Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Derek Williams’s Homicide: A Concern for the Entire Community

Derek Williams’s homicide should be a wake up call to the entire Milwaukee community.
Educators should be particularly concerned. The level of racial segregation, disparity, and discrimination in many institutions in metropolitan Milwaukee is intolerable and directly affects the students we teach. We should not be silent on these issues.
Late last month the Milwaukee County medical examiner changed the cause of death of Derek Williams from natural causes to homicide. Williams died in police custody more than a year ago. The original internal police investigation failed to thoroughly examine the evidence. They disregarded the horrific squad car video of Derek’s final minutes in which police officers ignored Derek’s pleas for help as he squirmed in the back seat, hands cuffed behind his back, slowly suffocating.
Williams’s death was a reminder of the sorry history of police discrimination and brutality against the African American community. This includes:
  • Black Milwaukee drivers are seven times as likely to be stopped by city police as white resident drivers, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Hispanics were stopped four times as often). 
  • Police conducted illegal strip searches of community members. 
  • The 1958 police killing of Daniel Bell.
  • The 1981 police killing of Ernie Lacy.
  • The 2004, beating of Frank Jude Jr., self-described as biracial, by off-duty white policeman. (For information on these incidents click here).

And now the death of Derek Williams, the 22-year old father of three.
These matters should concern educators.
William’s death and community/police relations are emblematic of deeper divisions and problems in our community. These include Milwaukee’s hyper-segregation, lack of low-income housing, depression-level jobless rate among African-American males, high infant mortality rates, skyrocketing child poverty rates, and racial gaps in school attendance, graduation, and achievement.
Teachers daily see how poverty and racism affect our community’s children and compromise their future.
We need to demand that city leaders put these issues of race and poverty on the table and lead frank community-wide discussions about them. The discussions, in turn, must result in action.
Educators also know that students should have the opportunity to voice their own concerns and fears and to discuss difficult issues. Schools should be places where children can feel safe, and in age-appropriate ways, share opinions and think critically about problems that our community faces. School curriculum should reflect and build on the backgrounds, heritages and strengths of our students’ families.
We need to stand for justice in our community as we teach about justice in our classrooms.