Nearly 1000 people packed the Ronald Tutor Campus Center ballroom at USC for the joint Los Angeles Police Dept. – Dept. Public Safety (DPS) campus discussion on Tuesday, May 7. A panel of eight representatives from the Los Angeles Police Department, Department of Public Safety, USC and the Human Rights Commission was present.
The discussion was triggered not by LAPD’s shut-down of a predominantly black USC student party on Friday, May 3, but by how the police racially targeted the party, abused, tased, arrested verbally harassed and mocked the students. Students at this party were dehumanized and treated like animals, essentially corralled and forced to walk down Hoover St.—away from their homes and cars—while LAPD officers continued to intimidate and arrest students.
LAPD has been historically notorious for excessive force and racism, but as graduating students Rikiesha Pierce and Nate Howard have reminded us over the past few days, we are the generation of social media and LAPD messed up. The night of the party shut-down, people posted photographs to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Others wrote articles and published them on the internet. By Saturday, people were contacting news stations. The outrage was beyond palpable, sparking a sit-in at Tommy Trojan on Monday, May 6th, as well as this public discussion.
Rikiesha Pierce opened the event, addressing what happened the night of the party, demanding answers for what transpired, and thanking everyone who had contacted local public officials, wrote an article, posted a photograph online of the police’s excessive force or even simply shared a link.
“We are not powerless,” Pierce said. “I say this is our school and we demand answers.”
Following her opening, a compilation video comprised of footage as well as photographs of LAPD’s response to the party was played. Dr. Michael Jackson, who was part of the panel, described the video as “very sobering,” before addressing the psychological damage done to the students arrested as well as to the students who saw their friends getting arrested.
The panel was moderated by USC Professor of Law Jody Armour and was comprised of 8 people in total, including Pierce, Chief John Thomas of DPS, Deputy Chief Bob Green of LAPD, Dr. Jackson, and Capt. Paul Snell of the Southwest Division. Armour not only addressed LAPD protocol, but questioned the true relationship between LAPD and DPS and asked how self-reflective the police department is, that is, if they had comprehensive training on how unconscious bias and racism function in human beings and, by extension, the police department. While these were all valid questions, the answers we received from the panel, for the most part, were lacking.
One of the representatives even said he didn’t believe the extreme shut-down of the party was fueled by racism in any way, but I think everyone in the room could see through that fallacy. It was clear, at least to me, that the LAPD representatives were there because they had to be. They knew they couldn’t ignore this outrage and get away with it. So, to put it bluntly, they were covering their asses. That kind of approach was choking the dialogue, but the stifling rhetoric wasn’t allowed to go on forever. When the floor was opened up for people in the audience to make comments and ask questions and Howard was allowed to speak first, things finally got real. Howard was the student who threw the party on Friday and was one of the several who were arrested. He cut through the rhetoric with his pain, rage and hope. He broke down into tears and kept going. He called on not just LAPD to be truthful, but on everyone in the audience to take responsibility and action moving forward.
Now here’s where I stop my play-by-play. I left the discussion feeling incredibly exhausted as well as frustrated with the numerous weak answers we were given by LAPD. The event went over the allotted time by about 30 minutes, but finding a solution was only a small part of the discussion. I wondered what people (what I) would actually do next. Yes, the passion in the room was palpable. Yes, I do believe that was the spark of a real social change movement, but what are the actually steps for affecting real change?
It’s a tough question with no quick-fix answer, although some are indeed taking steps. Pierce said that a task force between students and authorities was being formed to continue the dialogue. But what could the rest of us do since we are all responsible? As some of the panelists (who managed to get real for a few moments such as Chief John Thomas of DPS) as well as multiple audience members said, we have to invest in our communities and get to know our neighbors. We have to come together not just when something terrible happens to some of us, but all the time; we need to connect the fragmented communities not just within USC, but within the surrounding community. We need to take care of each other. We need to have each others’ backs. We need to take action.
But let’s not completely dismiss the discussion. There were a lot of people who were telling us that talk is just talk, but if the 1000 people in the room and the several hundred people outside who couldn’t get in hadn’t showed up, we wouldn’t have had this first dialogue. Even if the LAPD representatives did give us a bunch of lousy answers, they still had to listen to people speak. They still had to listen to the criticism, the rightful anger, the demand for solutions and the booming support of the audience. They had to sit there and realize they couldn’t stop this movement. When Howard got up and went off on his speech, I saw Deputy Chief Bob Green sweating like a ham in the oven. They know they have to answer for what they did, but not just for the incident last Friday against USC students, but for their ongoing racism, racial profiling, excessive force and abuse of power.
As one woman in the audience beautifully put it, the students at the party should not be angry that they were wrongly profiled, “but that they were profiled at all.” I think her words get to the heart of the matter. As others had said earlier, this movement is more than just us: the students. We can’t just fight against the racial profiling of the “scholars,” but we must fight for the racial justice of everyone. A part-time worker in South Central is no less deserving of racial justice than the best and brightest of USC.
The USC bubble does not protect students of color, particularly brown and black students of color. And as a black student of color, I viscerally understand the pain and rage that comes with that realization. I thought I was part of the USC community, or at least I thought that wasn’t too much to ask. But it doesn’t matter if you’re a student or not; if you’re brown or black in this neighborhood, you are at risk of getting profiled. You run the risk of getting stopped on the street, frisked, verbally abused or mocked, arrested after the police approach you for no valid reason or asked “Where’d you get that bike?” as if you stole it.
In the case of DPS, DPS is supposed to protect students and people within the USC community from “the criminals in the neighborhood.” In theory. But we know what that looks like in reality; DPS ends up protecting people who “look like students” and profiling people who look like they’re from the surrounding area. I guess I don’t look like a student. I guess my brothers and sisters of color don’t either if we’re not wearing business suits or blatant USC gear.
And here lies the problem. People of color in the community deal with racial profiling and police brutality all the time. I don’t say that to lessen the validity or the severity of what students experienced last Friday night and what I can only imagine they’re dealing with psychologically right now. Students of color are getting perceived as non-students and are then profiled and they are confused and outraged about it. Of course. It’s wrong. And it’s messy. It’s messy because we’ve been conditioned to value the lives and wellbeing of students, professors and administration over the lives of people in this community. This system is inherently repugnant and problematic. You can’t value certain demographics over others and not expect things to go wrong. We can’t only advocate for students of color. Not just because one day we won’t be students anymore, but because we have to value the lives and wellbeing of everyone. We have to see we’re fighting the same fight and we can’t do that if we’re fragmented.
“We truly have to admit that this is bigger than us and this [has been] going on for way too long,” Howard said. “…It is not me that is important, it is the issue that is important…It’s time. It’s really time for a change. I really mean that. And I know you guys do too. This is not just for us. It’s for the people who couldn’t get here, for the people in the community, all of LA.”
*call President Nikias’s office to demand that he address how this affects the USC community and take action: (213) 740-2111
*and don’t forget to tweet #USChangeMovement
to read Makiah Green’s article on racial profiling and LAPD’s response to the party, click here.