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Onwuachi-Willig describes cultural trauma caused by police brutality at Houston Law Review's 25th Annual Frankel Lecture

Oct. 23, 2020 - Boston University School of Law Dean and Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig used the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and most recently Houston native George Floyd, as examples of how the legal system has normalized violence committed against the Black community by law enforcement officers. Onwuachi-Willig's talk, “From ‘Lynching as Status Quo’ to the New Status Quo: A socio-legal discussion of the pattern of police and quasi-police killings of African Americans," was the keynote address during the Houston Law Review's virtual 25th annual Frankel Lecture in October.

"We are talking about a pattern that begins with a tragic killing or horrific beating of a non-threatening or unarmed African-American that is frequently followed by an acquittal or a non-indictment of an officer or quasi-officer," Onuwachi-Willig said. "It ends in a cultural trauma and a sense of hopelessness and disappointment in the legal system."

Onwuachi-Willig said there are nine stages of what she refers to as the new status quo:

  • The killing or severe physical attack on an unarmed or non-threatening Black individual
  • Use of the media to bring attention to the killing of an unarmed Black person by a police officer of quasi-police officer
  • The denial of the role of racism in the incident by a significant number of white Americans
  • Promises for an investigations or swift action by those in power in response to the uproar from the Black community and its allies
  • The demonization and super-humanization of the beaten or killed Black person
  • The acquittal or non-indictment of the officer or quasi-officer who killed the Black individual
  • Cultural trauma for Black people
  • Continued advocacy for reform or change
  • The letdown and disappointment following the recurrence of a similar incident in the country

Onwuachi-Willig concluded her presentation by pointing to the renewed push for civil rights and following Floyd's death in May, and how it has led to united calls for social justice.

"We might be in a unique moment for change," Onwuachi-Willig said. "For a meaningful number of white people having to witness the killing of George Floyd as he cried out for his mother, as he cried out for help, the officer who was under no duress or threat kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His partners who had a duty to save people did nothing to save Mr. Floyd and assisted their partner.

“That video enabled an awakening to racism that arguably resulted in a cultural trauma that has led to multi-cultural protests. We're seeing a shift we haven't seen before."

Tamara Lawson, Dean and Professor of Law at the St. Thomas University School of Law and Aya Gruber, a Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, served as commentators.

Gruber stated that Onwuachi-Willig laid out a pattern of injustice that has been repeated since Jim Crow, and that the state and society have tolerated racial violence and have failed to hold wrongdoers accountable.

"The penal system itself spends most of its time inflicting pain on Black and brown bodies," Gruber said. "In the historical evidence of Reconstruction era policing and imprisonment's role in maintaining oppression of formerly enslaved people. This all reveals our criminal system as a mechanism by which the government and powerful private actors control the masses, perpetuate racial hierarchy and minimize social welfare.

"Police killings of innocent African-Americans are not a matter of bad apples. They are a product of policing structure. From the disproportionate deployment of police in neighborhoods of color, to the training that ingrains in police that they must use extreme tactics."

Lawson used her remarks to ponder if American juries are ready to criminally convict police officers and if prosecutors can use this awakening and convert it into criminal punishment.

"As lawyers and as lawyers in training, our calling is to the study of the law and also to eradicate its unfairness where it exists," Lawson said. "I wish I could cite the perfect statute and precise case law that would undo these harms and soothe our societal unrest. But it is much more complicated than that. What is clear in all of these situations is that indifference is not an option. Impunity is not acceptable under our laws."

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