​SPINKS: Don’t blame Longo for race problems

The BSA’s recent panel was worthwhile but some criticism missed the mark

On Mar. 20, Student Council organized a community forum with members of local and national law enforcement agencies in response to the brutal arrest of third-year student Martese Johnson. The panel was emotional for me, but I realized that day I will never be able to fully understand how it feels to be a black student at this University. I was angry, sad and indignant following the arrest of Martese. Black students, it seems, also felt isolated, profiled and unsafe on the Grounds of their school due to their race — emotions that I will never be forced to confront.

There were laudable aspects of the panel. VJ Jenkins, president of the University’s chapter of NAACP, and fourth-year Batten student Elshi Zenaye posed questions on behalf of black students in attendance. Their questions were hard-hitting and they conducted themselves with an impressive amount of restraint. I understand the panel mostly existed to help black students at the University start to heal. It was a conduit for anger, a venting space and a chance for law enforcement to be confronted face-to-face. Jenkins called the panel a “unifying event” and BSA Political Action Chair Aryn Frazier said black students were there to “[tell their] own story.” It was important that black student leaders be allowed to take control of the panel, especially if they felt Student Council had not sufficiently consulted with them prior to publicizing the event.

But for all of the good that I know the panel achieved, I don’t believe that it is beyond reproach. The panel was not what I wanted it to be, and I realize that may be unimportant. I know it may seem condescending for me to suggest improvements to black student leaders’ protest and activism tactics, when I am so far removed from the struggles they face on a daily basis.

Nonetheless, I take issue with the way Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo was treated, as well as with the chant, “Answer the question we asked,” which seemed to stifle progress rather than to facilitate effective conversation. I am not a black student. I can’t speak on that community’s behalf, and if my interpretation of occurrences at the panel is inaccurate, I encourage my peers to make me aware of my mistakes. But from my perspective, Chief Longo could not have given black student leaders at the panel more — more support, more empathy and most importantly, more apologies.

Longo began the panel by accepting complete responsibility for the shortcomings of the Charlottesville Police Department, despite the fact that the CPD was not even involved in the arrest of Johnson. (Police brutality, and especially violence against black citizens, is a widespread and systemic problem, of course.) He empathized with us all about what has been a long and emotionally trying school year. He humbly acknowledged the feelings of University students and said he understood that local law enforcement no longer had our trust. He committed to doing anything necessary to earn that trust back.

Further, Longo was one of the only representatives on the panel who offered a response to nearly every question and seemed truly committed to reform and improvement. Despite that, he was disrespected and asked inappropriately pointed questions. Particularly egregious was the suggestion that he didn’t care about people of color because he hadn’t cried at the press conference for Sage Smith, a trans* woman of color who disappeared in 2012, like he had at a similar press conference for Hannah Graham.

As details of Graham’s abduction and murder emerged last year, women across Grounds (myself included) were terrified and demanding answers. We wanted to feel someone cared about our pain and fear. Throughout the investigation into Graham’s disappearance, Chief Longo was the only law enforcement officer or administrator who made me feel any better or any safer. I could tell that he was truly horrified that a student had been harmed, and he dedicated hundreds of man hours (not to mention his personal and emotional attention) to assuring her safe return, or at least to bringing the criminal responsible to justice.

The fact that Chief Longo was willing to take question after question without once getting frustrated or defensive is a testament to how deeply he cares about this community. Furthermore, much of the vitriol directed toward him was, in my view, misplaced. Yes, it is truly unfortunate that Hannah Graham’s case received more media and community attention than the case of Sage Smith, whose disappearance is equally troubling and tragic. But most of that disparity is attributable to factors beyond Longo’s control. Hannah had a community — the entire University, over 20,000 people — to come to her defense. Sage Smith had no such community, and maybe that is an indictment of our society. Maybe Hannah’s whiteness made her an easier rallying point. But Longo can’t change those things.

I was disappointed by the lack of tangible solutions that were proposed at the police forum — by the law enforcement officers, but also by black student leaders. I was frustrated that often they demanded “Answer the question we asked” even when it seemed the question had been sufficiently addressed — and occasionally cut panelists off mid-sentence. The panel didn’t feel conducive to progress. Anger is often a powerful tool for catalyzing change, yet all activists, no matter their skin color or their cause, should be precise about directing that anger at the right people. A willingness, at least to some extent, to work within the system and propose concrete solutions to those in positions of authority is an additional prerequisite of successful grassroots activism.

Ashley Spinks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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