Reflections at Stony Brook University Town Hall, June 18, 2020

On this eve of Juneteenth I’m sharing the video of my remarks at a Stony Brook University town hall about systemic racism. The text follows:

 

 

 

 

My name is Abena Asare and I’m Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History in the Dept. of Africana Studies.

We meet today in the midst of an uprising against state-sanctioned violence targeting Black and African American people in the United States. This uprising is focusing on transforming systems of racial violence and the individuals and institutions that defend, benefit from, and justify these systems. This is an uprising watered by the blood of Black folk, Black trans people, men women and children who have been lynched at the hands of the state. We sit in the shadow of families and community members who have HAD to organize, and march, and protest and give public statements, in the midst of their mourning.

So we say their names! Rayshard Brooks, Maurice Gordon,  Tony McDade, Elijah McCain, Sandra Bland, Philandro Castile, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Korryn Gaines. We say their names to make the state’s violence visible. We also say their names because each of these losses ruptured a whole world; these were unique, inividual human beings who were relatives, mothers, friends, loved ones. Each is irreplaceable. These are not hashtags or bodies, each of these precious ones was someone’s whole world.

Even as we say their names we realize that we cannot finish; the list is just too long. Those cut down explicitly and covertly by our state keep coming even as we weep, and get our degrees, hold our zoom meetings, and raise our children in fear and hope. This problem of state lynching which is a manifestation of society’s investment in morbid anti-blackness is not a matter of a few bad apples on the police force, or a particularly sympathetic victim, a particularly brutal death; we are speaking today about the routine, deadly violence that has kept the wheels of this country’s economic and political system churning as it has for the past 400+ years. What does it mean to say a enough! Enough already.

We begin by taking stock of where we are.  I need to acknowledge the decades of organizing and labor that have led to this current moment. We need to know that the Black Lives Matter movement, founded by 3 Queer Black Women n 2013 is a reclaiming and reignition of the Black Freedom Movement that extends back to the 1970s to the Black Panther Party, to  SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960,  to Ida B Wells and her campaign against lynching in the 1920s, to Frederick Douglass who asked in the 1850s what to the slave is the 4th of July, a question that fundamentally is not about where Black people fit into the nation, but really about where the United States fits into the annals  of global inhumanity.

So where are we?  In the past three weeks, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the city’s police dept and instead fund public safety system.

The University of Minnesota has also  severed all ties with the police department.

Increasingly, folks around this nation are willing to acknowledge that pouring money into  police state, does not make us safer, but that it does make the country more unequal and definitely more deadly for Black and Brown, poor, and disabled folk. More people around the country are beginning to step towards a realistic vision of public safety.

This past Saturday, 15,000 ppl marched through Brooklyn to protest this state’s violence against Black trans women who face disproportionate levels of harm both at the hands of police in the streets.

Racist statues are tumbling into the sea, pulled by the hands of people who believe that we need other iconography, others images for our public spaces.

At the same time, over these past week, we have seen police assaulting protestors in our urban areas.  We are living through a time where police are pepper spraying crowds of protestors in the midst of  a deadly virus that specifically attacks the human respiratory systems.  This should be considered a crime of war and must be stopped immediately.

What I’m saying is that this fight is far from over; this is not the time for platitudes and complacency. Not at all.  This is a moment when each of us, individually and corporately are being invited to take a look at our power, where did we get it from, what is the nature of the power that we hold, and what do we want to do with it.

Which brings me to Stony Brook and to this meeting today. We should be clear about on thing. Many of the institutions that have been quick or slow to release statements declaring their support for Black LiVes  have yet to do anything at all to address the  systemic racism that plagues their institution. And no a panel, or a town hall does not count as something.

It may be convenient to wring our hands about about George Floyd, but we must acknowledge that there is a man called Akbar Rodgers, a Freeport, LI man, not too far from here, last December 2019, who was beaten and assaulted within an inch of his by the police in Suffolk County. We have to acknowledge Jeffrey McClure a 26 year old man who was shot and killed by the police in Northport just a few days when his father called 911 for psychiatric help.  In Suffolk County, black and brown people make up just 17% of the population, but account for 53% of felony arrests. In fact, the US Justice Dept is currently reviewing Suffolk’s record of traffic stops and race because the data is so egregious. (I want to thank Nia Adams of the Long Island Progressive Coalition for some of these statistics). So what is Stony Brook University’s relationship to the Suffolk County PD? Stony Brook is the largest emplyer, the economic hub of the region, what does it mean for our institution to lead in saying our budget and our practices should reflect our values?

When university release these  Black Lives Matter statements  we must ask how these relate to the ongoing “reopening plans” that do not take into account how Black and other communities of color are being affected by the COVID 19 epidemic. My colleagues Joseph Pierce and Odalis Hernandez in the UUP have written an open letter insisting that the question of reopening and how it is done IS a racial justice issue, is an equity issue, and that we must protect the most vulnerable members of our community as we make these plans. I would encourage you…

As we wring our hands about George Floyd we would do well should consider our own university’s links to prison labor. In 2019, Stony Brook University and the hospital spent nearly 40,000 on prison-made goods. Thanks to historians Rob Chase and Yalile Suriel for these numbers. Our institution is tied up in our national nightmare of racial violence. The question is what are we willing to do about it.

So

The cry Black Lives Matter is not only about the police as an isolated institution; the cry Black Lives Matter is looking at systemic racism and the way it is reproduced and protected and furthered by a number of institutions across society. This country, has historically, in law and in practice, valued property and wealth, and the need to defend these, more highly than it has valued the lives of many of us within its borders–specifically Black, Brown, and indigenous folk. In a country located on stolen land, built through stolen labor, the cry Black Lives Matter in 2020 is a call to do the necessary work of imagining and pursuing a future that is not forever trapped within our violent racialized national history.

 

Food Crisis in Suffolk County, NY

 

People from all walks of life are being hit hard by the COVID crisis. Many in our communities are seeing their income drastically reduced, losing their jobs, and/or facing health crisis with attendant financial costs during this time. Individuals and families throughout Suffolk County are struggling to secure food. Some in our communities do not have the means to buy food for themselves  and their families. Others may have the means to purchase food, but due to age, health status, illness, pregnancy, transportation difficulties, distance from stocked supermarkets, federal restrictions on using SNAP benefits for delivery costs, and other factors are unable to secure the necessary food.

Historically marginalized communities are facing disproportionate harm in this public health emergency. Throughout Suffolk County, indigenous, African American, Latino, immigrant, low and fixed income, undocumented, and elderly communities, among others, are facing particular hardship because of already existing vulnerabilities in our nation’s social services, labor, and health systems. Homeless and unhoused persons, as well as families with disabilities face new obstacles in their ability to secure food and medicine. As a region with high levels of income inequality, and a history of racial and economic segregation, Suffolk County’s disparities may be deepened because of the COVID crisis.  The temporary closure of schools, churches, non-profits and other key community institutions has left many families increasingly dependent on a limited and shrinking set of networks for access to necessary goods and services—including basic nutrition.

In our region, the COVID-19 crisis has put unprecedented stress on our emergency food aid systems. Food pantries and food banks throughout Suffolk County are facing overwhelming amounts of need and continue to issue urgent calls for donations and volunteers. School districts throughout Long Island have become emergency food access points by providing “grab-n-go” lunches to ensure that families who rely on freed and reduced breakfast and lunch continue to receive nutrition throughout the unprecedented period of school closure. New networks of mutual aid have sprung up throughout the island to respond to this reality, and diverse community organizations have had to quickly take up the problem of food aid because of the urgent levels of need among their members and clients.

We have been heartened and inspired by the heroic efforts of long-established organizations and newly developed mutual aid networks alike. There have been generous outpourings of donations of money, time, and food as people throughout Suffolk strive to take care of another.

AND YET, existing systems are not sufficient. We have seen the pictures of the long lines of cars wrapping around block by block when food pantries have sporadically offered drive- by pickups. We know that individuals take risks when they entrust their EBT cards to others for shopping because SNAP benefits cannot be used to pay grocery delivery fees. We know that many people with disabilities are unable to wear the masks required in public shopping establishments and unable to wait on queues to receive food. We know that many in our communities are unable to navigate the process of finding a food pantry that is open, speaks their language, and can meet their needs. We see people involved in mutual aid efforts contract COVID-19 and sicken as they serve their community.

We do not know how long it will be until Suffolk County is open for business once again. We do not know how long our public and private schools may be closed or what types of shelter in place, quarantine or isolation policies may be enacted to protect human life in our area. Without maintaining adequate nutrition for all throughout this crisis period, the eventual recovery that will come to Suffolk County will leave large swaths of the community behind.

Local food and justice advocates call upon county, local, and regional governments to work together to implement an emergency food aid delivery system in Suffolk County. It is prudent to implement and publicize this capacity now, knowing that foresight, preparation, and community participation will be critical to the efficient function of any such initiative.

Sign here to join our petition for a county-wide emergency food hotline.