Barrett Social (In)Justice Series focuses on action against systemic racism

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June 29, 2020

Barrett kicked off its new Social (In)Justice Series on with a discussion about activism, Black Lives Matter and radical solutions to racism, white supremacy and violence against Black people.


The first discussion of the series was between Mathew Sandoval, a Barrett Faculty Fellow and race scholar, and Shamell Bell, a street dance activist, original member of the Black Lives Matter movement and visiting faculty member at Dartmouth College. You can watch the recorded discussion on the Barrett YouTube channel.


The discussion was held online on June 19, or Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced the end of the U.S. Civil War and slavery. 


The Social (In)Justice Series comes in the wake of the killing of Black Americans, many at the hands of police, and the subsequent protests that have followed George Floyd’s death on May 25.


On the same day Minneapolis police killed Floyd, an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper shot and killed Dion Johnson, a 28-year-old Black Phoenix man who was asleep in a car on Loop 101 when the trooper approached him.


On June 1, ASU President Michael Crow released a statement addressing Floyd’s death and calling for deans, faculty and students of ASU’s colleges to create new models for protecting civil rights and addressing policing. 


Sandoval said that when the national discussion about police brutality and anti-Black racism began to pick up, he got several emails from students asking him about his thoughts and how to process the quickly changing situation.


Student inquiries and a desire to seek real change in the ASU community inspired Sandoval and a number of other Barrett Downtown faculty members to create the Social (in)Justice Series. The series is meant to start a dialogue about racism and Black lives. Sandoval said he wants the series to be a platform for under-represented Black voices to be heard. 


Bell was the first person Sandoval thought of to bring into the discussion. Bell and Sandoval got to know each other when they completed their PhDs in the same program at UCLA.


“I love the way that she thinks because she thinks like an artist, and that's very different than a lot of organizers or activists who are thinking in the strict realm of politics,” Sandoval said. 


Before beginning the wide-ranging discussion, Sandoval and Bell acknowledged the Native American history of the locations from which they were speaking – the Shoshone of Elko, Nev. and the Tongva of Los Angeles, Calif. Then, Bell led viewers in a meditation exercise focused on grounding themselves into freedom.


The sounds of police helicopters circling Los Angeles were in the background as Bell introduced herself and discussed her educational, artistic and activist experiences.


“Police make me afraid. My heart started to beat really fast and I almost got teary eyed, like I feel unsafe,” Bell said. 


“That was a really difficult transition that as soon as we went live, then that's when the helicopters came. It was like, go, Shamell. Speak to people about these radical possibilities while there's cops, while there's helicopters right on top of you.”


Sandoval began the discussion by asking Bell how the moment was affecting her and what she was seeing happen in the community.


Bell said the coronavirus pandemic helped pave the way for more people to join the Black Lives Matter movement.


“What I see is that people are able to go within the pandemic and kind of do some clearing and do some understanding of what their vision of freedom would look like,” Bell said. “I actually had a lot of people tell me like, ‘I didn't know where my place was in the Black Lives Matter movement until I was quarantined, and then I got fed up, and then I said, eff all of this, and now I know that I'm going to use whatever I can to get out.’” 


Bell uses labor pains, contractions and birth as metaphors to describe the movement for civil rights and social justice. 


She said past moments of unrest, like the responses to the killing of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, were similar to Braxton Hicks contractions that serve to prepare you for real labor pains but go away if you move a certain way.


Now, new allies are arriving in the Black Lives Matter movement to take the role of doulas in the birthing metaphor, providing emotional and physical support as well as advocacy to the Black community, Bell said. 


Bell said she is asking these “doulas” to be compassionate and authentically care for Black lives.


“We're not assuming that just because you're a medical professional you are here to keep us safe, that you are here to listen to our symptoms, that you are not looking at us and not already assuming that you know what’s going on with us or misdiagnosing us,” Bell said.


“Now, we’re getting our emotional support, our physical support, amplifying our voices and providing resources that are outside of that medical professional system.”


Sandoval and Bell agreed that seeing the sudden influx of support for the Black Lives Matter movement brings mixed feelings of gratitude and being gaslit.


At the same time as she was working toward her PhD, Bell was organizing on the ground for Black Lives Matter LA and almost lost her life. 


When she saw people who had historically stayed quiet while she fought hard for the Black Lives Matter movement suddenly showing up and supporting, Bell said she had to release her ego and get therapy.


“You feel it, but then you also immediately look in the mirror and you say, yes, I have gratitude that people are waking up, even if some of it is performative,” Bell said. “But also, it was me taking out the ego and saying, I need to be compassionate. I need to be compassionate, because I always wasn’t this woke.”


The protests following George Floyd’s death brought with them a new awareness and call across social media to defund the police. 


Bell said she has always advocated for abolition of the police, rather than defunding police. To her, the difference is all semantics.


“There's high school students who are like, we don't need cops, we need counselors… and now people are like, okay, I can’t hop on to abolish police, but I can say let's defund and get resources elsewhere,” Bell said.


“So I think that's kind of what's going on, but what I feel is that we should definitely be having real conversations about what it means to abolish the police and then deal with the basic needs that are not being met.”


Bell said her focus on abolition of the police and the prison-industrial complex has created tension between her and people who want to see killers of Black people, like the four police officers involved in George Floyd’s death, locked up.


She said she wants to see justice delivered through a different system than the one she is trying to dismantle—something that is difficult for many people to envision.


“We have the power and capacity to actually get what we want, and we shouldn't settle for less,” Sandoval said.


Sandoval said people should ask themselves what they can imagine the world looking like. For him, it is easy to imagine a world without police.


“The police are a historical institution. We haven't existed in the United States at all times with a professionalized police force, you know what I mean? Like that is a historical invention, that is a historical creation.”


When it comes to calls to action against racism and white supremacy, Sandoval said, the resounding message in many conversations is to go out and vote, and to vote blue. 


He said there is a presumption that Democrats will solve racial injustices and that they themselves aren’t contributing to that problem.


While Bell said she will always vote, she said she is tired of trying to find solutions through the same system.


“People are still trying to fix or reform this system in the same ways we know are not working,” Bell said. “So, for me, what I would love for people to do is to opt-out and be like look, [we’re] taking this over.”


Bell said she took control by choosing to homeschool her son rather than putting him in public schools where she felt he was at risk of becoming a part of the preschool to prison pipeline. 


She acknowledged that the concept of divesting from established systems and creating new ones won’t be as appealing or feasible for others as it was for her.


“People are going to need mental health facilitation on grief and loss. Even for people who are from oppressed populations, it’s going to be hard,” Bell said. 


Sandoval said people often make their electoral choices out of fear or necessity and that it takes people opting out of systems in order to create reform. 


During the live stream, viewers sent in comments and questions for Sandoval and Bell to address. The first question was about the roles that universities and academics play in dismantling systems of oppression. 


Bell said as a university professor, it is her job as an individual to dismantle the system she works within. 


For her, this means creating a more holistic approach to education, looking at her students as vulnerable individuals, and redistributing knowledge and wealth across communities. 


Bell and Sandoval said universities were originally intended to be places for people to get an education with the intent of returning to their communities and sharing their knowledge. Universities today are far from that concept, they said.


“So many people see the university as the escape from where they’re at and they don’t ever want to go back. So they don’t ever want to bring that knowledge back to the communities they started from,” Sandoval said. 


Moving forward, Bell would like to see a different economic system such as a gift economy or one where there is no element of hierarchy. Bell said she envisions transformative and restorative justice models rather than punitive systems.


She referenced systems in Koreatown in LA where people avoid calling the police in order to protect undocumented people. Instead, call for services specific to people’s needs.


“If someone's doing some kind of crime or done something bad, we encircle them in our circle, and tell them… this is all the great things you've done,” Bell said.


When thinking about a future without white supremacy, Bell said she considers the impact that transition may have on white people who are working to shed their innate privilege. 


She said this could have an especially lasting impact on poor white people who were being used by a system that didn’t really value or protect them.


“Right now, all they have is their skin, and if we're taking that away because blackness is so lit, how are they feeling right now? And I'm not trying to be an apologist, I'm just wanting us to be smart enough to know this isn't going to be sustainable for them,” Bell said. 


Sandoval said he hopes students will participate in Social (In)Justice Series discussions and find ways to take action against racism and white supremacy. 


“I think the onus is always on to pass this work to the next generation so that they can put their hands into the soil and start making change and stop thinking about it just at the abstract theoretical level or knowledge level like, oh, now I understand something about racism,” Sandoval said. 


“No, it's not about understanding, it's about understanding in a way to do something with that knowledge. So that is my hope with the Social (In)justice Series, that it's a way not just to educate, because of course, that is a central component. It’s implied in the fact that we're a university, but that has to be put into action and has to be put into motion.”


Story by Greta Forslund, a Barrett, The Honors College student majoring in journalism.