Since Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August, 2014, police violence in America has become a hot button issue south of the border. Protests and the non-violent Black Lives Matter movement has called into question a system that’s complacent and in need of change.
Ragland grew up next door to Ferguson in St. Louis, Missouri hearing from his father the well-intentioned but misplaced idea that if a black American behaves a certain way, they will better reflect themselves to a white mainstream.
The Selkirk College Mir Centre for Peace Lecture Series will present African American scholar and activist David Ragland who’s connected to the Black Lives Matter movement at the Shambhala Music & Performance Hall in Nelson on April 15 at 7 p.m.
“My dad used to say, if you are nice to the police, if you are looking nice, they won’t bother you. But that’s not the case,” Ragland says. “I have a PhD and I’ve had a police officer’s boot in my neck, in a suit, after being nice. It’s like shifting our humanity to suit how other people can best perceive us... Either a life matters or it doesn’t.”
Educator Called to Activism
Now an assistant professor at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, Ragland has added the role of activist and advocate to educator because for him, it’s necessity. He says he can’t stand by and let injustice continue in his country because lives depend on his activism.
“It’s urgent. Our communities are occupied,” he says.
In this role, he’s connected to those personally affected by police violence. A professor at the University of Arizona and a colleague of Ragland’s was recently beaten by a police officer for crossing the street at the wrong place. An activist in Baltimore beaten by police, reached out to him for help securing legal representation. He feared for his life.
Ragland worries about the lives of his nephews, his family and his friends.
“My own life is in danger,” he says. “I see it as a possibility and it has happened to me. I have been brutalized by police before so for me it’s a matter of life, but then it’s also a matter of those rights and expression of dignity is additionally of such urgent importance to me. This work has become a priority.”
Ragland will visit Selkirk College’s Tenth Street Campus, Shambhala Music & Performance Hall on Friday, April 15 at 7 p.m. He will give a straight forward and personal perspective on the violence he’s witnessed and explain the value of community-based approaches to change, fostering a true culture of peace.
“I think it’s important for people to hear what’s happening in other communities, but also find ways to connect it in their lives,” he says. “Things aren’t going to change if I come up and sugarcoat it. I have to be straight up with what people are going through, what my family is going through. Those are things that move people and I hope that people are moved to support, learn, want to know more, want to change their lives, whatever it takes for people to become empowered.”
Truth Telling Toward Justice
If America is to learn, it must listen to and take direction from the truths told by the people on the street, says Ragland.
“Whose story do we listen to? Whose voice to we value?” he asks. “If someone on the street is explaining their experience, we discard it. But if a police officer or someone in a suit or some academic is explaining it, then it’s more valuable.”
Ragland teaches that the way to fix a broken system must be holistic and community based.
“Traditionally, solutions have come from elsewhere and they haven’t worked. We haven’t listened to the people we’ve tried to impose solutions on, instead of taking leadership and direction from people whose lives are most affected by decisions that are being made on their behalf. It’s just a matter of do we value people to direct their own lives or not. Most times, we don’t,” he says.
The intensity of Ragland’s work leaves little time for balance is his daily life. He has chosen not to have children, his experiences too intense to feel right about bringing “another black body into this world.”
But he does find solace in the sense of community that the civil rights movement of today fosters.
“The wonderful thing about the protest movement is we’ve established an amazing community that was there, but sometimes it takes something to bring people out of their houses. Capitalism keeps people separated and individual, focused on themselves and competing rather than collaborating,” he says.
Learning Through Community Conversations
He also relishes in his role as a teacher. Having completed his graduate studies at Columbia University in New York City and the University of Toledo in Ohio, education is about conversations, he says.
“I think my own orientation to the world is as a learner, someone who’s open to trying to understand and trying to deconstruct and learn about people and issues and structures and concerns. It’s seemed very natural,” he says of becoming a professor.
For Ragland, a Peace and Conflict Studies professor, adapting concepts such as peace to a modern age is at the heart of finding justice in America.
“We don’t look at it as something that is related to people’s lives,” he says. “We see it in terms of non-violence or somewhere else in the world we have to go and put a program in as opposed to our own communities and our own backyards.”
The West Kootenays may not be Ragland’s backyard, but the issue is of great relevance. Many groups have been historically denied rights such as Canada’s First Nations population. Ragland quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“It’s a matter of solidarity,” he says. “We see our movements, lifting our voices and resistance against militarized forces and authoritarianism as a connected struggle. We struggle for freedom and rights.”
Tickets are now available at Otter Books in Nelson (cash or cheque only) or at the Selkirk College Castlegar campus bookstore. Cost is Adult $16, Senior $13 and Student $13.