Scholars and Activists Link Current Protests with the Past at ‘Speaking of Justice’ Event

Panelists at last Thursday’s virtual event “Protest as a Path to Progress: Making Black Lives Matter” established the connection between historic and present-day protests and explored how understanding that connection can help in the quest for racial justice.

In a moderated panel discussion hosted by Hunter College and the Roosevelt House, several speakers emphasized that today’s protests are a renewal of historic calls for social reform.

“What we are witnessing today is a 400-year reckoning to what has been unanswered,” said moderator and panelist, Dr. D’ Weston Haywood, who cited historically unanswered calls for decent housing and an end to capitalist exploitation as examples.

“This is what they are responding to,” said the history professor, who specializes in Black protest, politics and culture.

Co-founder of the Greater New York Chapter Black Lives Matter Chivona Newsome was also a panelist at the event. Newsome said that her organization’s goals include improving the education system, increasing mental health treatment, defunding the police department and other initiatives that are reminiscent of requests made by the Black Panther Party of the 1970s.

“It’s not just police brutality that kills people who look like me,” Newsome said. “You have to think about all the systemic ways that people have been treated unfairly.”

Along with Newsome and Haywood, other panelists included Hunter College Latino studies professor Lázaro Lima and sociology professor Calvin Smiley. Panelists said that if activists understand the historical protests that preceded this one, they can avoid pitfalls and make current and future movements more sustainable.

For Newsome, looking at the history of the protest movements lets her know that “nothing happens for marginalized people unless there is legislation behind it.” With every protest, her chapter of Black Lives Matter aims to advocate for specific legislation that will create change, she said.

While it is helpful to know that “the seeds of this movement are coming out of the past,” in one of the breakout rooms, Haywood said he tells his students that it’s alright not to know everything before taking action.

“Oftentimes practice precedes theory,” he said. “Do the reading, but get out there and act.”

Hunter College’s Thomas Hunter building. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Last Thursday’s meeting was the first event of “Speaking of Justice: Race, Racism, and Reform,” a series of virtual events that seek to educate the Hunter College community and the public about the historical and political context surrounding present-day efforts to advance racial equity. 

Featuring Hunter faculty members as well as outside scholars and activists, these weekly meetings consist of an hour of moderated panel discussion and question-and-answer as well as a subsequent 30-minute moderated breakout room session where attendees can discuss whatever they choose, as long as it is relevant.

These events come amid ongoing and unwavering protests against police brutality and as students have raised concerns about what the Hunter College administration would do to address racism and cater to the needs of Black students at this time.

Hunter College president Jennifer Raab announced the series as one of the initiatives that the administration would be undertaking to “continue to confront systemic racism and create a more inclusive learning environment at Hunter.” Other initiatives include Hunter’s Counseling and Wellness Services facilitating a virtual support group for students and Hunter’s administration introducing a new book for the entire freshman class to read to educate students on history, politics and racism.

Speaking of Justice events will continue to take place on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. The next event, taking place on July 16, is “Down with Monuments and Symbols?” and will be moderated by radio talk show host and Hunter journalism professor, Karen Hunter. The speakers are Mississippi state Rep. Zakiya Summers and African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund executive director Brent Leggs. People can register to attend the next event here.

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