detail of George Floyd mural in Denver

We Can’t Breathe: Social Justice Teach-In

June 19, 2020

CU Denver’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion held a virtual Social Justice Teach-In on June 12. The event begins a year-long series of teach-ins that invite the entire CU community to engage in important discussions and debate issues. Teach-ins have historically inspired people to “expand their sense of the possible.” Last Friday’s We Can’t Breathe Teach-In, which focused on anti-black violence, drew 990 participants—from CU Denver, as well as other universities and organizations across Colorado.

Speakers included Rachel Elizabeth Harding, PhD, who teaches in CU Denver’s Department of Ethnic Studies; Melissa Tackett-Gibson, PhD, senior instructor of criminal justice in CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs; and CU Denver graduate Kianna Crowe, community school coordinator at Aurora Central High and participant in Denver’s recent Black Lives Matter protests. 

Nelia Viveiros, Interim Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, introduced speakers and moderated the event, which was co-presented by the Center for Identity & Inclusion, the Ethnic Studies Department, and the Inclusive Campus Action Network. Breakout sessions followed, which were organized based on race and “intended to support those communities through the lenses of those identities,” Viveiros said. More than 700 people participated in the breakout sessions. A video of the event is available on YouTube.

Georgia Lynchings and the Underground Railroad

Professor Rachel E. Harding
Rachel E. Harding teaches in Ethnic Studies

Harding gave a brief overview of policing in the U.S., framing the topic with a discussion on Afro-pessimism and Necropolitics (see box below for definitions). Her presentation was both informative and personal, as she provided anecdotes from her own family’s history to highlight anti-black violence. Harding’s explanation of police history was succinct but powerful: “Policing in this country is in large part a mechanism to protect property,” she said. She described how slave patrols—essentially the precursor to city police—were groups of white men charged with patrolling plantation areas to capture runaway slaves, who were considered property.

But it was Harding’s personal anecdotes that really emphasized the impact of anti-black violence. She described two lynchings in Georgia, which served as the impetus for her family’s move to Chicago. She concluded her talk with a call for unity: “#blacklivesmatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important; it means blacks are important to your liberation.” 

Tackett-Gibson, who was a substitute for historian Christopher Agee, PhD, also combined valuable information with personal insights. As a criminology instructor, she was able to expand on the history of slave patrols and review research-based solutions to end police violence in America, including Campaign Zero’s #8CANTWAIT campaign. She also gave powerful statistics. For example, in 2015, 91 people were killed by police after routine traffic stops. 

Instructor Melissa Tackett-Gibson
Melissa Tackett-Gibson teaches criminology

Like Harding, Tackett-Gibson also spoke about her own experience with race. As a white woman from Ironton, Ohio who later lived in Boston, she was familiar with both cities’ underground passageways that were used for transporting enslaved people to safety. “I could treat the tunnels as a historical attraction,” she said. “I didn’t really begin to think about them until I became an adult.” She bravely and candidly shared other examples of how her own thinking evolved over time.

Kianna Crowe ’16, who earned her bachelor’s in psychology and ethnic studies, gave a brief personal account of participating in the anti-black violence protests that took place in the past two weeks in Denver, motivated by the death of George Floyd.

Breakout Sessions Based on Self-Identified Race

After the presentations, the Social Justice Teach-In continued in smaller groups broken out by race. Individuals who signed up self-identified by race “to provide communities with an open and safe space for further discussion,” according to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. There were eight breakout sessions, each moderated by multiple CU Denver staff and faculty: black, Asian American/Pacific Islander, people of color, Latinx, indigenous, multiracial, white, and other.

“We Can’t Breathe,” the first of CU Denver’s Social Justice Teach-Ins, gave the CU Denver community an opportunity to discuss racism on campus and across the country. It provided a space for everyone, regardless of race, to come together and discuss violence against blacks. Harding encapsulated the event eloquently in her concluding statement: “We have to imagine and create together an America that, as my daddy would say, has not yet been but needs to be.”

#8cantwait list by Campaign Zero
#8CANTWAIT is a research-based campaign to reduce police violence.

Featured image is a detail of a Denver mural of George Floyd by CU Denver graduate Detour and artist Hiero Veiga.