The Borough of Manhattan Community College Criminal Justice Program can help change the way communities are policed, according to participants and organizers at BMCC’s Situating Ferguson Event held December 3.
Around 60 students attended the two-part presentation; “What to do When Stopped by the Police: Know Your Rights, led by recently elected Civil Court Judge and BMCC Professor Sharon Bourne-Clarke, followed by a spoken word event led by Criminal Justice Program instructor Professor Shirley Leyro. The event was organized by Dr. Yolanda C. Martin.
According to a show of hands, virtually all the students attending had been stopped or questioned by a police officer at some point in their lives.
“Presumably, we have future law enforcement officials and police officers being trained,” said Leyro, adding that BMCC partner college, The John J. College of Criminal Justice counts both former and current members of law enforcement among the faculty and staff and they are listening to students.
A city on edge
Coming just minutes before a Staten Island grand jury said it would not indict a police officer in the July “chokehold death” of Eric Garner, the BMCC event offered students an opportunity to share stories as well as ask pointed questions about their constitutional rights.
In the days the followed the Garner decision, the city saw several protest marches and other acts of civil disobedience. Also on December 4, WNYC radio sat down with four BMCC students to debate the merits of organized marches.
Then, tragically on December 20, two police officers were shot dead by a lone gunman while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn.
Dr. Yolanda Martin, Assist. Professor and Coordinator, Criminal Justice Program at BMCC said the recent events were all representative of the greater need to encourage nonviolence.
"I would like to remind our students that the shootings against the officers was an act committed by a mentally unstable person, not a political act," said Martin.
Law enforcement’s next generation
Criminal Justice major Brandon Tinney, who performed a spoken word piece, said he was inspired to pursue a career in law enforcement because of his own life events, including encounters with the police.
“I’ve been thrown to the ground, a gun to my head,” he said, adding that the majority of those “unfairly racially profiled” by some police, tended to be people of color.
But he said, “We’re the next generation that’s going to be obtaining these law enforcement jobs, including court jobs, judges and police officers. We can make an impact on what happens, especially if we set our minds right.”
Know your rights
Professor Clarke spelled out why it’s essential to know one’s constitutional rights during encounters with the police.
Those rights include: the right to remain silent; the right to refuse to consent to a search; the right to ask if it’s okay to leave; and if you do get arrested, the right to have a lawyer.
“If you’re walking down the street, and an officer pulls you over and says, he or she wants to have a conversation, you have a right to not engage. You can say, you’re on your way to work, you’re running late and you don’t have time,” said Clarke.
Clarke said an individual should be courteous and respectful when they interact with police officers but staying firm is okay.
“We not only teach criminal law, we integrate public policy into our curriculum, we want our students to be well rounded. We want them to see the public as a community and see individuals when they interact with people,” said Clarke.
Art as a tool of protest
Art can be used as an act of protest, resistance or rebellion as well as a tool for therapy, according to the guest artist Sophia Dawson who told the story behind her outdoor mural “Know Your Rights,” now on display at 138th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.
“What I’m learning is that the process of making art is a healing process. I use my work as a way to stand up against the things I don’t believe in,” said Dawson who spoke after Clarke.
The second part of the event featured five students telling stories using various formats including beat-box, hip-hop and poetry.
Student Milton Henriquez drew on his own experience, providing a potential view of his future, by constructing a 30-to-45 year timeline as he raises his own son. He used police shootings of Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell as backdrop for his piece.
He tells his son…it’s bad luck to; play with toy guns…to pull out your wallet…on his wedding day, it’s bad luck for all the groomsmen to ride in the same car.
“I couldn’t shake that one fear that kills all parents slowly, that one fear of having to deal with the pain of having to bury your sequel knowing that he was supposed to watch your movie end first,” Heriquez said in his poetic story.