As the play opened, a young black man lay motionless beneath a tarp. He symbolized unarmed black men who’ve died because someone — a twitchy neighbor, an inexperienced police officer — perceived him as a threat. Specifically, Vaughn Midder was portraying Trayvon Martin, shot to death by a neighborhood watch captain in 2012, when Midder was a college sophomore. As they rehearsed at the University of Maryland, the cast members waited to hear whether the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot Michael Brown would be indicted.
Midder noticed students taking selfies next to the tarp. It upset him and he demanded that the photos be deleted. To them, it was just a play; to Midder — who has been pulled over by police — what happened to Martin could have happened to him.
“I’m already aware of the fact that by being a young black man, I could be harassed by police,” he said. “I don’t want that feeling intensified, knowing that people have pictures of me pretending to be dead.”
Martin, Ferguson and their galvanizing ripple effects have inspired universities across the country to incorporate racially charged tragedies into their curricula, sometimes in novel ways.
An assistant professor of English and film studies at Hampton University in Virginia has told her students to produce documentaries exploring their points of view about Brown, Martin and other young black men, connecting their deaths to the civil rights movement.
At San Francisco State University, a criminal justice lecturer used the grand jury transcript in the Ferguson case and unedited footage of Eric Garner’s fatal arrest in Staten Island to teach his students, many of whom are headed for careers in law enforcement, about the importance of original source material in drawing conclusions about a nationally publicized incident.
A postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis is teaching a new class called “The Politics of Black Criminality and Popular Protest,” in which he discusses the transition from slavery to the formal and informal systems of criminal justice that have affected blacks throughout history. (The university’s library is partnering with other St. Louis-area universities and organizations to archive the outpouring of community- and media-generated content after Ferguson.)
“There is a long history of segregation and control and policies that are meant to maintain racial and class boundaries,” said Douglas Flowe, the postdoc.
Flowe, the son of a New York police officer, has heard the stories of the threats his father faced. But he said he also has been wrongly accused of transporting drugs when he was a college student.
“I don’t want to talk about Ferguson as some isolated event, but that it is part of a continuum,” he said. “If you’re under the impression that the forces that created issues of criminality aren’t as deep as they really are, it’s easy to have the perception that having a black president, and the advances of the civil rights movement, would simply be enough to right all the wrongs.”
Catholic University law professor Clifford Fishman is using the cases to teach the pros and cons of grand juries. Last semester, he argued in class that the grand jury perhaps was right to not indict the officer who killed Brown, but wrong to not indict the officer who killed Garner.
“The legitimacy of the grand jury and its role in our criminal justice system are being challenged in ways it hasn’t been challenged before, and it’s something my students have to know about,” he said. “The fact that most police officers are white and a disproportionate number of people arrested are nonwhite means we have to confront race in any case where that is the lineup from start to finish.”
Some law professors are struggling with how to talk to their students about Ferguson and Staten Island, said Georgetown Law professor Paul Butler. Butler, a former prosecutor, said he and many of his peers became attorneys because they were inspired by Thurgood Marshall and others who fought the battle for civil rights in the courts. Now, he said, many professors are less optimistic about the legal system’s potential to eliminate racial injustice.
Last month, at a workshop of the Society of American Law Teachers, Butler started thinking about how law professors in 1965 might have taught the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. “Would a law professor say, ‘On one hand, demonstrators are being beat up by police; on the other hand, they really should’ve gotten a permit’? To me, that even-handedness would miss the point,” he said. “In Selma, the teachable moment wasn’t about a permit; the moment was the courage of the marchers and how they changed the law. I don’t want this to be a Selma that I look back on and regret that I didn’t step up.”
Eleanor Earl, the Hampton professor, remembers being pulled over in her new Mustang in Malibu, Calif. The police ordered her boyfriend out of the car, cuffed him and searched Earl’s purse. Earl told them she was an adjunct professor at nearby Pepperdine University, but it was a while before they explained why they stopped her, she said: Her car had an out-of-state license plate. The police let them go. She believes she was the victim of racial profiling and recounts the story to her film students at Hampton, a historically black college.
After Brown and Garner were killed, several students dropped by to tell her how upset they were, and Earl came up with the idea of getting them to explore their feelings through film. “I want them to have a body of work they can use to continue the discussion,” she said. “My goal is not to tell them that ‘You need to do a film about how upset you are’; my job is to say, ‘I want you to share what your opinion is.’ ” The films will be screened this spring at an event open to the Hampton Roads community.
Briana Lomax, a junior from California, is thinking of building her film around the idea that the non-indictments show how the justice system is unfair to people of color. “I wasn’t really shocked, but dismayed that the cops didn’t have any penalties for what they did,” she said.
At Baltimore’s Morgan State University, another historically black college, journalism professor Karen Houppert knew she couldn’t send her students to Missouri to cover the protests over Brown’s death, so she had them investigate Baltimore’s new curfew law, which went into effect the day before Brown was killed , aimed at making at-risk kids safer. Children younger than 14 are required to be indoors after 9 p.m., ages 14 to 16 by 10 or 11.
“What I hoped they’d take away from this is that Ferguson is not so far away from Baltimore and we have many of the same issues going on in our city,” said Houppert, who has written pieces for The Washington Post. “They can feel empowered to investigate and dig into and share with the public.”
Houppert’s students examined the controversial law from the perspective of kids, their parents, city council members, police and employees of the curfew centers where violators are taken. The students created a Web site that includes videos, photos and infographics, and their stories and video were picked up by Baltimore City Paper. Among the students’ findings: The curfew centers seemed to function largely as a babysitting service, and more black youths than whites were detained.
Houppert, who is the only white faculty member in her department, said the racial disparity startled her. Also startling, she said, was that the student journalists were afraid of being stopped for curfew violations, though they all were older than 17.
The students said that while the law’s intent to keep kids safe seemed genuine, “intention probably doesn’t matter that much because lawmakers aren’t in charge of enforcing it,” said Asha Glover, who analyzed the detention data. “Blacks were still getting the effects. It may not be racially motivated, but I’m not sure that always comes through.”
Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, and the talk about a post-racial America that accompanied it, seemed to suggest that racism is no longer an issue, Earl said. “For quite a while, it felt to me that our young people, they’re very aware of their history but they’re somewhat detached,” she said. “But with the terrible things happening in society, some of these things are eerily similar to the stories they’ve heard from their grandparents.”
Maria Varela, who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma in 1963 and 1964 and lectures at colleges, said students’ role in the civil rights movement is de-emphasized in textbooks. She tells undergrads that Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson weren’t the only ones who changed history. Young people did, too. Confronting inequality should be about more than marching, wearing T-shirts and creating hashtags, she said: It’s about knocking on doors, finding out people’s concerns and discovering potential leaders in the community who can address those concerns.
“There was anger and disappointment in Ferguson way before Michael Brown was shot,” Varela said. “People have been misled into believing that social change happens with big events and ‘great man’ leaders. It’s only a movement if people start going door-to-door and finding out what people in Staten Island and Ferguson and all communities need to deal with the oppression in their life.”
The U-Md. play, “Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America,” ran in November. In addition to Trayvon Martin, Vaughn Midder played several roles in the gender- and race-bending play. He was a slave, a Southern belle who owned slaves, a 7-year-old in a low-income family and Paul Robeson. The last scene, which included the entire multiracial cast, was of a memorial for Brown. Actors carried candles, flowers, stuffed animals and signs saying “RIP.” One actress, a black woman, was so overwhelmed she began sobbing after she left the stage.
Midder told the cast that if anyone wanted to discuss the issues raised in the play, he’d be glad to get together. Last month, a white student texted him. She said she’d been thinking about the show and the media coverage of the police shootings. She said she wanted to talk about the Brown case and how people feel when they’re perceived by others through the lens of ethnicity. He said he’d be happy to meet.
Lisa Grace Lednicer is a multiplatform editorat The Post. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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