D+I Spectrum Speaker Series: Former NAACP President and Harvard Prof. Cornell William Brooks on George Floyd and Black Lives Matter

Harvard Kennedy School professor and former president of the NAACP Cornell William Brooks paid a virtual visit to MoFo to speak about recent incidents involving police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how the protests of today differ from those of the past. MoFo partner Josh Hill moderated the discussion, which touched upon the protests and police response following the Ahmaud Arbery case and the killing of George Floyd, in addition to the more broad subjects of systemic racism and the civil rights movement.

Professor Brooks opened the conversation by recalling the words of MoFo chair Larren Nashelsky, who stated that “We will not be casual observers to injustice. We will do more and we will do it together.” He noted that words such as this truly resonate in the moment in which we find ourselves; one in which activism has been at the forefront of calls for change more than ever.

Professor Brooks spoke about two recent, troubling incidents: that of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was killed by the self-deputized George Zimmerman, triggering the Black Lives Matter movement, and that of Ahmaud Arbery, who was also killed by two self-deputized citizens while out jogging. He made the case that, although these two tragedies might seem disconnected, both of these incidents are, in fact, connected by the deep and profoundly tragic American history of lynching. In the context of extrajudicial punishment, or punishment applied without judicial authority, both of these men’s lives were taken without ever having the right to go before judge and jury.

What is different about the lynching and police brutality incidents of today from those of the past, is that the lives and memory of these victims are presented as “hashtag biographies,” which become subjected to post-mortem justification and character assassination. One hundred years ago, vigilante justice was acceptable for only slightly more trivial reasons than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as mistaken identity, insulting a white person, having a bad reputation, violating a contract, or even frightening a child by shooting rabbits, as noted in Ida B. Wells’ “The Red Record.”

So the question is, “Why now?” Why today are we seeing this high level of response and activism? According to Professor Brooks, a lot of it has to do with our exposure to these sorts of injustices. Whereas today we see a video recording of George Floyd’s life being taken, decades ago it was highly unusual to have access to such graphic images. One exception was the publication of a post-mortem photograph appearing in JET Magazine of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman. Just as the video of George Floyd’s murder inspired and ignited a movement, so too did Emmett Till’s photograph animate a generation of activists.

What makes these visual representations so significant, is that “all of us, when we viewed the George Floyd video were drawn in, not as moral observers, but as moral participants in a story that played out in our Democracy, in real time,” according to Professor Brooks. However, these recent media stories also raise an important question that we must ask ourselves about why we only know the names of victims such as Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Breonna Taylor, when there have been so many others.

In this moment of unprecedented activism, we have to ask ourselves, “What is different about this movement?” For one, according to Professor Brooks, “The people who believe that we are in a moment of racial reckoning are as diverse as the country, are as diverse as ‘We the People.’”

Following Professor Brooks’ remarks, litigation partner and member of MoFo’s Diversity Strategy Committee Josh Hill asked the professor for his thoughts on the vast response to the more recent police brutality incidents, and whether today’s movement is more of a response to the long history of injustice, rather than the more recent individual incidents alone, and how micro-aggressions factor into the equation that is systemic racism.

He also asked how police killings compare to extrajudicial killings, to which the professor remarked, “In the same way that we cannot separate lynching from the slave patrols, who were the institutional predecessor in the South of police departments, those who were deputized, who had the authority to capture and detain black bodies then, are not unrelated to those who assume the authority today.” He also pointed out that, “When we have police officers who are acting beyond their authority, acting beyond the bounds of the Constitution, acting beyond any conceivable authority to serve and protect, they are not unrelated to people who take the authority upon themselves.”

Closing out the webinar, the firm presented a short reading from civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis’ final op-ed, published on the day of his funeral. In this op-ed he writes about how the movement inspired him in his last days, stating “You’ve filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion, laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world, you set aside race, class, age, language, and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.”

Congressman Lewis also reminded us that “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself. Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting into what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Learn more about how MoFo is responding to racial injustice.