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Panelists Discuss Trayvon Martin Shooting
March 29, 2012
Racial profiling, political activism focus of Black Student Union-hosted event.
Students, faculty and administrators came together Tuesday night to discuss the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and what it says about race stereotypes, justice and the power of activism in the nation.
The panelists— Director of GW’s Africana Studies Program Jennifer James; Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell; Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Student Services Center; and Hon. Arthur L. Burnett Sr., senior judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia— talked about racial profiling, racial violence and Florida’s “stand your ground” law. A brief question-and-answer session followed the panel.
The event was held in the Marvin Center and sponsored by the Black Student Union, the George Washington Williams House, the Black Men’s Initiative and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. Sophomore Tori Guy and junior Malissa Wilkins moderated.
Profiling occurs “every day” in law enforcement, said Mr. Darnell.
“Racial profiling comes in when individual officers take into account their own fears, their own prejudice and their own biases, and they lose sight of the objective judgment that they should use,” said Mr. Darnell, adding that training is key to guarding against racial profiling.
Dr. James said the concept of African Americans as “aggressors” and not victims dates back to the beginnings of slavery. She said that idea is used as a “cover story” to prevent citizens like Mr. Martin from receiving the “benefit of the doubt.”
“It’s about disempowering a group of people who were asserting themselves,” she said.
“[Racial stereotyping] does affect almost every aspect, I think, of minority life in this country,” she added.
Mr. Burnett noted that as a judge he has tried many cases in the District in which race was a factor, stating racial profiling often plays a role in unlawful arrests.
Noting all the unknowns surrounding the Trayvon Martin incident, Mr. Burnett reminded the audience that the answers may not fully be revealed unless the case goes to court.
“You can’t decide a case based on spin doctrine or what you read in the newspapers,” he said. “You have to wait until the case gets to court and all the facts and evidence comes out. And you have to look at the credibility of the witnesses.”
Mr. Tapscott urged students to use the incident as a teachable moment with their classmates, saying that the nation is largely “uninformed” about issues affecting minorities.
“The reality is we’re still lagging behind when it comes to learning and understanding about folks who are different,” he said, adding that he believes the Sanford Police Department lacks a “broader understanding” of cultural differences and issues.
The panelists also discussed Florida’s 2005 “stand your ground” law, which protects citizens who use deadly force for self-defense from prosecution, and the power of political activism to effect change.
Mr. Darnell and Mr. Burnett encouraged the audience to vote in every election to ensure laws protect all citizens.
“The power… is at the grassroots level, and it works its way up,” said Mr. Burnett. “You can’t stand on the sidelines and criticize and [not] do anything about it.”
Mr. Darnell told the students that their proximity to Capitol Hill puts them in a “wonderful position” to become more politically active.
“There are colleges all over the country that don’t have the opportunity you all have to directly lobby the people who make the laws in this country,” he said.