"Black Lives" sparks tension
Racial tension has tainted society in the fabric of American history, but now it works to define the present. Beginning in 2013 after 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin was murdered, and George Zimmerman was freed without punishment, the Black Lives Matter Movement formed in order to advocate for the respect and dignity of African Americans in all aspects of society. Despite its common association as an anti-police regime, the movement’s priorities lay within the realm of revealing injustices done to people of color in American institutions and communities. Tracey Robertson, the Executive Director and Co Founder of Fit Oshkosh, an organization dedicated to spreading racial literacy, recognizes the true mission behind this movement.
“I have heard a lot of dialogue in the community about it being a hate group and a group of violence, and I don’t subscribe to that belief. For a really long time, the African American community has not been organized,” she said. “This is an effort to organize, mobilize, and advocate for our community. We have been struggling for a really long time and I think this is the right time and the right season for us to get together. And not only hold the people in leadership accountable for what’s going on in our community, but hold ourselves accountable for what’s going on in the community.”
Robertson stresses that the movement does have structure. Shown on the Black Lives Matter website, the 12 core objectives intertwine to draw focus to creating a society that disposes of racial superiority and inferiority.
“People learn about the Black Lives Matter movement the way they learn about anything else--they do some research. Recently the Black Lives Matter movement sent out a plan of what they are really interested in accomplishing during this movement. Some of these things included reparations for slavery, and more access to financial gain,” Robertson said. “So they have some very specific goals and objectives that they have outlined and provided and people just need to do their homework to really know what those are.”
Liaison Officer Dave Maas recognizes the misconceptions about the movement. According to the Black Lives Matter website, “although it is true that much of the protesting to date has been centered on the issue of police brutality, there is a range of issues that movement work will likely push in years to come.” Maas realizes the importance of comprehending the true motivations behind Black Lives Matter, especially when they may not be as prevalent in the media.
“Initially I was concerned, because of the things that I saw in F erguson. It’s weird because when people look at Black Lives Matter as an organization with their beliefs, and then they look at what people are doing in communities, it’s almost two seperate things,” Mass said. “What I saw is that people were being violent. What was shown on T.V were riots, burning down people’s businesses and they have nothing to do with the incident being protested, which is what really concerns me.”
According to psychologist Ben Martin, when people are faced with a fight or flight situation, “the resulting response depends on how the organism has learned to deal with [the] threat.” Advanced Placement U.S history teacher Andrew Britton connects the preconceptions of the movement to fear among police officers, a fear resulting in extreme measures taken by men and women under attack.
“I think there is a real legitimate fear among officers and white policemen that they have probably had times where they were threatened and their lives have been threatened,” he said. “Black Lives Matter comes across to conservatives as very anti-police, instead of a more middle position.”
Although self-described as a peaceful group, protests frequently result in violence, such as what took place in North Carolina after the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott on September 20. This sparked protests throughout North Carolina, some resulting in the use of fire-crackers being thrown into buildings. Britton emphasizes this use of violence distracts from the true purpose of the movement.
“Non-violent protests are fantastic, but as soon as there is violence or any kind of property damage, it serves no purpose but to hurt the movement. It is always okay to protest, but part of the problem is the lack of understanding on both sides,” he said.
Besides the violence, a sense of disorganization unveiled through these protests has also received criticism. After a poll was taken on pewresearch.org, “about a third (36 percent) of those who have heard about Black Lives Matter say they don’t understand its goals too well – or at all.” A.P Government and Politics teacher Paul Stellpflug sees a need for the movement to expand its scope and focus.
“They only seem to be mad about black lives lost to police, whether it’s misconduct or not,” he said. “Granted there’s enough misconduct to go around, but they don’t have a platform about better nutrition standards for kids in black households or better youth programs to stop violence. People are going to, when they have a few minutes to actually analyze it intellectually, see there are holes.”
Maas feels that, without the protests and the rise of Black Lives Matter, certain issues would have gone unnoticed. The new paradigm gives institutions the opportunity to correct past mistakes and prevent racial stereotyping in the future for all. Until reactionary violence is replaced with actual policy change and honest discussion, however, the group’s principles will remain unmet.
“The positive effect [of this movement], to some degree, is encouraging us to make those changes, to have the conversation, and to do things the right way. But by no means would I say that those violent encounters are successful in promoting change, because they’re not; those are still terrible things,” Maas said. “But I do think that the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter, what they truly say that they believe and what the organization is saying that they want, is not what’s happening on the streets.”
All Lives Matter’ - words add fuel to conflict
Rippling through the United States of America with great waves of controversy, Black Lives Matter has ignited conversation, conflict, and counter movements. Two major platforms, All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, have arisen to respond and call for justice for all. According to Fit Oshkosh Director Tracey Robertson, a movement like All Lives Matter doesn’t fully understand the mission and foundation of Black Lives. Despite proposing equality for all citizens, Robertson feels such movements don’t work to correct the injustices that would achieve such desired equality.
“When you say that all lives matter, people should be as disgusted about the things that are happening to black people in this country as I am. They should be on the frontline helping this agenda move forward if all lives really mattered,” she said.
Social studies teacher Andrew Britton believes the counter movements may have more to do with political leanings than racial rhetoric.
“I think the movements that have grown from the Blacks Lives Matter movement plays into our political divide,” he said. “We do still have, in our country, this big political divide. I think when the Black Lives Matter movement automatically got painted as a liberal movement, conservatives were like, ‘we have to have our movement in response’.”
Creating a paradoxical tension is the Blue Lives Matter movement. Working to stress the importance of police and the work they do to protect the community, Blue Lives Matter, in the eyes of some in the black community, preference an institution that has not faced scrutiny in the past. West senior and Black Lives Matter member Cece Brown attests to the justice of the police, but questions the efficacy of self monitoring within such a powerful construct.
“When you kill a police officer, the government comes and finds you and you are brought to justice; you go to jail or you get killed. There is an ending and a solution,” she said. “You know justice is found and you know because when you kill anybody you deserve some kind of punishment. But with the Blue Lives Matter, they are at the top of the food chain. It has been shown that their lives matter and history reflects that.”
In Ferguson, Missouri, where African American Michael Brown was killed by the police in 2014, “blacks make up 67 percent of the population, but are 86 percent of motorists stopped by police,” according to npr.org. Although a small representation of the issue, the statistic displays a racial prejudice against African Americans in the United States. For some, Blue Lives Matter only exacerbates this predicament.
“Police officers chose to be police officers and they can quit and resign at any time they chose, they can take off their uniform if they choose,” Robertson said. “As a black person, I can’t take off my skin and I can’t decide today that its rough in the United States for me, I am going to just stop being black ... saying that Blue Lives Matter is just a distraction from the real issue, that we have a documented problem in our country about race.”
Racial Respect: breaking boundaries at West
For the majority of students, inclusion has never been, and will never be, a concern. They don’t feel pressured or insecure in the learning environment or at home, whereas a broad cross section of students and community members experience racial profiling and bias on a daily basis. According to the Washington Post, African American students make up 10 percent of the home schooled population, a number that continues to grow each year as parents attempt to solve hallway discrimination on their own terms.
“I generally felt, and know several other students have felt, as a student of color you just kind of become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” senior Cece Brown said. “You get comfortable with being the only one of color in your class, you get comfortable with having to represent your whole race, you get comfortable with people wanting to come up and touch your hair all the time, you get comfortable with all of the insensitive comments.”
It’s not just students that have drawn lines between races According to Teaching Tolerance, an organization dedicated to supporting teachers who strive for diversity and equity in the classroom, “the landmines are often invisible to educators who don’t share their students’ cultural backgrounds.” As society turns the other cheek to cultural differences, it becomes all too easy to place a wrong step, setting off an explosion. Such wounds were reopened when African American students returned from the African Heritage Institute Field Trip last spring. Some students had taken to social media to question the validity of the trip, causing conflict that seeped into the school day.
“The field trip was really productive, and when we went there we really learned so much; we met students, faculty members and administrators from all over the state of all different colors and racial heritages. It was a really good time,” Brown said. “And then we came back and there was just so much anger and there was so much drama.”
Racial conflicts and misunderstandings can push students below academic averages, as school no longer becomes a place of acceptance. As shown in a study by Vanderbilt University, black students have increased mental strain as they struggle to succeed in a predominately white environment. To combat this, Brown, along with other students experiencing similar challenges, came together with the help of the Fit Oshkosh founder to create a new club at West.
“It started just a couple of months before school ended, so it’s still kinda in the works, the fetal stages, but it’s really just our diversity, racial literacy, and inclusion group,” Brown said. “We have Officer [Dave] Maas and Mrs. [Becky] Montour with us, as well as the executive Director and Co Founder of Fit Oshkosh, Tracey Robertson.”
In sponsoring the founding of Students Teaching Racial Literacy, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (STRIDE) at West, Robertson hopes to expand Fit Oshkosh’s message of increased racial literacy in the Winnebago County. In order to achieve that goal, they travel around to other schools and organizations in order to supply training to help make work and learning environments more aware of racial bias.
“All of our diversity training is customized. We don’t have a one stop fits all kind of training that we deliver. The training we delivered at West [on August 31 during professional development] focused on some strategies for engaging students differently, and more productively, about race and culture,” Robertson said. “We talked a little bit about classrooms and strategies around cultural responsibility. Then we did some exercises around intent versus impact because we believe in our work that most people are really well intended, but don’t necessarily understand the impact of some of the things they say and how things are said or done or participate in. We hope our work helps people to just shine a light on how they can do better in their engagements.”
Robertson believes that privileged racial majorities can become blind, and even with good intentions can find themselves overturning the stones from past insults and abuses. In order to help people recognize that these biases occur on a daily basis, Fit Oshkosh came to West in an attempt to start the year with some diversity training.
“We had a lot of positive feedback from staff just saying that they had had no idea that there were problems here at West and that some of our students were being treated differently based on the color of their skin and so that was very emotional. I think that that was hard to hear but also necessary to hear,” Principal Erin Kohl said. “The training was the first step of racial literacy training, so just talking about some of the experiences that some of our students have had here at Oshkosh West High School. Tracey did a presentation that helped to get people thinking about looking at different perspectives.”
Kohl believes educating teachers and other staff is the foundation for making West a place free of racial discriminations. Administration has explicit expectations of staff if they witness a situation in the halls or in the classroom.
“We just have a very clear process,” she said. “Because we want to make sure that any kind of comment or actions that are not only grounded in racism but any marginalized population, students with disabilities or students with a low socio economic status, or gender is addressed. We have a very clear process that we want staff to go through.”
Through this process Kohl hopes that West will become a place of justice for all students and staff, and that this will ripple into the Oshkosh community. The first pebble will be grounded in awareness.
“As a white person in the Oshkosh community, I have a very different experience going to a store or the bank, or when I’m here at school, than a person of color might experience,” Kohl said. “I think that [the] awareness that there are privileges that come along with being the majority population in a community and knowing that not everybody in our community experiences those privileges [is necessary]. [It’s] not my fault that it is that way; it’s just reality, and I think that it’s really just raising that awareness and being conscious of it as we do our work here at school.”