Attorney urges students to make a difference during Black History Month event

Social injustice in the criminal justice system was the subject matter Thursday morning as Grambling State University’s Criminal Justice Department presented a program titled “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot” as part of GSU’s observance of Black History Month.

The keynote speaker for the event held in the Floyd Sandle Theatre in the Conrad Hutchinson Performing Arts Center was attorney Carol D. Powell, who defended the Jena 6 all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and was named by the Congressional Black Caucus at one of the leading civil rights attorneys for the 21st Century.

Powell has been featured in media reports from sources including CNN, The New York Times, Al Jazeera news, NewsweekEssence magazine and “The Dr. Phil Show.”

She began the program by emphasizing that any judicial system is only as good as the people in office overseeing it.

“The system is designed to keep Black people illegalized in the criminal justice system regardless of whatever the trouble is, be it a low-level occurrence or whatever — the system is designed to keep us enthrottled in the legal system and it’s up to us to do something about it,” Powell said. “I can tell you, the word justice is only as good as the people you put in office, because in order to change this system, you have to change the type of person you put into office or know the type of person you put into office.

“And that’s very important because that’s where your vote comes in. It’s important for you to vote the person in that is going to share your views and that’s going to be about change, because we have to put in people that are forward-thinking people that want to change the system.”

Powell discussed the recent events by the fatal shooting by police of Tyre Nichols’ in Memphis, Tennessee, a high-publicity case that drew much attention from both the public and the media and in which five Memphis police officers ended up being charged with second-degree murder as well as aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression.

“Take it to the streets, because that’s what we do, we protest and take it to the streets. But we do it peacefully and that’s what we need you to do. But we need you to get out there, because with these police brutality cases, we want to make sure they are held accountable and that transparency rules. 

“In that case in Memphis, we saw a system that worked, and it worked because on Jan. 7 when Mr. Nichols was stopped, beat up and died two days later, we saw the police take action nine days late. We saw the Justice Department get involved 13 days later. We saw a district attorney come in and get those officers indicted 28 or 29 days later.”

Powell said it’s seldom that the system worked that well but questioned if the true reason was because all five officers who were charged were Black.

“If it would have been five white officers, it never would have happened that fast. So I had mixed feelings about that, because on one hand we see the system working the way it’s supposed to work,” Powell said. “But we still see evidence of racism, bias and social injustice even with the police officers. They’re all black. The white officer has yet to be charged with any kind of participating in the Tyre Nichols’ killing. So we see the disparities right there again.”

Powell urged the students in attendance to never run from the police, even when they are in the right, to keep from becoming what she called “dead right.”

She also asked them to record any interaction with law enforcement for their own safety and for the students to always tell officers what they’re about to do before reaching into clothing, a glove compartment or center console for paperwork such as vehicle registration or identification.

The program also included a Q&A session that included students asking about and later receiving information about internship possibilities.

Trinity Jackson, a junior criminal justice major from El Dorado, Arkansas, said the fact that the program was both planned and presented by students made it a strong learning process for everyone involved in organizing it as well as those that simply attended.

“I liked the fact it was hosted by students because I think it was a good way for our students to interact and have these skills for the future. The information presented was good to know for our future and because it was all planned and conducted by students, I think it gave a chance to show what we’re all about.”

The biggest takeaway for the program for some attendees was hearing the best way they should best try to handle things should they ever find themselves in the midst of some form of police investigation.

“It was a nice event that offered us to know how to handle ourselves and what not to do if we get questioned or even arrested by police,” said Caleb Benson, a sophomore general studies major from Farmerville. “It just offered some good tips on how to handle dealing with law enforcement officials and just gave us more information about the legal system and the way it works.

For Elijah Neal, a sophomore criminal justice major from Las Vegas, it wasn’t only a learning experience —he helped organize the event and also served as Master of Ceremonies along with Mistress of Ceremonies Madison Agnew.

“It was actually an amazing opportunity for me,” Neal said. “It helped me work on my communication skills, which is something that should help me in the future. I hope that was just my first in what will be many more experiences like that.”

Neal said his biggest takeaway was that it’s up to individuals to be agents of change toward creating a better future for all.

“I learned that no matter what image society puts on us, it’s still up to us to be the positive change and make a difference and be that change so that no matter what happens in society we just have to keep thinking and pushing forward to make the future hopefully better than it is now,” Neal said.