Sept. 20, 2016

'Freedom Interrupted' event launches yearlong dialogue

Noliwe Rooks
Lindsay France/Cornell Marketing Group
Noliwe Rooks, interim chair and associate professor of the Africana Research and Study Center, speaks at the “Freedom Interrupted: Race, Gender, Nation and Policing” roundtable.

Almost 100 people gathered in Klarman Hall’s Rhodes • Rawlings Auditorium Sept. 19 to kick off a yearlong conversation, “Freedom Interrupted: Race, Gender, Nation and Policing,” an interdisciplinary, cross-campus collaboration. Chief Sam George of the Cayuga Nation gave welcoming remarks, followed by a roundtable offering perspectives by members of eight programs and departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, the ILR School, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“We know that despite our focus on the high-profile murders of black men and to a lesser degree black women over the last few years, there are silences and gaps about the other communities for whom grief and mourning are all too common a shared experience,” said Noliwe Rooks, interim chair and associate professor of the Africana Studies and Research Center. “We’re here today because we want to understand our truths and invite you all to share in the process of questioning, answering and probing and mourning together, because that’s what communities do.”

Roundtable participants shared statistics: Being gender nonconforming doubles the chances of being stopped by police and of police using violence; members of American Indian and indigenous communities die in violent confrontations with police five times more often than those in white communities and almost double the numbers in black communities; and between one-third and half of unarmed Americans who die at the hands of police suffer from mental illness or physical disabilities.

Noted Kathleen Long, director of the Feminist, Gender & Sexual Studies Program and professor of Romance studies: “One of the central goals of our program is bringing together the communities represented on this stage and amplifying their voices. We’re not talking about communities that are separate or isolated by one another … anyone who falls outside the definition of what is normative is more readily seen as a threat, and we need to change that.”

The intersectionality of these communities is critical to understanding the complexity of the problem, said Susanne Bruyère, director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability and professor of disability studies. “Disability intersects with other factors like race, class, gender and sexuality, but it is magnified by degrees of marginalization and the risk of violence for people with disabilities.”

Judith Peraino, director of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies Program and professor of music, said the humanities educate to humanize and teach students how to think about difference and complexity, “and we have a moral imperative to understand each other: this is the job training we need to survive.”

Sabine Haenni, director of the American Studies Program and associate professor of performing and media arts and American studies, noted the U.S. is an outlier in its rate of violent death. She emphasized that understanding the past, like the complicated legacy of slavery and the American frontier, “is critical in order to change the future.”

As Hector Velez, interim director of the Latina/o Studies Program, noted: “We who are educated and in the process of becoming educated can’t just stand and gape at the events shaping our world and our people. We must make a stand. Peace begins locally.”

Derek Chang, director of the Asian American Studies Program and associate professor of Asian-American studies and history said although people with Asian-American and Asian Pacific ancestry are less often victims of fatal shootings by police, they experience broader forms of state violence relating to immigration, detention and incarceration. He raised the question of how the nation polices its borders, and “how the nation historically has seen who is fit to enter through a racial frame.”

Carol Warrior, assistant professor of English and faculty member of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, said for Native Americans, “many encounters with police are combined with violent force and racial epithets, mixed with a kind of language that draws from frontier ideas about Indians – that they need taming or that they should be extinct.” She described a community initiative after the death of a First Nations man that resulted in advocacy for better training and accountability for police. The collaboration changed things, she said, “and the community became empowered.”

The conversation between panelists and audience ranged from how to make change happen to the militarization of police forces to social media’s influence. A common thread was the importance of communication within and among communities.

The final audience comment came from Cornell Police Chief Kathy Zoner, who offered a pledge toward “the personal change that does change the institution. It’s through feedback like this that we can get better training, better interactions and better understanding of the communities that we serve. If we stop having these conversations we’ll stop making progress.”

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.