Black Lives Matter at Politicon 2016: Personal Tragedies Fuel Fierce ActivismThe intensely emotional panel at the Pasadena, Calif., convention demonstrated the strength of the movement and reminded the audience of the continuing fight against police brutality and systemic racism.
From left: Jody Armour, Melina Abdullah, Lisa Hines, Jasmine Abdullah and Melissa Harris-Perry
The Black Lives Matter panel at Politicon on Sunday was different from any other. A certain heaviness spread throughout the cavernous Pasadena, Calif., conference hall as the panelists took their seats, although moments before the room had been filled with chatter and laughter. The audience knew this particular panel would not have the pure entertainment value of the other discussions held throughout the weekend.
“#BlackLivesMatter: Political Prisoners vs. Police Impunity” took place on the second day of Politicon, the “unconventional convention” attended by thousands of political junkies. Moderated by author and professor Melissa Harris-Perry, the panel was composed of University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour, California State University at Los Angeles pan-African studies professor Melina Abdullah, activist Jasmine Abdullah and Lisa Hines. Hines, as many would come to learn in the emotional panel, was mother to Wakiesha Wilson, who died in March while in custody of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The panel served as a reminder that this country’s history of racism is still a critical factor in race relations today. Armour was introduced to the legal system as a child, when his father was arrested, and subsequently studied law while in jail to fight for himself in court. “Ain’t nothing changed but the year it is,” Armour said of racism in America. “That’s how embedded these patterns and problems are.”
Harris-Perry began the discussion with a brief history lesson, asking the audience if anyone knew of drapetomania, a pseudo-illness created in the mid-19th century that was used to explain slaves who escaped captivity. It has since been viewed as a significant component of scientific racism. Harris-Perry discussed drapetomania and explained the importance of understanding lynching as a post-slavery phenomenon, as shown in the video below:
The historical significance of lynching becomes relevant as Harris-Perry introduced Jasmine Abdullah. In 2015, she was arrested and charged with felony lynching at a peaceful protest in Pasadena. Here is Harris-Perry explaining how that was possible (in the video, Jasmine Abdullah is sitting to Harris-Perry’s right):
Abdullah’s arrest sparked outrage and protests. As Truthdig’s Sarah Wesley wrote at the time:
Felony lynching is defined as the act of attempting to take someone from the lawful custody of a police official. It was originally introduced to prevent the lynching of those taken from police custody by lynch mobs. The charge against Abdullah sparked outrage, due to its controversial name and historical reference. Many consider her sentencing a public lynching and a punishment for rising up against social injustices.
Panelist Hines shared her story with the audience. Hines’ daughter, Wakiesha Wilson, was reportedly found her hanging in her cell after her arrest—a tragedy reminiscent of the 2015 case of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas. The Los Angeles chapter of BLM is looking into Wilson’s case.
Hines told the audience that she did not learn of her daughter’s death until days later, after waiting hours for her daughter to appear in court. Now, she says, her grandson (Wilson’s son) looks to her for answers. “They are killing our babies, and no one is being held accountable,” Hines said. Her presence at the panel moved many in the audience to tears over the injustice, and the hush that had spread through the room at the start of the panel was broken as the audience chanted for Wilson:
The panelists went on to describe their relationships with the Black Lives Matter movement. They shared a common thread of activism stemming from personal experiences with injustice, violence and death. Jasmine Abdullah, who is from Pasadena, noted how the convention center neighborhood differs from the part of the city she is from:
Pasadena looks really lovely from down here, right? It looks really beautiful. But if you go up a mile northwest, it gets really grimy. And that’s where there’s a lack of resources. There’s no Rose Parade up there. There’s no glamor and gold up there. It’s overpoliced and underemployed. It’s a shark tank of police up there.
At this point, Jasmine Abdullah stunned the audience by pointing to a police officer standing in the back of the room (there was a strong police presence at the convention center throughout the event.) “One of the officers who actually testified against me is right in front of that door,” she said. “So this is what they’re doing. They’re trying to shut me up, to make me nervous, but it won’t work.”
Jasmine Abdullah finished explaining her part in Black Lives Matter, clearly somewhat uncomfortable by the officer in the room. Then, the audience took a stand:
Although the panel began as a series of personal, heart-wrenching anecdotes, the discussion soon turned to talk of strategy and action. Watch Melina Abdullah break down the systemic problems inherent in policing and discuss what BLM is doing to combat it:
Jasmine Abdullah also spoke on oppressive systems and how they affect her. “Most of [my friends] are in jail, if they’re not dead. And I just want to stop that,” she said. “But there’s another entity out there that does not want me to stop that. They like the school-to-prison pipeline. They like the prison-industrial complex. Because it’s working for them.”
Her statement reflects a recent focus nationwide on overcrowded prisons filled disproportionately with African-American citizens. It’s not a new problem, as The Atlantic noted almost a decade ago:
Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed a prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need …. It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population. Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent.
Tied to the prison problem is the rise of police brutality and the militarization of police. “Our neighborhoods are not warzones, and police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies,” writes the American Civil Liberties Union. “Any yet, every year, billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments. Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, especially to fight the wasteful and failed drug war, which has unfairly targeted people of color.”
Melina Abdullah put it in simpler terms: “We live in a police state,” she said. “We have to start de-funding the police.”
During the question-and-answer segment of the panel, a young, white male stepped up to the microphone. He announced that, although he was under 18 years old, he wanted to participate in the movement and make a difference. “But what can I do?” he asked. Jasmine Abdullah, the youngest panel member, happily jumped on the question:
“Talk about the injustices you see. Tell your parents about it,” she said. “Educate them. Get involved and organize. Organize your school!”
The last question was from a young girl, barely able to reach the microphone. She asked how it felt to have the police after her, and to be arrested. Jasmine Abdullah first explained that it made her sad, and sometimes afraid, but that being surrounded by family, friends and allies made her feel stronger. “So to answer your question,” she said, “it makes me feel empowered.”Wait, before you go…
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