Brown School in Solidarity with Community Protests

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017 @ 10:59AM

St. Louis was ground zero for the ongoing struggle for social justice as scores of students and faculty at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis joined protesters to voice their displeasure in the wake of the acquittal of former police officer, Jason Stockley, in the fatal shooting of Lamar Anthony Smith after a car chase in 2011. St. Louis Circuit Judge, Timothy Wilson, cleared Stockley of all charges declaring state prosecutors had failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, despite Stockley being overheard saying he would kill Smith before the shooting. The gun found in Smith’s car contained Stockley’s DNA, but Smith’s DNA was not found on the gun.

The verdict quickly ignited protests coming on the heels of a St. Louis County grand jury’s decision in 2014 not to bring charges against a white police officer, Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Michael Brown in an incident that sparked nationwide protests. Brown School Assistant Professor Molly Metzger, who is actively engaged with the community on low-income housing issues in St. Louis, went out on the streets an hour after the verdict and found Brown School students already joining the protests. “They were prepared after what happened with Michael Brown,” she explained. “The students and administration response was thoughtful and quick.” Dr. Metzger took to the streets while expecting a child next month.

Brown School MPH student Maleeha Ahmad after being maced by police.

Dean McKay and other faculty were on the streets, supporting the students, but also watching over them as witnesses reported that some St. Louis police officers were using extreme tactics. There were reports of kettling—bunching protesters together and denying them a path to escape. Some say police officers were shooting rubber bullets indiscriminately into crowds of protesters and spraying them with chemicals. As many as 100 students participated in the demonstrations. They were macro and micro social work students and graduate public health students.

Jason Purnell, an associate professor at the Brown School who runs a nonprofit organization—For the Sake of All—that seeks to address inequities in St. Louis, wrote a commentary for CNN that addressed the sickness that is racism. He is involved in a perpetual struggle to bring hope to families in St. Louis and prefers to do the work that leads to policy and programs. Dr. Purnell joined the protests when his students told him that it was time he did both. They told him his presence was needed.

I had the opportunity to speak with Brown School students shortly after Mary McKay arrived in St. Louis.  Some students expressed a desire for the school to engage more actively with the broader St. Louis community. I was able to state confidently Dean McKay would be more than supportive. CRISP had worked with Dr. McKay when she was director of the McSilver Institute at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work on a Congressional briefing highlighting a report by the institute on the Trauma of Racism. Dean McKay understands that race is an issue Americans will be grappling with for many years.

Tonya E. Edmond, an associate professor at the Brown School, serves as Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion & Equity. She leads ongoing efforts by the school to focus on issues of racial and ethnic inequality. So, the Brown School was prepared when the Stockley verdict was made public. Regularly scheduled events had provided opportunities for students and faculty to discuss the disturbance in Charlottesville, VA; tackle the ongoing challenge of fair immigration policies, including a clinic for DACA students; and address social and economic inequality in St. Louis and the state of Missouri.

We recently witnessed the ugliness of race baiting when President Donald Trump vulgarly urged National Football League owners to cut players who exercised their First Amendment rights to protest during the playing of the national anthem. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated the firestorm by taking a knee during pre-game ceremonies in 2016. He opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers to become a free agent and no team has made him an offer. Trump also disinvited the National Basketball Association champion Golden State Warriors to a White House ceremony after star player Stephen Curry had the temerity to say he would not attend. Trump admitted he created the racially charged firestorm to placate his political base who were displeased with him for making a deal with Democrats.

Those who use race to divide and stir controversy will ultimately pay a price for their bigotry and hate. Talking about race is uncomfortable for many—black and white. Seeing the world through the different lenses of race is challenging. NBA San Antonio coach Greg Poppovich may have said it best when he said: “We don’t know what it means to be white.”

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