Young District residents spent the better part of the coronavirus pandemic, not only struggling to adjust to the isolation of distance learning, but railing against various forms of police-related violence, including those directly affecting them.
During a virtual event to observe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, District students once again expressed their thoughts about law enforcement, and what systemic changes they envisioned at a moment when politicians nationwide are wrestling with how, and whether, to actualize police reform measures.
“The real job of the police is to control the population and keep communities under a cycle of oppression, brutalizing some people and helping others,” Ra’mya Davis, a representative of Pathways 2 Power, United Leaders 4 Freedom, and DC Girls Coalition, told audience members during the “2021 MLK Holiday DC Reimagining Public Safety” discussion series.
This installment of the discussion series, hosted by Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday DC Committee and the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Institute Alumni Association, took place on Jan. 16 and was the first of many forums centered on policing in the District.
Joining Davis that afternoon was Samantha P. Davis of the Black Swan Academy, Dr. Alex Vitale, sociology professor and author of “The End of Policing,” and Dr. Joe Richardson, acting chair of the University of Maryland College Park’s African-American Studies Department.
Each panelist explored, and answered questions about, law enforcement’s racist beginnings, the public health drawbacks of policing and efforts currently underway to divert law enforcement resources and hold police officers accountable for violent acts.
As the youngest panelist, Ra’mya often relied on her experiences as a student and activist to explain how the presence of police in public schools often disadvantaged Black youth facing socioeconomic and emotional challenges.
“Incarcerating youth criminalizes them later on [and] that leads them being secluded from society as adults,” said Ra’mya, a student at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast.
“This affects their chances for social mobility — being homeless and lacking resources, like accessible healthcare, groceries, and employment opportunities. We have to talk about this deep pain from overpolicing that comes from slavery.”
The mass protests that erupted last summer sparked discussion, and some legislative action, around the policing of Black communities.
Weeks after legions of protesters converged on what’s now known as Black Lives Matter Plaza, the D.C. Council approved emergency legislation not only defunding the Metropolitan Police Department, but launching the D.C. Police Reform Commission, an entity responsible for drafting evidence-based recommendations for police reform.
Within that same time, District young people were on the frontlines of protests at MPD’s 7th and 4th District headquarters in the aftermath of Deon Kay’s police-related death in Southeast and the police chase in Northwest that caused the collision killing Karon Hylton-Brown.
Those incidents raised questions about police accountability that have not gone away, even with MPD Chief Peter Newsham’s departure during the latter part of last year.
Long before the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others during the pandemic, District students flexed their activist muscles via their involvement in Pathways 2 Power, the Black Swan Academy, and other groups through which they detailed their firsthand experiences with neighborhood violence and lobbied D.C. council members for in-school mental health resources.
As the founder and executive director of Black Swan Academy, Samantha P. Davis led young people, including Ramani Wilson, a young adult who co-moderated Saturday’s event with D.C. Youth Mayor Jay Mathews, in advocating for systemic change.
As a DC Police Reform Commission member, Davis continues to agitate for changes within MPD.
During Saturday’s discussion of more than two hours, she didn’t shy away from the “Defund the Police” mantra that has drawn the ire of public safety stalwarts.
“A liberatory education framework includes the divestment of police and the investment of support systems that make us safe and a more equitable environment,” Davis said.
“That’s needed now more than ever before. Young people have seen the harms and terrors of police right in our backyard like the killing of Deon Kay and Karon Hylton,” she continued.
“When people are studying trauma, shootings are just as traumatic as 9/11. Sending young to schools after a year of trauma means they’ll carry anxiety and depression. We’re obligated to [see] that we’re not further traumatizing our young people.”