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By now, it is widely known that Freddie Gray, a young African American male, died earlier this month from a severe spinal cord injury by a Baltimore police officer. His funeral was attended by many families whose sons and brothers, daughters and sisters, met the same fate when they collided with police officers.

Their crime was being a person of color in a society that upholds systematic racism. Outraged and fed up, the citizens of Baltimore went out onto the streets in despair. Fires raged. Rocks were thrown at militarized police forces who, with their protective shields, threw rocks back at this community.

Protests are one of the most powerful statements a group of people can make against oppression.  They show the world first-hand how a large group of people can come together and symbolically represent an injustice. And sometimes, they turn violent.

They turn into riots, the language of the unheard and demoralized. So many people become focused on the destruction violent protests bring, they lose sight of [in this case] the centuries of historical oppression and ultimately exasperation of the situation that has led up to it.

We are urged to judge protesters who start fires and loot stores as unruly, uncompliant citizens who get what they deserve. These thoughts spread as rapidly as poison, and begin to overshadow the daily, repetitive violence inflicted on marginalized communities of color.

People start to divide when the most crucial next step is to come together to restructure our criminal justice system.

African Americans are more likely than any other racial group to be arrested in almost every city, for almost every type of crime. Nationwide, white officers have been found to kill African American suspects twice a week. A 2014 report by ProPublica, a leading investigative and data journalism outlet, concluded that young African American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts.

In Connecticut, we have our own issues with discriminatory practices and arrests. Not five  years ago, Middletown police struck Efrain Carrion with stun guns an estimated 34 times before he died. In the 18 reported cases in which unarmed individuals died after violent confrontations with Connecticut police in the last decade, more than 77 percent were African American or Hispanic.

None of those officers have ever been convicted of a crime in connection with the aforementioned cases. Social injustice is rampant and the last year of heightened protesting is a testament to our thirst for equality.

How is this achieved? Effective social change is implemented through policy and positive community relationship building. We need to increase our efforts in educating people on the power of their vote – in all levels of government.

More coalitions of police officers, community leaders, church officials, and citizens need to join and communicate with one another. Better data and increased transparency in our police departments must be developed as well so we can create further targeted approaches towards ending racial discrimination.

A more systematic evaluation of our policies should be conducted: what is in this system we’ve created? How does it oppress and allow for inequality? When police-related incidents resulting in death occur in Connecticut, why are they investigated by local prosecutors who work with those officers regularly?

The criminal justice system as it stands leaves all communities of color at risk, and has fueled these protests.

We will not forget Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, and the thousands of others who have died before their time at the hands of misjudgment and prejudice. However if compelling change is to be made, it must be done by having these discussions on a political level that sustains tangible reform.

It is time to make the policies that govern this country reflect cultural competency and protect its people who suffer in silence, before there is more violence.

Ashley R. Blanchard is a graduate of the University of Connecticut with a masters in social work and a concentration in policy practice. She works as a public policy analyst and is focused in the areas of homelessness and housing policies, the expansion of macro/political social work, and human rights with special attention to gender equality.

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