The following statement originally appeared on the Student Representative website of the University of Stuttgart. It was taken down for not taking a neutral enough stand. I have chosen to re-post it here. Thanks again to the students from Fachgruppe Anglistik who asked me to write it and who originally posted it. They are and will continue to be powerful thinkers and activists.
At the request of the Fachgruppe Anglistik/Amerikanistik of Universität Stuttgart, I have penned this brief statement on my thoughts regarding the current civil rights activism taking place in the United States and worldwide that is focused on police brutality, the devaluation of black lives and the systemic racism that causes inequalities in health care, living conditions and educational opportunities. I want to focus on this moment more broadly as a civil rights movement moment because I believe that a perfect storm of incidents has led us to a historical reckoning that can neither be ignored, nor emerged from unchanged. As a black American educator living and working in Germany, and as an academic working in the field of American Studies, and as a politically-engaged black novelist, this statement reflects my own personal feelings regarding this moment, and what I hope to add to this moment through my own actions, and any small influence I may have on my students’ thinking.
First, I would like to express complete solidarity with Black Lives Matter and their efforts to bring to light and to an end the lethal force of police officers and racist vigilantes that has led to the recent needless deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, as well as countless others in the past. Second, I fully support the movement to defund and reconstruct the police force in the United States, with the end goal being the developing and building up of social services so that the police force can be more or less abolished over time completely. This should be conducted in tandem with a rethinking of the criminal justice system.. For example, removing current drug laws would go a long way to reducing the number of police on the street and decimating the prison industry. Prison systems should be diminished and reimagined to the point of being unrecognizable by today’s standards. Violent criminals and the mentally ill can be better served by reform institutions than by punitive institutions.
This argument is generally met by the claim that without prisons, chaos and anarchy will reign. However, violent crime rates in the United States are higher than in most western nations, and this has everything to do with the way social institutions operate in the country. As for those violent crimes that are perpetrated by people who are either mentally ill, or just sociopathic, the perpetrators ought to be put in rehabilitation programs that don’t look like the prisons in the United States. This already happens to a limited and racist/classist extent: I have white friends who have gone to prison, and black friends who have gone to prison, and the black people invariably end up in nightmare institutions while the (more well-to-do) white people end up in institutions that prepare the inmates for release into society. Nevertheless, I have never known anyone in prison who has benefited from being incarcerated, or whose incarceration benefitted society. I imagine the only party to benefit from most incarcerations is the prison industry itself. So I am arguing for a reimagining of social institutions from the ground up.
Finally, because I see that this movement has become a global movement, and because I believe in a solidarity of people across the African diaspora, I also see this moment as an opportunity for other western countries to take a deep look at their own history of colonialism and how it has affected and continues to affect people of the African diaspora. This means, in my own adopted country of Germany, a call for more education about what has been called the first genocide of the 20th century, with the slaughter of the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia from 1904 to 1908, and Germany’s history of colonialism in general -- as well as a call for efforts towards greater awareness and development of the Afro-Deutsch movement, a movement of black Germans begun by poet and essayist May Ayim in the 1980s -- a movement that would include my own two young daughters -- and an important cultural movement in diaspora studies.
To this end, I urge students and educators alike to political action, ever greater political awareness, and to challenge the educational premises given to them in the university and beyond. Western institutions are deeply colonial-minded to this day, and while it is necessary to study and learn how these institutions operate critically, it is also important to remember, in the words of Audre Lorde, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”; we need critical, historical and academic perspectives that reach beyond those we are traditionally given. I am deeply encouraged by the vigor and rigor I have seen from activists and young people in this current political environment.
Whit Frazier Peterson
June 11, 2020
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