“This Is Your Final Exam”: Fighting On Against Racial Injustice

Sara Worth

In the early hours of the morning on Saturday, May 4th, I awoke to frightening text messages from close friends, informing me that some “serious bullshit” was going down. A good friend from high school was apparently in hysterics. My roommates came home in tears. Eventually I learned that officers of the Los Angeles Police Department had descended on an innocent college party as if they were breaking up a riot or taking down a drug cartel. I’ve since seen the photos and videos of the incident that might be dated 1963, not 2013. And now we demand answers.

I’m a white girl, born and raised in West Hollywood, California. I attended a private, progressive high school in Santa Monica, where the message was peace—but we never needed to fight for it. I will never have to feel the pain of arbitrary criminalization. But I know injustice when I see it. I know violence when I see it. And I know pain when it comes knocking on my door in the middle of the night.

Monday I participated in a demonstration organized by students affected (some arrested) by the LAPD that night. The “sit-in” at Tommy Trojan lasted more than four hours, attracted a couple hundred students, and turned into an empowering “teach-in” by hour two. I learned more about USC that day than in two years of being a student.

Photo credited to Cecilia Sweet-Coll

In fact, I learned more about myself as a student at USC than I have in the two years since I set foot on this campus. I realized that the self- and success-oriented culture of USC has killed my activist spirit. I have felt almost no solidarity with my Trojan brothers and sisters at this institution, and that has depressed and exhausted me into submission to the dominant “Me” culture. Before the sit-in I could count on my fingers the number of righteous individuals I know who speak up for what is right and seek to make change here. I have erstwhile sought refuge in my professors and graduate instructors and have turned in on myself, writing papers in the echo chamber of academia to satisfy my appetite for confrontation.

No more. Because now I’ve tasted the Trojan Family and understand that certain branches have simply been hidden from view. For better and worse, this week a light has been shown.

I announced at the sit-in that Malcolm X brought me to Tommy Trojan and that his words have sustained me these past several days: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” I said that we will stand for justice, for fairness, and for respect and will not fall for fear.  I grew up with Malcolm’s words, and I’m lucky enough to have spent significant time with his eldest daughter Attallah. Both of them have sustained me through times of crisis more than they will know. I invoke them now. I invoke what Attallah has said about her ancestors, how she keeps them in her heart constantly, consulting with their spirits and honoring their actions with meaningful work.

I want us all to stop and think about how the “incident” last Friday night is only the most recent event in a long history of racial discrimination and violence in this country. I want anyone reading this to think about their parents, and their parents’ parents. Think about your family story. Think about how your ancestors struggled to get you here, to this prestigious and powerful university in one of the most important cities in the world, so that you could use your voice and your position of privilege to bring America’s chapter of bigotry to a close. Whether you feel passionate about racial, gender or class oppression, remember your ancestors and honor their lives with persistence. We cannot remain silent in the face of ignorance and bigotry, forces that are, unfortunately, still very present on this campus.

Monday I heard stories about my brothers and sisters in the Trojan Family being called “niggers” by LAPD officers and USC students alike. I heard about innocent faces being shoved to the pavement. I heard about an officer defending his own First Amendment right to call my friend a “fucking retard” for questioning his actions, and I’m wondering why civil rights must only be honored for the man with the nightstick.

A young woman stood up at the teach-in to tell her story from Friday night. Her vehicle was parked near the party and she was responsible for driving several others. As she hovered, waiting for a friend who had gotten lost in the crowd, police officers demanded that she drive away immediately, while completely blockading all possible exits. She was truly trapped between a rock and a hard place.

Tuesday evening I attended a discussion with USC’s Department of Public Safety, LAPD, and other officials regarding other charges of racial profiling around campus this year. About 1,000 people squeezed into the Campus Center ballroom, and many more stood outside hoping to get a seat.

Moderator and Gould Law Professor Jody Armour responded to one student’s complaint about broken promises, “The promise was broken when they let us out of the hold of the ship three hundred years ago.” The room erupted, students of all colors showing their understanding that freedom for Black Americans has been denied and compromised for as long as they have resided here. Brought by force, they have been told to accept injustice and violence of varying degrees for hundreds of years.

But USC should be different. USC should be a place where merit counts, and where students are encouraged to care for each other so that we may all achieve unimaginable intellectual heights and to grow up to change the world. No USC student should have to collect on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s symbolic debt (we have enough student loans to pay).

So what to do? Friday night’s events were a blatant display of racial discrimination. The actions and remarks made by certain officers are indefensible, and they will hopefully face severe consequences. I challenge any student witness to claim that the police were acting for anyone’s protection.

At the same time, it is safe to say that LAPD officers have one of the hardest jobs in the world. They need to balance our safety with our liberty. They need to protect the group without criminalizing the innocent. And plenty of cops die in the line, serving the citizens of these United States. They don’t want things to be this way. That’s why they showed up tonight to hear our concerns. But they feel powerless against the institutionalized forces that consolidate crime into low-income areas comprised of minority residents.

The problem is bigger than some 79 officers, yet that doesn’t mean the solution can’t start there.

The most powerful moment of Tuesday night’s discussion for me came when one young man waiting in line to ask a question spoke out of turn. Host and student Rikiesha Pierce reminded him that dialogue can only be facilitated through mutual respect. “I can’t hear you,” she repeated calmly, when he began to get loud.

We must remember that the 1960s counter-cultural movement in large part failed because of an insurmountable generation gap. And so we must engage with the LAPD. Let us not take power from our elders because we are angry but because we are worthy. Let us demonstrate that we have reached a higher level of thinking and understanding. Let our intellect be our authority, and our hearts our guide.

Armour reminded students that despite three hundred years of atrocious oppression, his father died a veteran of the United States Army. “Democracy is messy and troublesome but this [event] is our hope,” he insisted.

Trojans and LAPD officers face a challenge that we all confront as citizens of this country and of this world. We must fight constantly and persistently for the ideals we hold to be self-evident—that all men and women are created equal—while living in an un-ideal world. Our unity has been badly broken. Our hearts are heavy and our minds are confused. We are angry and, yes, fearful. We know that we deserve better. But we must remember that while fighting for the world of our dreams, we must also live in the world we have inherited.

We have inherited this systematized violence, these artifacts of institutional oppression. But we have also inherited a legacy of active citizenship, of civil disobedience, of collective action for the cause of justice. Our work is never done. Power is not simply relinquished; it is taken, and it is taken by individuals like ourselves—individuals with the knowledge and position to effect real change.

Photo credited to Cecilia Sweet-Coll.

Photo credited to Cecilia Sweet-Coll.

Retiring Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Jackson, who was in attendance, said that this kind of moment is our real “final exam.” I could not agree more. I might add that this week has been a rite of passage that we have undergone as a family, from which I hope we have all emerged stronger.

Important questions were raised at this forum. Powerful stories were shared, and perhaps some pain was alleviated. But the answers we received from officials were, on the whole, shallow and non-specific. We need to continue to push authorities to engage us in real conversations about what happened and how we can move forward. We must get beyond the talking points to honest dialogue that will bring our community to a place of understanding and trust.

I am humbled by the way USC students have responded to this unjustifiable display of violence. But it cannot end there. I hope that the attendees of the discussion were deeply disappointed. I also hope that they channel that disappointment not into rage or cynicism but into fearlessness, into critical thinking and into righteous action in the name of the Trojan Family. Changing our world is a full-time job. Let’s get to work.

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