Highlights from “I Can’t Breathe” Town Hall

An emergency town hall hosted by the University of Pittsburgh’s offices of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) and Health Sciences Diversity brought together a panel of scholars, community activists, educators, mental health experts and local law enforcement to address the turmoil across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death by police in Minnesota.

To begin the virtual town hall, titled “I Can’t Breathe: From Agony to Activism,” Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the Board of Trustees, asked everyone to hold their breath for 19 seconds.

“While you may have felt some discomfort for 19 seconds, George Floyd was suffocated for nine minutes. Nine minutes pleading for a chance to live,” she said. “Since 1619, African American people across this country have been suffocating in this systemic injustice that’s been woven into the fabric of our country, and I am angry. It is time for us to act.”

For the next 90 minutes, more than 1,600 Pitt students, faculty, staff and community members took the time to listen to a wide-ranging conversation about racism via Zoom and YouTube Live.

Co-moderated by Paula Davis, Pitt’s assistant vice chancellor for health sciences diversity, and Ron Idoko, ODI’s diversity and multicultural program manager, the panel featured:

  • Jamil Bey, president and CEO of the UrbanKind Institute, a Pittsburgh think tank
  • Jay Darr, director of Pitt’s University Counseling Center
  • Valerie Kinloch, dean of Pitt’s School of Education
  • Jason Lando, commander of the vice and narcotics division with the City of Pittsburgh Police

Watch the full town hall above, and keep reading for the highlights.

On the death of George Floyd

Bey noted that, in contextualizing what’s happening across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the scars of the damage done to the African American community. “It’s ignited a powder keg,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to the ‘old normal.’”

Jay Darr’s tips for taking care of yourself

  1. Unplug: Even if it’s as for as little as 30 seconds or 5 minutes, unplug from TV and social media platforms.
  2. Express yourself: In times you’re unplugged, express yourself through spoken word. Tell your family or friends how you’re feeling. Keeping it bottled up stimulates the release of cortisol and could cause health problems.
  3. Get some sleep: Darr said this is the most important thing. Recharging and allowing our bodies to sleep can allow us to continue on with activism and the work we need to do.
If students need support, the University Counseling Center is available.

Lando, as commander of Pittsburgh police, said he was “disgusted” by what he saw happen to Floyd and has had “several sleepless nights” over it. “It’s not just because Mr. Floyd lost his life unnecessarily, but we’ve been doing work in Pittsburgh the last several years to combat what happened in Minneapolis. And all the work we’ve done, we risk flushing down the toilet because of this one incident.” He also said he was glad to see that the officers involved in the Floyd case were immediately fired, and that he feels “a sense of pride” when he sees Pittsburghers protesting peacefully.

Kinloch said: “I am angry. I lead with that anger. We are in a crisis, not a new one for this country or world.” Since the pandemic started, Kinloch said she’s been thinking about breath and breathing. “We have to take a breath, but what happens when that breath is taken away from us? When we have Black lives being assaulted, how can we allow them to breathe without taking action?” One way to start taking this action, she said, was to listen to voices of Black and indigenous people—including the younger voices. “I’m angry, yet I’m hopeful. That’s the part that gets me over. Being hopeful that change can happen. Listening to voices of teachers and people who are in communities whose voices don’t get heard.”

On fear

Darr used words like enraged, angry, helpless, worthless, worried and vulnerable to describe his feelings. “My lived experiences tell me I have to be hypervigilant as I identify as an African American male. I worry about my sons and their experiences out here in the world, and for my colleagues throughout the country and the Pitt family.”

Kinloch said that her fear, too, is deeply rooted. “I still get scared when I see a cop. It doesn’t matter that I’m a dean, a professor, someone with a PhD. I’m a Black woman in a black body. … When a cop pulls behind me, there’s still a question of what might happen to me even if I’m doing everything right.”

Humphrey said she stands with Kinloch in having that same fear. “As a Black mother, every time my Black children and husband walk out the door, I say a little prayer that they return. ... It’s a fear that many of us endure on a daily basis.”

Bey said he feels the metaphorical “knee on his neck”—the feeling of “What did I do?” And Darr added that trans-generational trauma is “engrained in us,” passed down from parents and ancestors. “We need to support each other through it,” Darr said.

Naming it

Darr said that it’s critical to name racism where it exists. “As a clinician, when we work with folks we support, we say you have to name it. We have to, to move into action. The time for inaction has stopped,” he said. 

Kinloch agreed. “We cannot move forward without naming systemic oppression and without naming white supremacy. We have to name it and stand against it. We can’t stand for anything less than justice. Then we work with people and say, ‘How do we think about justice and equity?’”

She added, “In the memory of George Floyd, and so many others, how many people are going to be murdered before our systems and institutions change?”

Our responsibility

When an audience member asked what we can do to stop racial injustice, Lando offered: “Be a good witness.”

“Think of it this way: George Floyd shouldn’t have died. But what would have happened if the witness didn’t videotape everything that happened?” Lando said that it’s every citizen’s right to photograph or video a police encounter at a safe distance.

Lando also said he encourages all his officers to form relationships with the people who live in their communities. But he also noted that he has trouble with the fact that there aren’t national standards for police departments across the country. “The thing I still struggle with is that there are a hundred police departments in this county and there’s 18,000 police departments in this country, and so how do you make sure, how do you get to a place where you’re all doing the same thing? And that’s something I still struggle with every day.”

Kinloch said we have the responsibility to do anti-racist work and dismantle systems of oppression—which includes calling out colonizing and capitalistic structures when we see them, especially for those who benefit from them. She said that it means doing work embedded in communities—and being invited in.

“We can’t enter into communities thinking we know what they need to do. We need to address legacies of oppression. We need to say, ‘How can I partner with, and work with communities—not work for?’ We need to change that narrative.”

Kinloch also added that no one, and particularly those in academia, can change a system if we’re not collaborating with people across different sectors—and talk more expansively about what it means to be Black in this country. She noted that conversations about justice must include the experiences of Black women, children and the LGBTQIA community.

Importantly, Kinloch said we need to do this work with each other. “If we can’t do that work with each other, I will always be fearful. That tells me that the young Black kids I work with across this country will remain fearful.”

Continuing the conversation

June 10, June 24 and July 8: Join the offices of Diversity and Inclusion and Health Sciences Diversity for additional installments of their running town hall series “This Is Not ‘Normal’: Allyship and Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19.”

June 10: David Harris, the Sally Ann Semenko Endowed Chair and professor of law at Pitt, will lead a virtual discussion titled “Race, Police, and Unarmed Civilian Deaths: What Can Be Done?” Harris also hosts a podcast dedicated to the many pressing issues in the criminal justice system.

June 16: At noon, join Mario Brown, director of  the Office of Health Sciences Diversity and Inclusion, in a space where the dialogue from the town halls can continue. If interested, contact mcb77@pitt.edu.

Now through July 6: ODI is looking to share your creative projects in its Art of Diversity Showcase and Competition, held in partnership with the Center for Creativity. All members of the Pitt community and the Pittsburgh region are invited to submit creative works of any kind and are relevant to aspects of their cultural identity, sociocultural topics or social justice issues.

Submissions will be accepted until July 6, and are open to all creative mediums, including visual art, music, dance and writing. The winners of the contest will be announced at the Diversity Forum 2020 on July 29.

July 28-30:  Learn how we can make Pittsburgh a more inclusive region at the Diversity Forum 2020. The forum, Advancing Social Justice: A Call to Action, is a first-of-its kind virtual event at Pitt and will feature speakers including Ibram X. Kendi, historian, New York Times best-selling author and founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. Secure your spot for the multi-day event by visiting the forum’s website. Registration is free and open to the public.