Stay Woke; The Black Lives Matter Movement is a documentary which aired recently on BET: The Truth Series. It takes us back through prominent instances of police violence against black Americans from the last few years (with a focus mainly on males), and the community created in response. For those who don’t know the #BlackLivesMatter movement was initiated in response to the 2012 jury ruling to acquit George Zimmerman of his crime and to posthumously place Trayvon Martin on trial for his own murder.
Most people recognise the well known victims of similar violence which has occurred in the past few years. Many are aware of the hyper aggressive, military interactions of police officers with citizens (footage in the documentary brings us back to the use of riot gear, tear gas & tanks in response to protestors in Ferguson, Baltimore, etc.) I’m not sure how many are aware of the stark dehumanisation and demonisation of black Americans at the core of the judicial system. The system that deems perpetrators of violence against black Americans blameless. I am especially concerned with this treatment of black American youths, a group that I’ve worked with in the past couple years.
The Essence of Innocence; Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children (an article from the 2014 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) discusses how characteristics such as ‘innocence’ and ‘the need for protection’ are often stripped from black youths in both police and public perception. This is a crucial piece in understanding the psychology behind these interactions.
“If human childhood affords strong protections against harsh, adult-like treatment, then in contexts where children are dehumanised, those children can be treated with adult severity…[The] dehumanisation of Black children might conflict with perceptions of children as needing protection.” (Goff, et al. 2014: 527)
Through a series of social studies it was found that when presented with imagery of black, white and latino youths associated with a felony, participants overestimated the ages of black felony suspects to a greater degree than white or latino felony suspects (Goff, et al. 2014: 531) It was also found that the older a youth was estimated to be, the more culpable they would be held.
“Because Black felony suspects were seen as 4.53 years older than they actually were, this would mean that boys would be misperceived as legal adults at roughly the age of 13 and a half.” (Goff, et al. 2014: 532)
This psychology applies to the jury’s decisions in cases of violence against black Americans. They certainly do not come from a protective place towards these victims, even if they are of youthful status. Watching the documentary made me come back to this article; it succeeded in its purpose to keep me ‘woke’ on these issues.
It also showed me the collective that has been formed during this movement, which didn’t halt after the riots. A number of people contributed their narrative and opinions to the documentary, including historians, activists, artists, and the co-founders of #BlackLivesMatter. The use of social media is highlighted as a key tool for communication and connection between people on the ground, witnessing and protesting against these atrocities. This tool should continue to be used, especially as an informant to people who don’t experience or notice this issue in their daily lives. The message I really came away with was what Brittany Packnett said towards the end:
“It is about our children. Our community. It is about ‘Stay Woke’…Now that you have been exposed, now that you have become aware of issues of police violence in our community I need you to stay aware. I need you to behave like you are aware, right, I need you to stay woke. Get woke and stay woke.” (Brittany Packnett, Activist & Educator, in Stay Woke; the Black Lives Matter Movement Documentary)
Note: This post was constructed prior to the sexual assault charges against 20 year old Brock Turner which resulted in a six month jail sentence and probation. I don’t want to directly compare criminal cases because I can’t pretend to have the knowledge of the justice system to do so. However Judge Aaron Perksy’s direct dismissal of the prosecutors’ recommendation of six years in prison and his statement that prison would “have a severe impact on [Turner]” (while undoubtedly true, as it would on pretty much anyone) brings something very important to the discussion above.
Due to the young age and no prior convictions of the perpetrator, the judge is coming from a protective place. These actions reflect the opinion of sociologist Michael Kimmel who says: “for middle-class White males, the period of time when boys are not held fully responsible for their actions can extend well into their late 20s.” (Goff, et al. 2014: 541). This directly contrasts with imposed societal expectations and stereotypes of black youths. We are seeing institutionalised racism, not accidental mistakes and discrepancies in disparate judicial treatment.
In light of the above, I cannot stress this any more: it is not enough to simply acknowledge these issues. There’s a responsibility as humans looking after each other to carry these concerns through into actions. Discussions. Reading. Sharing. Pledges. Protesting (peacefully 😉 ). Innovation… It is the time to get woke and stay woke.
Sources & Things to Check Out:
BET: The Truth Series, Stay Woke; the Black Lives Matter Movement aired on BET 05/26/2016.
Jesse Williams, actor and activist on ‘stay woke’
Goff, P.A., Jackson, M.C., Di Leone B.A., DiTomasso, N.A., Culotta, C.M. (Authors) 2014, The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 106, No. 4, pp 526-545.
Black Lives Matter Movement
Devin Allen, a Baltimore based Photographer (Photographer of TIME Magazine Cover Image, May 11 2015, see above).
Campaign Zero, a resource for mapping statistics related to police violence in the US and proposals for policy changes.
Guardian news on Brock Turner’s case.