In honor of Juneteenth, Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee, alongside a number of panelists, hosted “From Awareness to Action,” a forum to discuss law enforcement accountability, mass incarceration, and the treatment of black people within the community.
The nearly 90-minute long session reviewed each of these issues, with both experts and residents sharing information, experiences and opinions. Much in the vein of the national conversation following George Floyd’s death in Minnesota at the hands of police, the group spoke about police accountability within the community.
The first panel was comprised of Erin Scherzer, the chair of the Maplewood Community Board on Police; Christina Swarns, President and attorney in charge of the Office of the Appellate Defender in Manhattan; and Paul Williams, a member of the Maplewood Community Board on Police. The group stressed that police must be held accountable when mistakes are made, starting with the community at hand.
“[The public] can speak up,” Scherzer said. “If something happens to you and you feel it’s not right, if you get that inkling in your gut that something’s off, or someone shared something with you that something is off, it is in your power, your right, to speak up and say something.”
Beyond the community’s role, however, the panelists said measures were needed on the side of police and government.
“A big step forward in terms of community trust would be to provide a level of transparency that we don’t have today,” Williams said.
“It’s going to take an enormous amount of pressure from all of us, but we now know and we can now see from this moment of reckoning that we’re in in the country, that we can make those changes,” Swarns said. “I encourage everyone to get engaged, to speak out, and to push and monitor what’s going on in the criminal legal system. And, of course, most importantly, vote.”
The next group of Brenda Wheeler Ehlers, Christina Taber-Kewene, and Ayo Akinnuoye spoke on restorative justice.
“We are a community that has a real strength in who we are,” Ehlers said. “We have a lot of people who believe that the community can resolve much of the problems in the community. My own work in youth has led me to understand that the notion of distorted engagement that people talk about when they talk about city structures, police, as well as service organizations interface with marginalized people in communities affects kids, too.”
Lastly, select students from local middle schools and high schools were invited to speak on their experiences within the community in terms of race. Sri Taylor, a graduate of Columbia High School, spoke to the affects of being in her current situation and the discrimination that she has faced.
“As I’m speaking out on social media, people in my community are like ‘Oh but you live in this area so you’re not oppressed, you don’t even experience racism because you don’t live in a poor area or something like that.’.” Taylor said. “They think that wealth is adjacency to whiteness. It doesn’t make my experience any less valid. You still perceive me as a black person.”
To get involved, McGehee urged the public to reach out via email at [email protected].
“I think we’ve started a great conversation, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” said McGehee.