Black Lives Matter: Protests, Policy and a Path Forward
RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a full transcript. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
In response to the murder of George Floyd, American communities have erupted in protests, with people taking to the streets in all 50 states to demand justice, action and change. They are calling for the country to address issues of police violence against black people and the broader system of racial inequity. In this Zoom conversation, we welcome back Apryl Alexander, professor of forensic psychology, who calls this moment a turning point and offers perspective on the power of protests and productive next steps.
In this episode:
- Apryl Alexander on CBS Denver
- Colorado Police Accountability Bill
- DPS board members seek removal of Denver police officers from schools by 2021
- Minneapolis will dismantle its police force, council members pledge
Alyssa Hurst: You're listening to RadioEd...
Lorne Fultonberg: ...a University of Denver podcast.
Nicole Militello: We're your hosts, Nicole Militello...
Lorne Fultonberg: ...Lorne Fultonberg...
Alyssa Hurst: ...and I'm Alyssa Hurst. On May 25th, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man in Minneapolis, was murdered. And in the intervening weeks, four police officers have been charged for their involvement. Since then, the entire country—people in all 50 states—have continuously flowed into the streets in protest. They've demanded justice, not only for Floyd, but for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and other victims of police violence and the deep entrenched racism that exists at every level of American society. In this moment, when it seems as though so many people are taking up a cause that others have been laboring over for lifetimes, we turned to Apryl Alexander, a professor of forensic psychology and member of Black Lives Matter 5280, for a deeper dive into what she hopes will be a historic turning point, the psychology of protest, and what true reform might look like. Thank you for coming on today.
Apryl Alexander: And thanks for having me back, Alyssa.
Alyssa Hurst: So in a recent interview, I believe it was with CBS4, you spoke about how with the number of people coming out to protest, this looks like a real turning point to you. So I'm curious, first of all, what you mean by turning point and what about this moment makes you think that?
Apryl Alexander: Yeah, so we've had the issue of police-related violence and police-related killings for a while now. So I was surprised that we had such a big turnout here in Denver, Colorado with the most recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. A lot that I've been communicating and also wondering about is just a few months ago, we had the death of Elijah McClain in Aurora by police. I went to the vigil, I sat with his mother at that vigil, and that vigil had a few dozen people. And so here we are a few months later, and we have over 10,000 people at the Capitol because of these most recent killings, and there was a press conference for the Police Accountability Bill. Elijah McClain's mom was there and she was actually very transparent to the audience in saying, ‘Where were you a few months ago when my son died? You all weren't here then.’ So again, I think it's a turning point in that we had additional video evidence, and people saw that evidence, and it became real to them. Now I think they're motivated to get out and bring awareness to this issue.
Alyssa Hurst: Many are calling these peaceful protests and others are dismissing them as riots and looting. So I'm curious from your point of view, what does it mean to protest peacefully and how would you characterize what we're seeing, not only in Colorado, but around the country and around the world right now?
Apryl Alexander: Yeah, this is a very interesting topic that I've been talking to the media a lot about language. And so, the first day of the protest where I attended, there was a lot of language saying that the protest was violent. I didn't see violence. I saw property destruction, yes. I saw spray painting, yes, but that's not violent behavior. It's destructive, it's aggressive, and I think we need to recognize that people are mourning at this time. People are wanting to hear their voices heard. So through these protests, through these rallies, people are just trying to be heard, that we've done peaceful protests before. Again, this issue isn't new. We marched for Philando Castile. We marched for Trayvon Martin and many others. We had Colin Kaepernick who engaged in peaceful, quiet protesting by taking a knee. And so I think what we're seeing is people are wanting to be heard, and in order to be heard, sometimes you have to make a little noise. And that's the difference. We don't call people destroying their city when they win a bowl game a riot. We don't label that as a riot when that's completely unnecessary. So I think we just need to center our language around this, thinking about one, people wanna be heard and two, this is people's expression of grief and pain.
Alyssa Hurst: So going back to the word riot, it's been used here, both in a positive and a negative way. Some have used it to diminish the movement, as you've said, while others have invoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and said what he said, which is, "Riot is the language of the unheard." And that's sort of what you just spoke to. I'm curious what you think he meant by that?
Apryl Alexander: His words are exactly what he meant. It's the language of the unheard, that we've had these injustices for so long, and we're not seeing change. Where has the change come? It hasn't. Even after Martin Luther King's assassination, we rioted, people rioted. And they did that for a while. They did destroy property. And what came of that? We had the Civil Rights Act just a few weeks later. People are searching for an answer. They're searching for accountability at this time. And so that's what we wanna see. People here in Denver have asked, ‘When is it going to end? When are these protests gonna stop?’ And I said, ‘Once we get a response. Once we see accountability.’
Alyssa Hurst: So when we saw people gather against COVID-19 restrictions, news organizations, the president, he called those protests. Now we're seeing these movements around George Floyd being called riots. So how is language really shaping the conversation? How is it being used strategically? And what effect does that have on the psychology of either the protesters or the people out reading the media, watching the news?
Apryl Alexander: So a few weeks ago we had people at the Capitol who were fully armed. A lot of their signs said we want the right to have our barbershops back, our restaurants back. And I know why; again, we have people who are facing unemployment at this time. But we weren't getting the same responses we're getting to the protesters now. That we didn't have armed military people coming to the Capitol when people were responding to the capital of arms. And so just a few weeks later, we have people who are peacefully protesting, chanting, singing, and we have armed guards there. We have gas being thrown. So when we're talking about language, we need to recognize that sometimes our language is biased and it's not just implicit bias. It's explicit that some of this language is done deliberately. So I think it does divide us. We recognize that that language is being used differently from one group to another. So we see that and we see, again, those differences, those inequalities are being displayed once again.
Alyssa Hurst: So you teach a forensic psychology class on campus. And in previous interviews, you've mentioned that some of the topics you cover include the history of the criminal justice system, police culture, police brutality and how this has operated throughout time. You know, what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, just to name a few, this is not new. So can you share a little bit about that history and that background that is informing this moment?
Apryl Alexander: I often challenge my students on what's the purpose of the criminal justice system? Again, is it vengeance? Is it rehabilitation? What do we think the purpose is? And then are we fulfilling that purpose? And so I think that history is really rich in talking to our students about it because one, we don't get that adequate history in our education. We don't talk about these disparities. Why is it that some people do end up in the position that they're in versus us in the chair here at DU? You know, even now with the recent protest, I think about [how] this isn't new. One, we've had people telling us that police brutality has been happening, we've had that since the beginning of policing. And then if you wanna get some more recent history, we had it with Rodney King. So for people to say that this is new and how are people acting out this way—we just saw it. That was in my lifetime, in the beginning of policing and kind of in our country with slavery; that was their role as catching slaves who were running away. And so the beginning of police relations started poorly because that was the foundation of it.
And then, again, a lot of this isn't new. If we go across time, we've had instances of police brutality. So this distress of the police is valid. We've had these stories here throughout our history. And, again, not just with the criminal justice system. I'm challenging people to think of what is the purpose of all our systems? What is the purpose of the educational system? What is the purpose of policing right now? [I do this] to kind of examine where we can possibly course correct in terms of police and community relations.
Alyssa Hurst: So, given that history and what's happening now, what's different now? What is driving this huge turnout against this and what has brought new attention to this issue?
Apryl Alexander: I think for myself and the community, we're all looking for accountability. So for the police officer who murdered George Floyd, he actually had 17 prior complaints against him, some included excessive force. 17. So, you know, I wonder to myself, am I allowed to engage in 17 assaults and would I be free? No, probably not.
So, what we're just simply asking for is accountability for that. What would've happened if we intervened earlier with that officer or fired him? George Floyd would still be with us. So I think the public is expecting the same degree of accountability for police that we're expected to uphold. And so, you know, I think that's the kind of core issue of what we're asking for through protest. We're asking for accountability, even when police officers are charged for these murders or for excessive force, they're often acquitted. If they're fired, they often move to another jurisdiction and have a job. When I was at the press conference for the Police Accountability Bill, the family of Michael Marshall was there and they spoke. Michael Marshall, again, was injured in and died in police custody. What his family members were speaking to is those police officers are still employed. Where's the accountability for that family for that loss?
Alyssa Hurst: So as you mentioned, protesting is not new. So how is this movement building on the things that were learned from those different movements and the policies that were in place from those different movements? If policies were put in place.
Apryl Alexander: Those are some of the problems that we're facing now, that a lot of new policy has not been put in place or is not consistently used. So for some of the police-involved murders of just a few years ago, we started using body cams that President Obama even recommended and increased funding for that. But those aren't consistently being used. In the case of Elijah McClain, they were turned off. So, again, as we're looking for accountability, we're going to see or hopefully see new legislation to correct some of this. So the Police Accountability Bill that was introduced does talk about body camera use. It does talk about qualified immunity, which currently alleviates police officers from being prosecuted. So I think right now everybody's expecting for some change in order to facilitate that accountability through legislation.
Alyssa Hurst: Right, and I wanna talk about that a little bit more. So, in response to these protests and a lot of public pressure, we are seeing these policy proposals, a lot of what you just mentioned at the community level, at the state level, at the national level even. So here in Colorado, as you mentioned, we have the Police Accountability Bill, and that would do things like ban chokeholds, increased use of force reporting, and some in Minneapolis are even looking at avenues to defund the police. So do you think that these actions and others like them would bring about genuine reform?
Apryl Alexander: I think they will. Again, we have to talk about the limitations. We just don't know yet because these policies haven't been introduced or enforced in the past, but I do think it will bring some reform in terms of, again, seeking accountability. Some of these policies are recommended in order to also keep officers safe. The reason that body cams were endorsed by some police jurisdictions was because it would keep the officers safe from complaints too. That if something went wrong on the person that they were arresting, if it was true, on the police officer's behalf, we would have video. So [we’re] thinking about how do we create a space where everybody is safe and secure, including our police?
Alyssa Hurst: Are there any particular aspects of either Colorado's Accountability Bill or others that you've seen that you think might be particularly meaningful and particularly impactful?
Apryl Alexander: Some of the information that I've seen so far is one collecting data on demographics. So, we already know that there's disproportionate minority contact in the criminal justice system. Minorities at every stage in the criminal justice system are disproportionately targeted. That's from police stops, to arrest, to prosecutions, convictions, et cetera. And so the bill is proposing, let's collect more demographic data to ensure we're not seeing bias and what's going on in policing. That's also including veteran status [or] if we know that a person has a mental health history. And so I think that's some valuable data to kind of analyze in the future going forward to look at these disparities. Again, more talk about body cam and kind of use of that, that I hope that we can become a little bit more consistent with those policies across jurisdictions, and that's what this bill is looking for. And again, I think what the community is really looking for is this elimination of qualified immunity.
Alyssa Hurst: Realistically, are some of these things genuinely possible? Are some of these bills something that you really think that we'll see in the future?
Apryl Alexander: I do think there's gonna be modifications in place. I listened to some of the testimony, just to get a sense of where people are siding on this. And one sheriff said, ‘Wait, we have to collect this demographic data. That's gonna be a lot and hard.’ He actually brought up the example of, okay, if I am helping somebody change their flat tire, do I really need to ask about sexual orientation, veteran status and this and that? And I said fair—that that might be extra work and extra burden on them. So I think we will see this bill come through, but there's gonna be modifications that there has to be some middle ground to be realistic for all people who are involved.
Alyssa Hurst: So we're also seeing calls here in Colorado and elsewhere to alter the relationship between the police and schools. Two members of the Denver School Board just introduced a resolution to remove officers from middle schools and high schools by 2021, I believe. So why is the education system a key area for intervention here?
Apryl Alexander: One of the things I teach about and also research is the school to prison pipeline. So policies that are in place that are pushing our kids out of schools and into the juvenile justice and later criminal justice system. These policies include zero tolerance policies, dress code violations. We just recently passed the Crown Act here in Colorado; we were kicking kids out of school and criminalizing kids in schools for wearing their hair in braids and locks. So we just passed that to end hair discrimination.
So when we're thinking about the implementation of school resource officers in schools, our worry is that they are criminalizing our students, particularly our students of color and LGBTQ students. So the question that's coming up right now is what is the duty of these school resource officers? This is where the confusions lie in that a lot of the research says that sometimes their roles aren't clearly defined. They were intended to be a school resource, so help aid and support our students who are struggling and things like that. But, what we're seeing is that they're serving more as police officers. So, [they’re] enforcing rules. When a teacher is experiencing a student with behavioral problems, [they’re] sending them out to that officer. And so we just need to be clear about, again, what is their role?
And then what we're finding is that school resource officers, the presence has not helped to reduce safety concerns. People have brought up after-school shootings. They say, ‘Oh we need to increase school resource officers.’ And if we look at the school shootings that have happened across the country, a lot of the schools actually did have school resource resource officers on duty. And so we just need to be careful and examine that and think about what it is that we actually need in order to keep our students safe and provides support to our students. It's mental health practitioners, it's social workers, it's school nurses. So the ACLU has this movement called Counselors Not Cops. And they have a really nice report on that as well, that just details there's, I wanna say 40 million schools that just don't have nurses, mental health practitioners, [or] social workers in place to help the needs of our students. So, you know, the kid who is getting bullied, can we get them the support that they need so they're not engaging in some risky behaviors? And so what we're seeing with this proposed defunding of school resource officers is just that, that we want to stop criminalizing our students. And hopefully what I hope to see tacked on to that is the push for actual support.
Alyssa Hurst: Can you elaborate a little bit on what the school to prison pipeline looks like?
Apryl Alexander: Yeah, so what we often see is, again, a kid might be having some behavioral problems early in their life. And, again, that could be due to a number of different issues, often trauma. And when a kid is experiencing trauma, they might engage in some behaviors like acting out. So it could be talking back to the teacher, being fussy with their peers. And so what happens then? They get sent to detention, they might get suspended for a couple days. They might be expelled or put in an alternative school. And what is that doing? That's displacing them from their schools. That's displacing them from their communities. And then what happens? Well now they're kind of criminalized or they're engaging in negative behaviors. They're seeking out peers who are not as prosocial and supportive, and then what do we see? We see incarceration.
So recognizing that this is a whole pipeline of behaviors that are not occurring just in a vacuum, but have some backing to them. So one of the things that I talk a lot about with teachers is trauma-informed care. That some of our schools are saying let's do more trauma informed schooling for our kids. That, again, some of these kids who have the behavior problems have so many other struggles in their lives: they have food insecurity, they might come from abusive households, they might be in a neighborhood that has gang members in it. Again, are we providing that kiddo with resources to help buffer all of these different factors that are going on in their lives? How can we intervene early? How can we push teachers to identify some of these traits and intervene early and get them the support that they need to keep them in school and out of the criminal justice system?
Alyssa Hurst: So you've mentioned a lot of different things that are needed in response to these killings and in response to the protests. Is there anything we haven't talked about yet that you would really like to see, and that is needed for moving forward?
Apryl Alexander: Again, I think it's finding how we can best support our communities. How are we gonna tackle the problem of racism in our communities? And that's what we're seeing now is kinda the ripple effects of these police-related shootings to communities of color and to broader society. How do we address some of these underlying issues that are contributing to disparities and racism? So are we, again, improving our school system? Are we improving resources for our families in terms of housing, in terms of food?
A lot of what I want in my career now is the push for prevention. We spend a lot of time putting money into intervention. And what I mean by that is counseling. We spend a lot of time there and again, that's helpful, that's why I'm here. But that also means we're putting a lot of money into prisons, into corrections, all in the back end. And I want people to think, what would a world look like if we did work on the front end? What if we provided people with resources? What if we provided more money into education? What if we provided more money into, again, housing and community first. We can alleviate the need for jails and prisons. And so I want us to be thinking from a prevention lens as well, is that a lot of these societal problems can be prevented.
Alyssa Hurst: So for a final question, I'd like to ask you a little bit about your personal experience. This moment is really sitting at the intersection of both your activism and your research areas. So what has that been like for you?
Apryl Alexander: I think for me and even my students in this moment, both with COVID hitting and with this conversation about police-involved shootings, it's made our research more real. It's made our work more real. I've lectured on this stuff before, but to be in it, in the moment and have context, I think is hitting home for myself and others. Again, COVID exacerbated the problems that were already there. The police-involved shootings and everything that's going on are highlighting the problems that were already there. And so I've been working and doing this work to highlight those problems and, in my own ways, correct those problems. So I think in this moment, I'm just wrestling with all that, that this is where academics can come in and have some great power and change. How do we influence our systems? I think I've written to a few people that right now I've just said, ‘All hands on deck.’ This is a time where we can have a great influence [and] use our research for the public good. And I think that's what's been highlighted to me more now than ever.
Alyssa Hurst: To hear more on this topic from Apryl Alexander, visit our show notes at du.edu/RadioEd. James Swearingen arranged our theme music. Tamara Chapman is our managing editor. Lorne Fultonberg and Nicole Militello contributed research for today's episode. And I'm Alyssa Hurst, RadioEd's executive producer, today's sound engineer and host. This is RadioEd.