In 2014, around the Thanksgiving-Xmas holiday season, the verdict in the Michael Brown grand jury was announced. The policeman entrusted to protect the people murdered Ferguson, Missouri young man and was declared not guilty. Fast forward to December 28, 2015: the verdict was announced in the Tamir Rice grand jury. The policeman entrusted to protect the people murdered the Cleveland, Ohio child and was found not guilty. Thus ended two years of people of conscience contending against the heavyweights of systemic racism and losing ground.
Does anything ever change? Where is justice being served? Who are the institutional contenders? How should they be approached? What can we do? Who is listening? I don’t have answers—just plenty of questions.
How many reading these words knew about an anti-racist conference at the United Nations on November 3, 2015? I learned about it by happenstance, since it was not on mainstream media radar. Titled “Confronting the Silence: Perspectives and Dialogue on Structural Racism Against Peoples of African Descent Worldwide,” this gathering was one of the salvos offered in the UN’s declared 2015-2024 International Decade for People of African Descent. With a two-hour time allotment in a chamber of the UN Secretariat Conference Building, recorded welcoming remarks were delivered from the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and others. Many speakers followed, representing the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; Amnesty International USA; the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, to name a few.
The near-nonagenarian, lifelong activist actor Harry Belafonte gave a moving keynote address in his role as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Quoting the great Paul Robeson, he said, “artists are the gatekeepers of truth. They are civilization’s radical voice, humanity’s moral compass.” As a dance writer and scholar and former professional dancer/actor, these words warmed me and reified the work I’ve done and books I’ve written over the past several decades.
Next, speakers briefly and chillingly addressed discrimination policies from International, Latin American, Caribbean, North American, and European perspectives. In case we assumed it was an American phenomenon, Mr. Mutuma Ruteere, Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, spoke about global racial profiling and the fact that software technologies make this process all the more terrifying.
Focusing on the Latin American perspective, Dr. Ramona Hernández, Director of CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute and Professor of Sociology, talked about people of African descent learning to value ourselves through the very system that devalued us, and she quoted legendary philosopher-psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in this regard.
For the North American perspective, Steven Hawkins of Amnesty International USA addressed police brutality. And this brings me back to Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. Samaria Rice, the mother of the murdered twelve-year-old, was at this conference, barely able to speak through her tears. Sitting next to her was the father of John Crawford, the young man who was murdered in a Walmart Store in Illinois in 2014. Also in the room, to my amazement, was Alicia Garza, the enterprising young woman who began the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now the mood shifted into high gear. The elder Mr. Crawford stated that the police must establish imminent risk and danger before making a claim that it is reasonable to shoot. He asked how to use the UN as a platform for change, and how to implement the solutions we hope for. And I ask the same questions! Ms.Garza gave startling and horrible statistics on the gross inequities in the lives of Americans of African descent, compared to white Americans, in every sector of American life. She cited the need for the nation to admit that there is a war going on against Black people.
With so many wonderful speakers, there was no time left for “the choir” to weigh in. Two attendees vociferously expressed the frustration we all felt that this session was much too short. One spectator did manage to say that American policemen should be brought before the International Criminal Court, because American apartheid is a reality.
The conference proceedings, are on webtv.un.org—the UN’s own website, but there was no network camera or New York Times writer reporting on this event. It makes one wonder how the UN will utilize its resources to make this Decade for People of African Descent something more than an ideological declaration—something that will effect real change in real lives—something where people speak up and and people listen.
Indeed, WHO IS LISTENING?
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and may not represent the views of all ARC members. ARC is a diverse group empowered by respect for the unique perspectives of its members.