GW faculty and administrators shared memories, reactions to the recent spate of deaths and racial profiling incidents involving black Americans.
The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody, which came after the high-profile shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and the racially-tinged profiling of New York Central Park birdwatcher Christian Cooper sparked protests in cities across the United States, most of them peaceful but some that included arson, vandalism and looting. The incidents happened as black Americans were coping with the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on black and brown communities.
GW Today reached out to university leaders and faculty, asking them to reflect on this point in time and share their thoughts with the GW community. Below are their reflections:
Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement
My mother says that when a child is in danger or suffers, their mother’s labor pains return.
I used to think that was melodrama, but now I am a black mother in America, and I know exactly what she means when I see the faces of the women who have lost their children to senseless hatred and violence.
I am tired of watching grisly killings of black people on my phone.
I am tired of living with domestic terrorism.
I am tired of the raw, unbridled fear that my loved ones could be taken at any moment.
I am tired of my wholly unnatural fear of the growth of my children. Do you know how painful it is to watch your children grow and feel both joy and dread? Dread because all black women know that our children become acutely vulnerable as their bodies grow and move toward adulthood. The agony of that is a daily burden.
Knowing that the people you love can be snuffed out not by an act of nature or some catastrophe but by a normalized engrained belief that the lives of black people just don’t matter is exhausting.
I am going to pull myself together and figure out how to mobilize my family for productive action, but today I’m just tired.
Aristide J. Collins Jr.
Vice President, Chief of Staff to the President and Secretary of the University
If I am honest, as a black man, the events of the past few days and months have required deep and ongoing reflection and resolve to remain hopeful and resilient.
My conversations with friends, family and colleagues inevitably turn to expressions of deep pain, concern and fear about the state of our nation’s mental and physical health, safety and overall well-being. People are anxious—a state of being that is heightened by the distance and isolation of the pandemic quarantine.
The disproportionate toll the global pandemic has had on the black community and the growing frustrations and anger in regard to injustices and racial inequality that result in senseless deaths are hard to accept.
Although I struggle to find words of comfort and solace that are adequate for the current circumstances, my faith in God, humanity and in the value of the work we do as educators, teachers, researchers and lifelong learners gives me hope.
Through my ongoing experiences with prejudice, due to my race and gender, I know personally the disrespect, disregard and slights that come from being profiled and judged with contempt and without basis. However, I remain hopeful that our commonalities and diversity are sources of strength and light that will guide us on a path towards healing and recovery.
M.L. “Cissy” Petty
Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students
Almost two years ago, I moved to D.C. One of my first stops was to Capitol Hill. I eagerly ran to the Supreme Court and took a joyous picture. I was so proud that I could marry whomever I loved.
This morning, in the early hours, I returned and looked up again at the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” I stood and felt heartsick. I realized the hollowness of those words. Until all have equal justice under the law, no one does. We can and should do better. I pledge that I will.
Roger A. Fairfax Jr.
Patricia Roberts Harris Research Professor of Law
I authored a book chapter a few years ago in the wake of a series of police killings of unarmed African-American men, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott. The edited book, “Policing the Black Man,” was published at a time when the semantic debate over the slogan “Black Lives Matter” was in full swing. That now seems like a long time ago.
After repeated and continued police killings of unarmed African Americans, and now in the midst of a global pandemic that has taken a disproportionate share of its toll on communities of color in this country – we are again confronted with the question whether black lives do, in fact, matter.
It could lead one to believe that black lives do not matter when there is widespread recognition and fear that an interaction as mundane as a respectful request to a stranger in a park to restrain a pet in compliance with the law potentially could set in motion a chain of events that might end with a police confrontation—or worse.
It could lead one to believe that black lives do not matter when a peace officer drives his knee—with his full body weight—into the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed George Floyd and persists as Floyd gasps that he cannot breathe; persists as 46-year-old Floyd cries out for his deceased mother; and persists for more than two minutes after Floyd has been rendered unconscious and unresponsive as he lay dying.
It could lead one to believe that black lives do not matter when we are bombarded—seemingly on a daily basis—with images of African American lives being snuffed out, from Eric Garner making the same futile pleas that Floyd made in his final minutes of life, to Michael Brown’s lifeless body lying for hours on the sweltering pavement of a Ferguson, Missouri, street to Walter Scott being shot in the back, to Philando Castille moaning and dying in a blood-drenched shirt in the driver’s seat of his car, to 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald being spun around and riddled with 16 bullets, to Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun at a playground in the final violent seconds of his 12-year-old life, to Ahmaud Arbery being chased down and executed by a pack of gun-toting civilians.
As protests rage across the nation, we in the academic community must not engage in complicit silence. In the same way that some colleges and universities are rising to the occasion to deploy their intellectual and other resources to help respond to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19, we must also respond urgently to the scourge of racism and reaffirm that black lives do indeed matter. History will judge harshly our failure to use our unique platform, privilege and influence in this moment. We must go beyond measuring, analyzing and chronicling injustice and discharge what Harvard President Larry Bacow described recently as our “special responsibilities” as members of an academic community to fight injustice. Our students—many of whom are out there protesting—are watching us closely; and some of them are nearly out of breath.
Director, Multicultural Student Services Center
According to The Washington Post, police have killed more than 5,000 people since 2015. Every one of those precious souls reminds me of a friend, relative, neighbor or teacher. Frankly, when I get stopped by police while driving, I am anxious. I follow the same protocol that I instructed my son to follow: keep your hands on the steering wheel, documents in hand, interior lights on, windows open, move slowly, reach for nothing, even when asked to do so.
I grew up in D.C. and vividly remember the riots of 1963 and 1968. Seeing vandalism, property damage and scattered fires in the city again breaks my heart. I understand the value and the need for peaceful protest and support it without conditions. Except one. The memories of ‘63 and ‘68 are still fresh in my mind, and like you, I won't stand by seeing another black man or any human being die at the hands of law enforcement racism or bias.
However, seeing fires and vandalism in my hometown again is where I draw the line. That is never the intent of 99% of protesters.
Associate Professor, School of Media and Public Affairs
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964.
I’m exhausted, and I’m angry.
For over 400 years black people in America have been bearing the brunt of systematic racism, racial terror and white supremacist violence. In the past 30 days, the world has learned of the killing of at least four unarmed black people. Two of those deaths have become viral video footage.
The post-traumatic stress disorder I personally have from witnessing these violent acts is paralyzing. Watching cities across the nation burn during this current rebellion, I am resisting the urge to feel helpless. Instead, I have done several international news interviews providing historical and contemporary context for this crisis. I have started an anti-racism dialogue group with parents at my son’s elementary school, and most importantly, I have committed myself to a rigorous schedule of self-care and healing.
I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. And if you are also, then join me in doing the hard work of being co-conspirators for justice.
The Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement and university partners will host events in the coming days for the GW community to come together to process, work on healing, learn from one another and move towards action. Sharing what you feel right now may also be critical; ODECE offers space to do so here. University resources for support remain available, including Counseling and Psychological Services, Advocacy & Support, Student Affairs, Human Resources, Faculty Affairs and ODECE. Read more in a message from ODECE here.