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Academic, Author, Activist: ‘I Hope We Don’t Lose Energy and Focus in This Moment’
Dr. Yohuru Williams, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and David Schroeder, Ph.D., acting dean of the University of New Haven’s Henry C. Lee College, recently engaged the community in a poignant discussion about combatting racism, reforming policing, and reimagining society.
May 12, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Last summer, Dr. Yohuru Williams was invited to speak on a popular Australian morning television show to discuss the murder of George Floyd by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. After his appearance, he says his social media accounts were “overrun” by Australian activists who told him that indigenous people have also experienced violence, and that America’s struggle was also their struggle.
Dr. Williams returned to the show following the guilty verdict in Chauvin’s trial, and he discussed what the activists had told him. This time, some Australian viewers told him he was projecting America’s issue of racism and violence on them.
Sharing this story as part of a virtual event titled “The Derek Chauvin Case & Community Impact” that was held as part of the University’s Courageous Conversation Series, Dr. Williams explained how wildly perceptions of racism and police brutality can differ.
“America is the epicenter, but any time you have colonialism, you find this problem,” he said. “This is a disease that’s bigger than any one community. It may be Minneapolis today, but it could be anyone else tomorrow. In America, it’s a national problem that requires a national response. It requires the best of our intellectual power. It’s about reimagining, not repackaging.”
A professor, author, and activist who is the founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, Dr. Williams discussed the murder of Floyd and what it represents through the lens of history. Discussing violence in the United States throughout history and today, he says what has occurred goes deeper than policing, describing it as the “tip of the iceberg of what we have to address as a society.
“What we do in the aftermath in this moment will determine whether or not we see real change,” he said. “I hope we don’t forget that this engagement should change how we think about not only policing, but questions about race and law. It’s not just a conversation about policing, it’s about society.”
‘We might come up with solutions that can help others’
Dr. Williams engaged in a thought-provoking discussion with David Schroeder, Ph.D., acting dean of the Henry C. Lee College, about investigating cases of police brutality. Intrigued by what it will mean for accountability going forward, Dr. Schroeder reflected on the media coverage of Chauvin’s trial.
“Now is not the time to lose hope,” said Dr. Schroeder, who, as a private investigator, was involved in Rodney King’s civil lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles in 1994. “We’ve been fighting a fight for a long time, and it is unfortunate, but we’re not done. I think if we realize we’ve done a lot and that we’re going to have to do more, that we’ve made it through this pandemic and we’re still having these conversations, we haven’t lost a lot of ground and deteriorated into bedlam.”
An expert in police training, Dr. Schroeder discussed the importance of making sure police officers feel cared for in their environments and explained that knowing how an officer behaves outside of the job – as, say, a parent or partner – can indicate how they will respond on the job. He has been working with police officers to encourage them to approach working with the public as opportunities to make connections, and he has been encouraged by the results.
Dr. Schroeder, who has worked closely with the Polish National Police, which honored him in 2019, says that the last time he was in Poland, he saw police reacting to minority groups in much the same way that some American police officers have done. When some of his police contacts in Poland reached out to him after the murder of Floyd and asked him what was going on in the U.S., he encouraged them to reflect.
“I politely suggested they reexamine what they do,” he said. “Colonialism planted some seeds, and now there are weeds, and they’re everywhere. By focusing on our real problems, we might come up with solutions that can help others. By seeing what others are doing, we might learn what could help us.”
“When we started these Courageous Conversations, this is what we wanted them to look like,” said Carrie Robinson, M.S., director of the Myatt Center for Diversity and Inclusion. “This is what we wanted our community to engage in. We’re looking forward to continuing them in the fall. It’s important as a community to come together as allies and to begin to reimagine what that looks like.”
Dr. Williams echoed the importance of continuing the conversation, telling the University community that change must happen in conjunction with the law itself. He encouraged everyone to get involved in advocating for change.
“I hope we don’t lose energy and focus in this moment,” he said. “We have to dig in, find strength, and continue. This is about reimagination, not reform. Don’t assume there’s not a role for you to play in this work.”