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Words of wisdom from the other side of the tracks: GRCC What’s Up Wednesday online town hall


By Jamie Miller and Allie Ouendag

In response to the growing unrest in Grand Rapids over protests against police after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, Grand Rapids Community College’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion held a town hall meeting to discuss issues of systemic racism and police brutality.

B. Afeni McNeely Cobham, GRCC’s Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer and Alica Woodrick, Executive Director of the BOB, center moderated the discussion consisting of questions over black identity and the role of police in black communities. 

The traditional “What’s Up Wednesday” is used as a tool for students to discuss their feelings about a certain topic and an open forum for discussion of future education plans. Due to recent events involving city-wide protests against police brutality, the discussion focused around the relevant topics currently making headlines. 

About 140 students, staff, GRCC retirees, executive leadership team, and Board of Trustees members were registered to attend the online event. 

The town hall began with a moment of silence for all of the people who lost their lives to the coronavirus and police brutality, then the host Cobham introduced herself. Cobham went on to give background information on systemic racism in America and showed a video compilation documenting recent killings of black citizens at the hands of police. It showed in detail many innocent African Americans being killed by the very police sworn to protect them, from Walter Scott and Michael Brown to Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain in Florida. Cobham then introduced the featured speaker, Jermaine Reese, director of GRCC’s police academy and former Flint police officer. 

Cobham herself asked Reese, an African American former police officer, to describe some of the unique perspectives he gained about the institution of law enforcement and the ideas the people in this institution have about African Americans. 

“Early in my career as a law enforcement officer in Flint, I used to really just see black and white,” Reese said. “I thought everybody just had the same ideas and perceptions on how to effectively implement social order through the enforcement of laws in the United States Constitution. But I found early in my career as I began to evolve, and began to grow as a person and an officer that was not true.”

Reese said we can’t lose sight of the fact that the profession of law enforcement and the country as a whole is rooted in bigotry.

“The very formalization of policing as a profession was started out with the slave trade or slave catchers,” he said.

Another problem is how some people perceive black men. 

“With regards to how some individuals, and I hate to cast a broad stroke and label every individual that is represented in this profession,” Reese said, “but there are a large percentage of individuals who see black men as a threat.” 

Cobham then opened the floor to questions from the viewers. One person asked why police use deadly force and not let a suspect leave the scene, to which Reese said if they hurt someone and you let them go you are doing the greater community a disservice. 

When a reporter from The Collegiate asked Reese about the best method for dealing with the protests, he said ”to rely on your training.”

Another viewer asked if a police officer can go to another state and become an officer there if they are shown to be racist and flagged for it.

“Unfortunately there is nothing stopping that person from, say, going to Texas and becoming a police officer,” he said. 

Finally, Reese goes on to say, ”We have to begin to hold our elected officials accountable for doing what they said they were going to do.”  

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