By Kristian Bekele and Micah Tam
On Aug. 30, students from the Sociology of Law class at Summit Prep attended a symposium that included guest speakers such as Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner and Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice. The event also included a town hall discussion, a film screening and discussion panels.
This event was a part of the Expedition course’s curriculum concerning the understanding of the justice system and its shortcomings.
The topic of institutionalized racism is something that Expeditions teacher Lissa Thiele has taught several times within both her Holocaust and Genocide class and her Sociology of Law class.
Her focus has been on multiple aspects of institutionalized racism such as the school-to-prison pipeline, the higher incarceration rates of African Americans versus other races and how slavery and Jim Crow laws in American history have affected modern day society.
Starting off the event, filmmaker Kristina Williams screened her film Black Lives, Gray Matter. In it, scenes of BLM protests, an interview with the San Francisco police chief William Scott and the criticism of the #AllLivesMatter movement were shown. After the screening, Williams explained the purpose of this event when she said, “Today is about planting seeds so we can all grow and blossom.”
Following the screening, a mediated discussion with the guest panel of mothers whose children died from police brutality took place.
The panel covered topics such as the media’s portrayal of their sons, gathering strength to tell their sons’ stories and the unfairness of losing a child.
Explaining how much she missed her son, Johnson said, “I miss him at the table at Thanksgiving. I miss him at my birthday celebrations.”
Rice said, “I don’t know how they can demonize a 12-year-old,” when talking about how the media twisted the image of her son.
Carr said, “No matter what the color of your skin is, what religion you are, wrong is wrong and right is right,” and, “Another mother shouldn’t cry as we have,” when voicing her frustration over the society’s current treatment of how black children and black people are treated.
The students who attended this symposium saw this as a trip that was necessary to be a part of.
Vanessa Contreras, a Summit Prep junior, said that it was necessary for students to attend this symposium because hearing the mothers that were involved allowed for students to “get to take away how they went through the pain.”
Other students reiterated the same point as Contreras.
Kurumi Babe, a junior at Summit Prep, spoke about how it was essential for students to attend this symposium because students are the future. She said, “You get to know other people’s stories. You want to help other people like them so it doesn’t happen again.”
Kayla Payan, a senior at Summit Prep, said, “Empathy was a big reason why we should have gone.”
Liliana Gomez, a senior at Summit Prep, put it in perspective by saying, “It could be your son that gets shot.”
Sometimes, finding empathy might be overshadowed by the shame that comes with talking about sensitive topics like race.
James Howe, a junior at Summit Prep, believes that sometimes parents are uncomfortable with a heavy topic such as race. He elaborated more by saying, “A lot of parents feel that their kid shouldn’t be exposed to it in certain ways; they’ll feel paranoid.”
Two seniors, Anna Axiaq and Jane Abrams, expanded on his points by pointing out the various ways in which parents and the society can stifle the much-needed dialogue.
Abrams brought in the history of America and how institutionalized racism has yet to resolve. She said we have to acknowledge “so many problems in our society” such as institutionalized racism in American society.
Axiaq brought in her own experiences as a person who had a different experience due to her upbringing in a White household, explaining that her parents were protective and she hadn’t heard about Oscar Grant “until I was in a class that a teacher exposed and explained why these things happen.”
Students saw this missed opportunity for education as an issue, and they said it was only through unity and education that progress can be made.
Summit Prep senior Isabella Weiss articulated on the issue of social unity by saying, “This world, no matter who you are, will have problems because not everyone is fully accepting of everyone. It won’t be easy, but if everyone has an open mind, stuff can be achieved.”
Victor Aguilar, a sophomore at Summit Prep, said that topics like this are “not black and white” and that each situation is going to be different due to the people involved in the case.
There were students who disagreed with this stance, saying that police should have more training in how to de-escalate in intense situations.
Summit Prep senior Jose Gutierrez-Hernandez believes that police “can’t handle certain situations” and that they “act on their own”. He further voiced his stance by saying, “Some cops, they don’t think about other situations. They don’t see the best option. They’d rather just shoot the person than injure them.”
Other students also agreed with what Gutierrez-Hernandez said concerning police conduct with communities.
Summit Prep junior Connor Pierce said something similar: “They need to be better on recognizing situations before they pull out their weapon.”
Axiaq repeated a point that Samaria Rice said during the symposium about how officers receive 56 hours of firearm training and only 10 hours of community training.
Kayla Payan also backed up her reasoning by pointing out that for police officers to do their job they “have to know about the community.”
Payan concluded with how essential community training is to interacting with community members. She intoned, “As much as I love the idea of a cop seeing a gun and saying ‘Hey, please stop’, and de-escalate, it’s not going to happen.”
Ms. Thiele also sees teaching students about social justice issues such as criminal justice and incarceration rates as something that is unavoidable. “The same topics that were current four years ago are still current now,” she explained.
She believes that “people have not learned from the past” and therefore sees “an immediate and urgent need to teach my students how to survive in American society.”
She has seen pushback about teaching such a topic with student’s parents.
Ms. Thiele has had a wide range of concerns from parents seeing the class as necessary for their college credentials to: “Does this add value for my child?” or even parents assuming that students are attending a protest.
Some parents are concerned on whether all sides are being equally presented in her teaching. Ms. Thiele said that she does represent the sides that are “insane stances” such as Holocaust denial.
Ms. Thiele instead mentions the class subjects are about “educational awareness” and are quintessential to the next generation of parents. “I’m talking about when they are parents.”
Featured Image (top of this post): Mother of Eric Garner, Gwen Carr, speaks to Summit Prep students.