By Jhoana T. Merino-Martinez
With ongoing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and dangerous policing procedures in the media’s spotlight, the discussion about the United States justice system is more important than ever.
Becton College and Student Government Associations of both Florham and Metropolitan campuses presented the program, “And Justice for All: Police Reform in the Era of George Floyd” on Tuesday, Sept. 22, as part of a “Hot Topics” discussion series.
New Jersey and Vancouver campus students were invited to partake in the program via Zoom.
The program had more than 150 participants at its peak as speakers from different walks of life discussed police reform and the BLM movement.
Bruce Peabody, Florham Professor of Government and Politics, moderated the discussion and introduced each panelist: Shytail Clay, Maame Mensah, Benita Wyche, Douglas Evans, Patrick Kissane and Rhudell Snelling.
Peabody first took a moment to remember the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18.
He dedicated the program to her radical spirit for advocacy and change. A quote of hers that rings true to the heart of the social-justice movement was, “I ask for no favors for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
Renewed Focus on Diversity
FDU President Christopher Capuano said during the forum, “I want everyone to know that FDU stands united with the students, staff, and alumni of color, and we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to racism and any form of discrimination.”
On June 30, at the virtual “Student Forum on Diversity and Inclusion at FDU,” he promised more dialogue about diversity among the FDU community.
That was followed by the Black Student Union’s (BSU) Diversity Forum on July 21, which addressed racial discrimination at FDU and reached out to student participants to pitch solutions.
This new forum focused on the flaws with policing in the U.S., which is a topic of public concern.
FDU convened this “Hot Topic” conversation to virtually gather professors and officials with students from across the university’s campuses.
Discussions Among Participants
Shytail Clay, a Florham sophomore majoring in government & law, discussed the three points of change the BLM movement stirs: reform, defund and abolish.
Maame Mensah, a Metropolitan senior psychology major and a Bronx native, gave her perspective.
She said her earliest school memories stem from teachers being blunt about the “future” of delinquency that awaits the students and the bleak hope of ever making it to college. For communities like these, Mensah believes that the BLM movement reaching into many social media platforms is pivotal to break through the echo chamber and let Black people know that they have a voice and future.
Metro graduate student and criminal justice major Benita Wyche said every section of both the penal and justice system needs to change, especially to decrowd prisons.
“Racism is woven into the fabric of the United States,” said Douglas Evans, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice, giving the early policing job of slave patrol as an example.
Evans acknowledged the constant dangers police officers face, from suicide response to drug and substance abuse. However, he said officers are given the power to take someone’s freedom and even their lives.
Change needs to be demanded in order for it to happen, Evans said.
“People need more of a hand up, than a handcuff, so to speak,” said FDU alumnus Patrick Kissane, retired deputy chief of police at Fort Lee, N.J.
Kissane’s specialty is advocating for community policing, especially focusing on keeping youth in school and out of the system.
Community is the police and the police is the community, he said.
He also said tactical training is not enough for the variety of situations police officers face.
The last speaker for the evening, Rhudell Snelling, an agent for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, agreed with Kissane.
“We can no longer use yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems,” Snelling said.
A firm advocate for community policing as well, Snelling said this concept of policing allows officers of the region to be genuinely interested in community matters because they are a resident, rather than the disconnect faced by officers who do not live in the communities they serve.
Communication is key to change, Snelling said, and the public needs to work on connecting police to the community. This can include hosting programs with officers and community members.
Overall, the program provided perspectives on the BLM movement while encouraging engagement among the panelists. Peabody said more program collaborations among FDU’s campuses can be expected in the future.
“Change doesn’t start with me … it starts with everyone,” Benita Wyche said. “If we all come together and acknowledge the real problem and what’s going on, I believe justice can be done.”