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Speaker discusses examining policing through portals

| Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In an effort to create conversations about policing, Yale University professor Vesla Weaver and her colleagues created spaces called portals where people can speak with others from different cities about their experiences with law enforcement in their communities.

In a talk hosted Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy and the Center for Civil and Human Rights on Tuesday, Weaver spoke about her involvement in the project.

“What are portals?” she said. “They’re a bridge. A wormhole, a conversation across states. Maybe even time. They’re gold repurposed shipping containers. They’re equipped with immersive audio [and] video technology. You can place them anywhere.”

Weaver said traditional methods of gathering information about police brutality, such as surveys, did not sufficiently describe the experiences of members of marginalized communities.

“We wanted to actually listen to what members of these impacted communities said in their own terms — in interactions not with researchers, not with us, but in conversation with others distant physically, but from similar neighborhoods,” Weaver said.

Weaver said she wanted to enable vulnerable groups to become powerful forces in their communities.

“We wanted to see if we could empower communities so often marginalized by contemporary discourse to have a say and to amplify the voices of those who are already often unheard,” she said. “Could we create a connected political space from connection? Can we make ordinary people the lifeblood of grassroots politics?”

For many minority youth, Weaver said their first encounter with the police is a regular coming of age event. Participants in the portals often recalled their first encounters with law enforcement during conversations.

“One says the police come into his house, and all of the sudden he has a gun to his head and he’s 12 years old,” Weaver said. “Another says he was truant from school and he ends up being thrown on the ground and given a ticket for resisting.

“And this next one, she says she’s a full-figured girl and the police would stop her and basically ask her if she was a prostitute. And she was 13.”

Weaver also discussed the idea of “linked fate” in black communities, and how it helps marginalized communities organize.

“When evaluating a political decision, so the logic goes, blacks make a utility calculation: what’s good for the group is what’s good for me,” Weaver said. “Linked fate is a political resource for subjugated groups. It helps them mount collective action problems and intra-racial differences by seeing a common foe and a common purpose.”

According to Weaver, participants’ conversations in portals revealed that linked fate was on the decline because of recent police brutality.

“Crucially, people described how divided the community was,” she said. “… A linked fate that might have emerged was interrupted by the incentives to remain alone. It was only as a loner that one could remain under the police radar to have some quiet from police intrusion in their neighborhoods.”

Weaver said many participants felt the law enforcement system was profiting off of their communities, and discussed the financial challenges participants — especially those incarcerated — faced.

“41 states have something called ‘inmate user fees,’” Weaver said. “In other words, you are charged for your own room and board and for the services attached to being jailed — things like healthcare, things like dental care, things like your uniform. In Riverside, California, this amounts to $142 a day. These are families that are making probably less than $30,000 or $20,000 a year.”

Many participants said they wanted to reshape the mainstream narrative about their communities, Weaver said.

“It was interesting to me how often people said something like ‘We need to control our narratives. See, what people see about us on the news isn’t right. We’re kings and queens. We’re creative. We’re entrepreneurs. We just don’t have the resources,’” she said.

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