Black Lives Matter in conversation: Brookings panelists discuss race, state violence, and representation

Activists gather during a Black Lives Matter rally in Charleston, West Virginia.

“We’re here today to talk about Black Lives Matter,” Governance Studies Fellow Vanessa Williamson said to open a Brookings event last week, “and about historical and contemporary links between repression and representation.”

Williamson’s remarks introduced a panel discussion hosted by the Governance Studies program to address the breadth and historical significance of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, and methods for reforming police bias and behaviors. Joining Williamson was Brookings Fellow Nicol Turner-Lee, University of Maryland Associate Professor Rashawn Ray, and Chiraag Bains, director of Legal Strategies at Demos.

You can watch the full event here; below are some of the highlights:

Tracking where Black Lives Matter protests occur

Williamson began the conversation by briefly summarizing her new research on the connection between Black Lives Matter protests and police behavior. The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a civilian who shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen, Trayvon Martin. Since then, BLM has grown to represent an organized outcry against police violence and the disproportionate number of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police.

Williamson and her coauthors studied Black Lives Matter activity in 223 localities across 44 states and found that protests are more likely to occur in places where police kill more black people. While these findings might appear straightforward, Williamson notes that interactions with the criminal justice system often reduce political participation, including an individual’s likelihood of voting. According to Williamson, “what we’re seeing at the locality level is different than what we’re seeing at the individual level.”

Listen to a podcast with Williamson about this research.

Accountability of police misconduct is changing under the Trump administration

While working in the Civil Rights division of the Obama administration’s Department of Justice, Chiraag Bains was involved in investigations into the Ferguson Police Department and other law enforcement organizations across the country. To Bains, the Department of Justice under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has very different goals.

“This administration has made a priority of—very publicly making a show of—pulling back from the work,” he said. “Our current attorney general has a narrative that there are a few bad apples in policing and so actually the criminal accountability work has continued. I have former colleagues who are still there doing good work on the criminal side. But the pattern-or-practice work has scaled back dramatically.”

Bains also asserted that this administration “challenges the notion that the federal government has some kind of role to play in exercising supervision, even when it just comes to ensuring constitutional rights, over police agencies.”

Virtual reality can help analyze police behavior

In his virtual reality lab at the University of Maryland, Dr. Rashawn Ray utilizes both technology and sociology to study police behavior. The technology, Ray noted, allows police officers to “go into a virtual world and actually mimic what they do in real life.” These simulations produce data on officer’s stress levels and other mental and physical states that Ray argued is extremely useful to police departments in moving toward reform.

The state of the criminal justice system and the path toward reform

Later in the panel, Nicol Turner-Lee discussed why we must contextualize the issue of police violence within the longer history of state repression against African-Americans and minority populations. “The difference today” she explained, “is that we cannot resolve this issue until we go deep into the bowels of how we got here in the first place.”

Learn more about the panelists and watch the full event here.

Lea Kayali contributed to this post.