LIBERTY CITY — Local activists have been asking whether a tragedy similar to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri –18-year-old Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent protests – could happen in Miami.
Brown was gunned down Aug. 9 by white police officer, Darren Wilson. Several witnesses have reported that the unarmed Brown had his hands raised in the universal sign of surrender when Wilson shot him.
A forum at the Church of the Open Door last Thursday night addressed that issue, the potential psychological impact the Ferguson events could have on Miamians and the treatment they receive when dealing with institutions of power.
“We know that that’s not too far from home; what happened in Ferguson, happens in Miami,” said Ruth Jeannoel, lead organizer from the Power U Center for Social Change.
She said with the seeming nonstop coverage from Ferguson, people may be feeling sad and angry, but without an outlet to express their feelings. Besides offering people a public space to vent, the forum also had therapists present with whom people were encouraged to speak privately, one on one, should the need arise.
“Self-care is a revolutionary act,” Jeannoel added.
She said, while currently the most prominent, Brown’s death and the police department’s militarized response to the protests are not the only injustices impacting black and brown people around the world.
“[In Miami,] we have a lot of different groups; what would it look like to bring people together? What would it look like to bring different communities together … to talk about the issue of state violence in our communities?” she said.
Before the discussion began, an elderly gentleman who goes by the name of “Kofi,” offered a libation that he said would “welcome the ancestors to the event.” The libation is “a ritual of pouring liquid to acknowledge and call forth those who have gone before us,” he explained before leading the group in an informal version of the African ceremony. He began by calling the name of his deceased mother, then encouraged audience members to join in by calling the names of loved ones who have passed on. Additionally, the names of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr., were invoked.
Seated in what the organizers called a “fish bowl” arrangement, audience members surrounded a smaller group of people who agreed to share their stories of encounters with the police, the Department of Children and Families, the Immigration Department and any other governmental entity accused of inappropriate interventions.
“A lot of times we think of state violence as police brutality, but it’s any form of oppression or control used against us by government or legal institutions, so that could be the police, the military, it could be I.C.E., DCF, the courts and others,” she explained, adding that the mass incarceration in the black community is no longer gender exclusive, because black women represent the fastest growing prison population in the country.
“The system doesn’t blink an eye when one of us is shot down and even in the case of Marissa Alexander, a black woman is told that she doesn’t have the right to defend or stand up for herself,” she said, referring to Alexander’s arrest for shooting what she said was a warning shot in the air to scare off her husband, whom she accused of assaulting her. Alexander faces up to a 60-year prison sentence, although she did not shoot anyone.
“So this is the system that we’re dealing with,” said Jeannoel, who shared a story about a recent visit to a local restaurant with her five-year-old daughter who, upon seeing a police officer asked Jeannoel, “Is this police officer going to kill me?”
An audience member shared the story of having her children removed from her custody by the DCF, after she had been beaten by her then-husband. She was incapable of keeping her children safe, she said DCF told her.
Another audience member spoke of being followed and pulled over by a Miami Gardens police officer despite being told that she had not committed any traffic violations.
Another audience member shared her constant fear of deportation because of the unpredictable searches conducted in her community by the immigration department.
And Offir Hernandez shared how she and her family are still seeking justice for her brother’s death at the hands of Miami Beach police in July 2013. Israel Hernandez, 18, was shot in the chest with a Taser after being chased by several officers. An artist, Hernandez was spotted tagging an abandoned fast-food restaurant. Police have said Hernandez ignored officers’ commands to stop. Hernandez’ friends, who say they were serving as look-outs as Hernandez spray painted the building with graffiti, said police gave each other “high fives,” as he lay motionless.
Michelle Hollinger may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org