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Trayvon Martin and Leslie Prater’s lives – and deaths – will be explored and remembered Tuesday, March 7, at the University of Delaware when both of their mothers speak at the Ida B. Wells Lecture.
Trayvon Martin and Leslie Prater’s lives – and deaths – will be explored and remembered Tuesday, March 7, at the University of Delaware when both of their mothers speak at the Ida B. Wells Lecture.

Black mothers to discuss police violence

Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

Mothers of Trayvon Martin and Leslie Prater will speak at the Ida B. Wells Lecture

Trayvon Martin and Leslie Prater’s lives – and deaths – will be explored and remembered at the inaugural Ida B. Wells Lecture Tuesday, March 7, at the University of Delaware. The lecture is named for Ida B. Wells, an investigative journalist and early civil rights activist.

Entitled “Black Mothers and Police Violence,” the event is structured as a conversation with Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and Prater’s mother, Loretta Prater. Fulton is the author of Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. Prater is the author of Excessive Use of Force: One Mother’s Struggle Against Police Brutality and Misconduct.

In 2004, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Leslie Prater suffocated when four police officers pinned him to the ground face down for several minutes, with his wrists handcuffed behind his back. Prater became unresponsive and was pronounced dead at a local hospital. The medical examiner declared his death a homicide.

In 2012, in Sanford, Florida, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator. Martin was unarmed but Zimmerman claimed that he had acted in self-defense. Zimmerman was charged with murder in the second degree, but acquitted on all counts after claiming self-defense. After this verdict, protests spread across the U.S.

Earlier this month, UD professors of Women and Gender Studies Angie Hattery and Earl Smith, who have researched and written extensively about police violence against Blacks, sat down to discuss the upcoming lecture and the issue of police violence against Blacks. The conversation took place just days after the funeral of Tyre Nichols, an unarmed Black man who was fatally beaten by Memphis police officers after a traffic stop. Five officers have been indicted on felony charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. 

The research overwhelmingly demonstrates that police violence disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people, said Hattery. African-Americans are 3.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by officers when the victim was not attacking or did not have a weapon, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. Another study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, indicated that the numbers of Black, Indigenous and People of Color killed in police shootings from 2015 to 2020 was consistent enough that it should be  recognized as a “public health emergency.”

Conceivable solutions to this crisis run the gamut. Many pundits point to the need for improved police recruitment, training, and supervision. While Smith recognizes that the institutionalized police culture is in dire need of reform, he argues that we need to look at the root causes of police violence against Blacks. 

“It is long-standing structural inequities that lead to the continual deaths of Blacks by the police and others in authority,” said Smith. 

“In our books and throughout our research, we work to connect the dots, to demonstrate that policing of Black bodies is not an isolated event,” said Hattery.  “It comes from a history of white supremacy. You have to address the fact that Black bodies have been policed since the moment they arrived on the continent. It also comes from a history of redlining, of racial restrictive covenants, of housing segregation.”

Racial segregation was built through zoning, through racial violence, through white flight and later urban renewal, noted Hattery. White neighborhoods enjoyed public and private investments while Black neighborhoods were historically overlooked by governments, banks and developers. 

As researchers at the Urban Institute have noted, contemporary residential patterns still reflect those that existed decades ago. Black and white Americans, on average, don’t live in the same kinds of neighborhoods. There are vast inequities around crime rates, job opportunities, poverty, school quality, access to health care, exposure to pollution, access to open spaces, even access to retail establishments.

Hattery talked about the riots that took place in Baltimore in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray from a neck injury suffered while in police custody. The subsequent torching of a local CVS pharmacy made it a symbol of the rioting that erupted in that city after this Black man’s death. 

“As protests unfolded, and images of burned-out stores being looted flooded our television screens, commentators — almost always white — expressed shock and outrage that Black people were destroying their own communities,” said Hattery.

“They asked why would Black people in Baltimore or Ferguson or Minneapolis or Seattle burn the only stores in their neighborhood. But what none of the talking heads asked is why there was only one store in these neighborhoods.”      

Smith and Hattery’s 2018 book Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives are Surveilled and How to Work for Change examines surveillance and over-policing and the racism underlying these issues. “The surveillance of Blacks is systemic,” said Smith. “Research shows this to be the case regardless of geographical location. Whether you live in the South, the North, the Midwest or the West, if you are Black, you are more likely to be stopped, questioned and detained by the police.

“There are divergent policing strategies for predominantly poor, Black neighborhoods and for predominantly white, middle-class areas.”

Their research, as well as other studies, show that the rate of traffic stops in Black majority communities is greater compared to white-majority communities.  

“Despite representing just 67% of the population of Ferguson, Missouri, African Americans accounted for 85% of all traffic stops, 90% of citations and 93% of arrests in that city from 2012 to 2014,” said Hattery, citing data from the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report, which was issued after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. “Loretta and Sybrina write very personal, heart-wrenching memoirs and what we try to do as social scientists is to take these and other cases and expose the patterns, such as the increased likelihood of a Black man getting pulled over for a traffic stop.” 

Although the issue of deep-seated, systemic racism can’t be resolved quickly, Smith and Hattery offer a number of strategies that they said could reduce the incidence of police violence against Blacks.   

Getting back to true community policing is one step in the right direction, said Smith.

“You don’t put a 21-year-old white male or female with six weeks of training and a 45 Glock into a community if they don’t have any idea who this community is,” Smith said. “They are going to come in and over-police this community. When I was growing up, the police officers stopped and talked to you. They got to know you and everyone else in the community. That is what we need to work toward.”  

Smith also talked about the dangers of militarizing police organizations. Police departments nationwide have obtained left-over military equipment from federal initiatives. Such equipment has included ammunition, weapons and tactical armored vehicles. 

“The problem is, if you have a hammer, everything you see is a nail,” Hattery said.

In 2022, Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), led a group of 10 U.S senators working to reform these programs, noting in a letter to President Joe Biden that “militarized law enforcement increases the prevalence of police violence without making our communities safer.” 

Hattery also referenced the need for training so that police officers can respond appropriately to mental health crises.  A 2022 study by the American Psychological Association found that almost 20% of all calls to law enforcement involve someone dealing with a mental health crisis.

She also suggested a way to reduce or eliminate traffic stops. 

“Why do we have traffic cops who carry guns?” she said. “Why not do all that with a camera and send someone a ticket? That’s an easy and implementable strategy.”   

About the Ida B. Wells Lecture 

The Ida B. Wells Lecture is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7 in Mitchell Hall. A book signing will follow the event. The lecture is free but registration is required. For more information, contact wgs-info@udel.edu.

The lecture is sponsored by UD’s Department of Women and Gender Studies, with support from the College of Arts and Sciences and other university-wide collaborators. The lecture is part of “50 Years Strong,” a celebration of the department’s 50th year of teaching about, studying, and advocating for the rights of women and all marginalized people.

At the event, UD alumnae Mary Ruth Warner will be honored as the first recipient of an award in her name for her contributions to the University of Delaware and the Department of Women and Gender Studies. 

About the Experts

Earl Smith is emeritus distinguished professor of American ethnic studies and sociology at Wake Forest University and is currently a professor of women and gender studies at UD.  Angela Hattery is a professor of women and gender studies and co-director of UD’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender-Based Violence.

Smith and Hattery have co-authored 11 books together, including in 2019, Gender, Power and Violence: Responding to Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence in Society Today and in 2018, Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives are Surveilled and How to Work for Change

Their most recent book, Way Down in the Hole: Race, Intimacy and the Reproduction of Racial Ideologies, published in 2023, examines racism in solitary confinement units in a state prison system.

Learn more about Smith and Hattery at https://smithandhattery.com/.

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