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Activists: Racial justice movement offers a chance for an equitable America

“We are faced with two pandemics: the pandemic of Covid-19 and the pandemic of institutionalized racism," campus expert says

DeRay Mckesson is arrested by a police officer
One reason black people may be at at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 is a history of traumatic, stressful or violent experiences with police. In this 2016 photo, Black Lives Matter activist Deray Mckesson is arrested by police in Louisiana. (AP photo by Max Becherer)
Monday’s live online event featured a panel discussion of the recent movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. (UC Berkeley video)

The racial justice movement sweeping across the country presents an opportunity to radically transform America to more equitably serve all of its citizens, panelists concluded during an online event Monday organized by UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute.

The event, “Rise up for Justice: Black Lives and our Collective Future,” featured nearly a dozen prominent community organizers, faith leaders and social change advocates from cities across the country who shared stories about the social justice work happening on the ground and their visions for the future.

“We are faced with two pandemics: the pandemic of Covid-19 and the pandemic of institutionalized racism. I don’t know which is worse, but together they are really deadly,” said Berkeley Law professor john a. powell, director of the institute. “But when we face them together, I think we can handle both.”

powell drew parallels to the uprising he experienced in Detroit in 1967, where the national guard was deployed to suppress several days of unrest, and also to the scenes he witnessed during the 1980s in apartheid South Africa. But the current moment, he said, feels promising.

“I remember thinking then, ‘This … ain’t never going to change.’ And a few years later, I was having dinner at Nelson Mandela’s house. I learned that we can’t know what’s going to happen. I didn’t see the change coming. I’m a little bit more humble now,” he said.

The most recent movement, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, quickly spread to towns and cities in every state — and around the world. Monday’s speakers explained how the movement has galvanized their communities to keep pushing for change.

Glenn Harris, the president of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, a nonprofit racial justice organization with roots in Oakland, said the moment allows for creating cross-racial and cross-movement solidarity by showing how issues of police violence and access to health care, housing, education and employment are all tied together.

“What we’re facing is a structural fight that’s not just, in this moment, about the realities of ending police violence solely, but that actually creates a possibility to imagine a fundamentally just and democratic society centered on the realities of who we are as a multi-racial community,” Harris said.

Moderator Emira Woods of Africans Rising — a Pan-African movement of people and organizations working for peace, justice and dignity — read a number of items from a long list of victories that activists have achieved since the protests erupted last month.

They included the arrest and prosecution of the four police officers involved in Floyd’s murder, the end to the “no knock” policy by police in Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was shot dead by officers in March, efforts in Congress to stop the transfer of military weapons to local police forces and the removal of Confederate statues in some states.

An organizer with the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, who went only by the name “Daisy,” encouraged viewers to follow the example of civil rights-era activists who organized a series of boycotts of businesses that discriminated against African Americans; the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott is an example.

“If a business is not for the liberation of marginalized communities, we should not help run their engine,” she said.