have also played a major role. But organizers have accelerated and channeled the popular displeasure unleashed by these various crises.
How did they do it?
First, they have learned how to embrace and defend abolitionist demands, including, for example, demands for divestment from the police, or for the expansion of public housing. These demands outline far-reaching but realistic paths towards abolishing mass incarceration, gentrification, and other oppressive systems. They raise people’s expectations for a better world and push against ideologies that make these expectations seem ridiculous or unworkable.
Second, many organizers in Minneapolis have coached themselves to deploy instructive rhetoric, which clearly describes and politicizes the systems targeted by abolitionist demands. This rhetoric works not by shaming or guilting regular people but by educating them. It redresses public ignorance about social arrangements holding down large numbers of individuals and clarifies the moral justification for dismantling these arrangements.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they’ve embraced a commitment to grassroots mobilization. That is to the recruitment of a large majoritarian base, rather than a smaller group of already committed or professional activists. Over the long haul, this approach to mobilization both makes their efforts more democratic and lays a clear path to forging winnable conflicts around their demands.
GP: Thank you Professor Forrest. We’ll now turn to Professor Jennifer Garcia.
Jennifer Garcia: I study race and ethnic politics and American political institutions, which generally means a bulk of my time is focused on trying to figure out how to dismantle systematic biases and racism within these institutions. Thinking through that lens and about what’s happening today, I see some opportunities of change that could actually materialize.
I’m going to talk about anger and the role that anger plays in the political mobilization and political participation in kind of a different way than it’s been talked about thus far.
There’s new work in political science that shows that emotions, in particular anger, are incredibly important when it comes to participating in politics. However, how Black and white Americans’ anger influences their participation varies. We know, first of all, that white Democrats tend to report greater anger at the political process and the political opposition then Black Americans. Black Americans tend to report more resignation. And what we end up seeing is that when we have greater levels of political anger among white Americans, this tends to translate into greater voter turnout. In contrast, under certain circumstances when Black anger is evoked, it produces more participation in political protests and demonstrations–like what we’re seeing right now.
What [University of California, Irvine assistant professor of political science] Davin Phoenix has showed is that under particular conditions—when we see police violence occurring, when we have Black political activists that are successful at encouraging African Americans to express their anger and not push it aside and not have to stay within the constraints of not being “angry while Black,” but being able to exert their anger and use it towards political purposes—we see Black participation actually increase in great amounts. The question really becomes, how do we then take this really strong and important momentum that we’re seeing happening all across the country and translate it into sustained mobilization, mobilization that actually has the possibility to change these kinds of outcomes that we’re seeing? And I think we have a few reasons for optimism.
First is that, among African Americans and whites, from age 30 and younger, the anger gap is insignificant. And what we’re hoping this means is that there will be less disparities in political participation between Blacks and whites.
Second, new technologies continue to provide images of police brutality and racism directly to the people and Trump et al. continues to invoke racial animus. This has the potential to help sustain political mobilization by, at least in part, continuing to fuel anger. And there are skilled Black political activists trying to catalyze this and use it to push forward a political momentum.
As a result, I think that there are some good opportunities for actually placing sustained pressure on the institutions themselves and elected officials. One of the ways that we need to do this is through the continuation of protests.
What we know in political science is protest matters, and actually when we see the destruction of buildings, when we see violence, either by police or either by protesters themselves, we actually see greater response by elected officials. And when we see this sustained effort, even over this ten-day period of time, that’s an extraordinary feat. When we see this sustained effort, we see elected officials feeling more and more pressure. And while it certainly takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, what we do know is that elected officials do respond to pressure. If they feel their electoral livelihood is in jeopardy, they will respond. And we’ve seen instances where they will respond in significant ways, like really changing their attitudes and their previously stated positions. For a whole host of reasons, I think that, within all of this craziness, there’s a lot of possibilities for true optimistic change.
So, I’ll leave it at that.
GP: Thank you Professor Garcia. And we’ll end with Professor Justin Emeka.
Justin Emeka: Thank you all for having me here. Thank my colleagues for sharing your perspectives. It’s been a really crazy week. How incredible and amazing. How quickly our whole nation can get turned upside down.
I teach in Africana Studies and in the theater. My trade is in the arts, and so a lot of my work is in changing perspective, transforming hearts through expression. I’ve been trying to reflect and get a sense about what I’m feeling in this time as an individual, what’s going on in my community, what does our community need to hear in these times to move forward, to move through these times and grow and become better.
First of all, a lot of us are feeling a lot of anger, pain, and frustration, and we’ve got to find ways to let ourselves feel those emotions. Let us find ways to express these emotions. And find ways to support each other as we feel these emotions.
I encourage everyone out there to take care of yourself and to take care of each other. And speaking to the Oberlin community in particular, I want to remind us that we are part of an extraordinary legacy here at Oberlin. Oberlin has been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement since the 19th century, and I just want to remind us all of role in that regard. We are connected to a large legacy that we can draw from and reach and get inspiration from to figure out how we move forward in these times. And I hope that Oberlin will continue to stay at the forefront of asking tough questions, of challenging each other, of loving each other fiercely, of creating new forms that help us reimagine society.
I hear there’s a lot of people saying, “What can we do?” Black and white students. People of all backgrounds are asking, “What do we do in this moment? How can we feel like we’re contributing?” Understand that when we’re talking about systemic change, there’s nothing that we’re going to figure out in this forum or today that is going to make us feel like we’re doing right. And that’s not even the goal. The goal is not to make ourselves feel good and feel like we’re contributing, but to actually make systemic change, which unfortunately doesn’t happen in one moment, but happens over the course of generations, and it happens by investing in certain principles and ideas.
Here at Oberlin, the first principle I would encourage is for us to continue to study the history of Black people, wherever you are, and whatever field you’re in. If you’re in the sciences, study the history of Black people in biology. Study the history of Black people in the classics. Study the history of Black people in philosophy. This is one way to affirm that Black lives matter movement. Study the emergence of white supremacy in this history. Study how it emerged as a phenomenon and how it informs every aspect of our society. Before we can do anything, we have to understand what it is we’re dealing with. There are no crash courses. You have to invest in this study.
Second, we want to look at policies and make sure we have fair and equal and consistent policies that are in place, and demand that those policies are being promoted equally and enforced equally. And we have to not be afraid to dismantle policies that are inadequate. And sometimes we have to design new policies that help protect and promote equal rights and justice for all.
Third, we have to also invest in the principle of changing hearts and minds—provide education and help people learn and grow from new perspectives. We have to create new visions, hear new voices, that help reveal the imaginations and the experiences of all our diverse people in the country. We have to create efforts that encourage dialogue, that encourage communications.
Fourth, we have to also just support Black people. Be articulate about your love of Black people, unapologetically articulate a love and support of Black people, so that we understand that we can love everyone and achieve universality by being very specific in loving and supporting Black people. Embrace the diversity of all the different kinds of Black people. There are so many different kinds of Black people. Find a Black community and support them, and uplift them, and affirm them. Help get resources to Black communities. Help provide services to Black organizations and Black communities.
Finally, find ways to impact your own life. Find ways to have conversations with aunts and uncles that you’re sometimes too scared to have because it gets too ugly too quick. Have that conversation with that friend who said something ignorant, but find a way to go into that conversation. Find a way to see how there are things going on where we need to check the policy in our life. Are we supporting the Black lives and the Black leaders in our community, making sure they have the tools to do what they need to do in order to reimagine society?
Those are just a broad overviews as I work, continue to work, to stay inspired, because I also want to encourage Oberlin people to be upset, to feel your anger, to be sad, but then also remind them that we don’t have the luxury to just sit there and live in it. We are the people who are being trained to help reimagine our society.
So, take care of yourself, take care of each other, as we build a world for today and tomorrow.
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