Penumbra hosts dialogue on race, violence and policing


Nekima Levy-Pounds and Signe Harriday
Nekima Levy-Pounds and Signe Harriday

The term “Black-on-Black crime” is oft-referenced in reporting on violence in this country, often using the annual FBI crime reports. These reports show that the percentage of Black murder victims who have been murdered by Blacks in the U.S. has consistently hovered around 90 percent since 2009.

The reported percentage of White murder victims murdered by Whites has stayed at around 83 percent during the same time period.

Black-on-Black crime “is a tagline, a byproduct of White Supremacy,” declared St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds at a recent forum. “I always argue that Black-on-Black is a myth.”

Chief John Harrington
Chief John Harrington

Levy-Pounds, Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington, Million Artist Movement Organizer Signe Harriday, and 2013 Bush Fellow Dave Ellis all spoke at the September 14 “On The Front Lines” panel discussion at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul as part of the theatre’s “Let’s Talk” series.

The FBI duly warns against using these crime statistics for comparison purposes since they are voluntarily submitted by law enforcement agencies and potentially unreliable. “Comparisons lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents.”

“We never talk about White-on-White crime,” said Levy-Pounds. “We don’t talk about White people shooting up movie theatres. We act as these are individual acts. If a Black person does a crime like that, we apply that to the entire African American race.”

Some view Black-on-Black crime as something inherent to Black folk, added Levy-Pounds. “When we are talking about homicide in the Black community, we need to understand the socioeconomic aspect of this.”

“The media today is full of finger pointing,” noted Penumbra Co-Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy, who served as moderator.

Harrington, the former St. Paul police chief, was asked by Bellamy if the police are feeling under siege over police-related deaths involving Blacks in recent months. “You can’t help but feel under siege,” he responded.

Levy-Pounds disagreed with Harrington and said that it’s community residents, rather than police, who are under siege these days. “Often there are a lot of incidents that happen that build up and make people feel like they are under siege. You can’t come into the community and treat people like you are an overseer.”

Being a police officer “is a dangerous job. It is something I wouldn’t want to do,” she pointed out. “But that’s not enough when we are talking about people’s lives on the line.” She added that it seems law enforcement officials are not using the data to improve community relations or “how to change their policies and practices.”

“We don’t know what is going to come at us,” said Ellis, repeating what young people often tell him, sharing their fears and concerns if police stop them.

“I’m not an expert in [criminal justice] because I am an artist,” admitted Harriday, who splits her time between New York and Minnesota using theatre for positive social change. “We have struggled in this country to speak our truth.”

Levy-Pounds said that the faith community must speak out more against violence, especially involving police. “To see Eric Garner being choked to death — and people of faith have a lens and an Americanized view — and be able to justify [it], that to me is evil,” she said.

“I would challenge the faith community to step up to the plate. I challenge us to look at this differently, to address White Supremacy from our congregations in our country.”

Harrington later told the MSR that the media often is incomplete in its reporting or doesn’t report everything that happens. “I think the media’s need to fill the 24-hour cycle causes us to repeat…the same information over again,” he explained. “It creates in some people’s minds that things are completely out of control.”

He added that disciplinary actions taken by Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau and St. Paul Chief Tom Smith are not always reported. “Part of it is because of data privacy,” said Harrington. “I don’t know if that gets out. As a result, the public gets the impression that nothing is being done.”


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