Dear GSU: "We Have Rights, Too"

Dear GSU,

On Thursday, September 28, 2017,  the Zeta Phi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated hosted an interactive panel discussion called “We Have Rights Too”, dealing with police brutality and the legal rights that citizens possess when being stopped. The panel consisted of Nora Polk, a DeKalb County Judge, Sergeant Aprille Moore who is a law enforcement officer and training coordinator in Fulton county, Michael Shapiro a professor in the Criminal Justice department here at GSU, and Sherri Washington a criminal defense attorney and county commissioner in Rockdale County, Georgia.  The event began with a scene from episode five of the Netflix series, Dear White People. This scene depicts when Reggie gets into a confrontational argument with a white classmate over his use of the N-word while singing along to a popular song. Things escalated which resulted in the campus police showing up to ask Reggie if he is a student. When Reggie verifies his collegiate stature, the campus officer demands that Reggie shows him his I.D. When attempting to explain what happened, Reggie is held at gunpoint. This scene has an exponential amount of power behind it because it displays the terrifying truth of how quickly a situation can escalate when dealing with an aggressive officer while also being black. Kelly Perry, Zeta Phi’s chapter President said it best, “There are a lot of situations where people are just going about their daily lives and they become unjustly targeted by the cops because they are African-American. In these situations, they are often times young and unarmed but because of their skin color they are killed.” Following the short clip, attendees broke into four groups and were given a scenario that they had to create an ending for. Following their performance, they were to come up with three questions to ask the panelists. The four groups were then given 30 minutes to collaborate amongst themselves to figure out what their scenes would consist of. 

During the collaboration period, members of Zeta Phi interacted with the groups, asked if they needed assistance or had any questions, or if they wanted to brainstorm with them. They also made it their personal goal to keep the environment light throughout the program even though they were dealing with a very heavy social topic. Overall, Perry wanted the event to tackle serious issues but also be an interactive event for those who attended. “Even though police brutality and things dealing with the law are serious I wanted them to have fun and be able to interact and to also take away something new that they learned based on the law. I wanted people to be able to express themselves while doing it”, said Perry. After the collaboration period, all four groups had 10 minutes to perform and have their questions answered. Each scenario was based on doing everyday things but the twist was that it was done “while being black”, such as driving or trying to get into your own home while. “While being black” scenarios are often a part of the daily life of African-American men and women who are unjustly targeted by the police.

Group one went first and their scenario involved a young African-American woman having a party within her home and the police show up after the neighbors have complained. The young woman lets them in, they demand her I.D. and begin to ask everyone how old they are. When the partygoers do not comply they begin to arrest everyone in the party and that was the end of the scene. Does this sound familiar? It should how often are parties thrown and the cops are called and situations go astray.  They may shut the party down or it may escalate but it won’t be known until it happens.  These situations that attendees were given share the light on the “what if” possibility that the one time we fear of actually takes place.  Group two followed, their performance involved a young woman who was trying to enter her home while intoxicated but was fumbling with her keys. Officers driving by stop and assume she is trying to break into the home. They then approach her asking if she needs to be taken home and request to see her I.D. She does not comply and the officers attempt to arrest her but she resists all while being recorded by her peers. This scenario is similar to the one of Henry Louis Gates, an African-American Harvard professor who was trying to get into his home when a white neighbor called the cops suspecting someone was breaking in. The cop shows up and Mr. Gates provides identification but is still arrested. Next was group three whose topic portrayed a party bus filled with women is the influence get pulled over by the cops, they are all intoxicated except for the driver. The officers say that the ladies on the bus are too rowdy and request to search the bus the women do not comply. The last group's scenario was slightly different from the rest.It dealt with the type of police brutality that is not talked about very much and that is sexual harassment.  A group of girls is going home from dance practice and stop to practice and joke around outside. A neighbor calls the cops citing that there is an unknown group of girls outside of her house being loud and making a disturbance and she is unsure what they are doing. The officer shows up and begins to speak with the young ladies. As he is questioning them he makes comments about their outfits and how they are fitting. The ladies attempt to leave but he grabs one of them by the arm and says they are not going anywhere until he is done with his questions and then requests back up. The ladies attempt to leave a second time and he grabs the same girls arm again and demands to see what’s her in her bag. She refuses and backup arrives. After backup arrives and it is seen nothing is wrong the ladies leave.   (*sidenote these scenes are not truly accurate of what happens in these daily encounters just interpretations of what may happen. They do not account for any laws when being portrayed and maybe flawed or slightly inaccurate).

 After each scene, the panelist would add clarity on what may actually happen in that scene in real life and correct where the scene went wrong. For example, after group one’s performance they explained how the officer did not try to search the home without a warrant but in fact when the young woman let them in she initially gave consent. Judge Nora Polk went on to further explain the difference between an officer needing a search warrant to enter your home and allowing an officer into your home by stating the fourth amendment giving you the right to deny unreasonable search and seizure and clarifying that an officer must have a search warrant to enter your home unless you consent to them entering in. Another example of this is when Sergeant Moore explained the difference between a search warrant and an arrest warrant. Clarifications like these are essential for individuals to know and understand their rights. 

This discussion allowed attendees to ask questions that they would not know off the top of their head unless they are a studying these laws in school or have those work in law enforcement in their family.Attendees seemed truly intrigued by the panelist as they silently took in every answer with wide eyes and focused faces. They asked necessary questions that showed the underlying concerns and fears that we all as African-Americans, especially African-American females have on the inside when being stopped by the police such as, “If you ever feel uncomfortable with the officer or situation can you request an additional officer or request a specific gender” or “What are the grounds for a stop and frisk?”. Questions like these must be asked in order to not only know your rights but to protect yourself from situations that could leave you feeling violated or taken advantage of as a woman. Other questions gave light to many common situations and terms that are used but are never truly explained in depth such as ,  “Under what circumstances are considered to be probable cause to have officers enter your home to search?” which was asked by group one.  Sergeant Moore answered, “ Probable cause in layman terms is for you to believe that a crime is being committed or likely to be committed.” She then went on to explain the exigent circumstances to which an officer may not need a warrant if he/she may have enough probable cause such as” If I am a law enforcement officer not necessarily in this scenario but let's say you were smoking marijuana or you have underage drinking. So at that time, I have probable cause in one of the exigent circumstances could be that you are getting rid of the evidence by flushing down the contraband or pouring out the alcohol. That may give the officer warrant to enter your home because they may think you're trying to get rid of contraband. There are fifteen exigencies that allow officers to enter your home with probable cause.” Knowledge of these exigencies is not common. Panelist answered the questions in depth with not only the explanation of laws but case studies, examples and possibly different outcomes that could happen in that possible situation just by changing very minor details of the event.  Throughout each discussion, the panel continuously stressed the importance of complying with law enforcement. One of the most emotional and powerful moments of the night came when group two, whose scenario dealt with the intoxicated woman trying to get into her own home when police thought she was breaking in and not complying asked “What should have been done in this scene differently?” the panelist took this group’s actions to emphasize the importance compliance. Commissioner Sherri Washington stated, “I tell my family, my nephew, my daughter, anyone in my family that the goal is to get you home. I need you to come home. We can deal with anything else later but you do what it takes to get home.If it is yes sir no ma'am. Do whatever it takes… This is not the time, this is not the climate to have an attitude with someone who in their mind is justified.” Throughout each group, the panelists continued to press the topic of complying with officers. We as African-Americans must do whatever it takes to live another day and if that means complying with an officer in an unjust situation then so be it. Our lives are too valuable to lose in any of these situations that at any moment can happen to any of us. Knowing your rights is essential especially with all that has been happening in the world today. This interactive panel did not only inform those who attended the event but possibly saved lives. Thank you to the women of Zeta Phi for the much-needed program.

 So thank you GSU for reading and hopefully, you will make time to attend the events during the remainder of the week from these amazing women. If you have yet to do so, be sure to follow the Zeta Phi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated on Instagram @zetaphi1969_dst!