Delaware State University forum seeks answers to division between minorities, police

Harry Downes

DOVER — In the life and experiences of Delaware State University rising junior Semaj Hazzard he has found there is no such thing as a routine trip, even to the local grocery store.

“I believe it’s safe to say that simply and in very elementary words — we’re afraid,” Mr. Hazzard said. “We’re afraid because it’s risky when we walk out of the house at this point. It doesn’t matter if you have a suit or tie on, it doesn’t matter if you have the qualifications, it doesn’t matter what your background is, our lives are at risk because of the color of our skin.

“We’re just afraid because every time we walk out of the house it’s a gamble and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

That is a feeling shared by many African-American men, especially when it comes to encounters with law enforcement officers.

Mr. Hazzard was a participant in an online weekly university forum, “The Past, Present and Future of Black America,” which on Tuesday was a discussion between Delaware State University leaders, Matthew Horace, author of “The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement,” local police officers and students, all of whom have ties to the historically black DSU campus.

They said incidents such as George Floyd’s death last week under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer have become a routine occurrence throughout history that has led to a basic fear of law enforcement, rioting and backlash from minorities.

Then, they set search for solutions.

“I am a proud father of three sons and one daughter, and I am a proud, proud president of what I believe is the best historically black college university in the country, and at this moment, we cannot be silent,” said Dr. Tony Allen, president of DSU. “It’s very important that we lead fearlessly and boldly, and we do that recognizing that we have a responsibility to serve and care for each other in the best and most thoughtful ways.

“I know that there is no silence around this country at the moment — and we’re not sure how long that will last. We do know that we can’t simply protest. We must not only let our voices be heard, we must have a plan and path forward.”

Dr. Michael Casson, dean of DSU’s College of Business, served as the moderator of Tuesday’s virtual discussion.

“Thank you for joining me to discuss our path forward during these extraordinary times,” Dr. Casson said. “As extraordinary as these times may be, the symptoms of America’s illness have persisted since its creation.

Matthew Horace

“The question for us is, ‘How do we become the voice of the unheard?’ Specifically, how does DSU and HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) around the country serve as the catalyst for change so desperately needed within our black and brown communities? The forum will serve as one of many first steps for the building of an impetus for change, starting in Delaware and plugging into efforts of similar nature and individuals of like minds across the country and around the world.”

Seeking a permanent solution

The group was looking for ways to bridge the gap between minorities and law enforcement officers, knowing there is currently a huge divide between the two.

It was the voice of a pair of students, Mr. Hazzard and Corban Weatherspoon, that seemed to drive the discussion.

“As a black male that’s in college and is so exposed to the world, sometimes I have to hope and pray that I can make it home and see my mother,” Mr. Hazzard said. “Sometimes I have to hope and pray that I can make it home and see my family and sometimes I have to hope and pray that I can make it from Point A to Point B.

“At the end of the day, the best way that we can solve this issue is we have to have a voice, we have to have numbers and we have to come together.”

Col. Vaughn Bond, the first African-American police chief of New Castle County and a DSU alumnus, was disappointed to hear of the fears that young minorities still have when it comes to law enforcement officers.

“I’m disappointed that young men feel this way, and I’m disappointed at actions of law enforcement over the years,” he said. “I thought that we were going to take a turn for the better several years ago and it seems like every time we take a few steps forward and do some good things, someone comes along and they do something, such as the cowards did out in Minnesota, and it sets us back.

Gwendolyn Scott-Jones

“It continues to pull the scab off a wound time and time again.”

Dr. Gwendolyn Scott-Jones, associate professor and department chairwoman of Psychology at DSU, said it is going to take a completely transformative way of thinking to solve the issues faced by African-American men.

“Tragic deaths of African Americans have been at the hands of police officers for years,” she said. “There’s been a lot of controversy between race and policemen. However, African Americans have been traumatized inherently and inconspicuously for generations.”

Changes are in order

Harry Downes, police chief at DSU and a former Delaware State Police officer, and Col. Bond said changes have to take place within law enforcement agencies. They pointed to the need for community policing, diversity training, recruitment of minorities and a zero-tolerance approach to in-house racism that can fester at even the smallest levels.

“When you talk about the words ‘Protect and Serve,’ those words have been around since 1963 since they were developed by the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) and police departments have used that as a base for what we should do throughout our communities,” Chief Downes said. “I think we have done pretty well at protecting, we know what that means, but how do we serve?

“When we talk about ‘serve’ I think that coming in the door you need to serve respectfully, compassionately, and if you don’t have that coming in the door of a police agency, then you shouldn’t come in the door. I don’t think that is something we can train you to do. That’s something you need to do coming in the door. That’s the basis of this service.”

Meanwhile, Col. Bond said people need to understand that every race tends to see through a variety of lenses of how they view different things in society — and officers need to be made aware of those differences.

“Every day, officers come into contact with individuals from different cultures, with different backgrounds,” he said. “It’s important as a police officer that you have some working knowledge of those different cultures, an understanding of how they react differently because of events that they’ve faced in their life, and understand how you can better communicate with them and recognize the issues and problems that they are confronted with in that culture.

“There is no way we can effectively serve our communities if we don’t focus on cultural diversity. Our communities are made up of numerous cultures. So to be effective, we have to train in that.”

‘What did you do next?’

Corban Weatherspoon, a rising senior at DSU majoring in engineering and physics, said he doesn’t believe the rioting and looting that took place in Dover on Sunday night will lead to any real lasting solutions.

He said he learned that at a very young age when he came home from elementary school and asked his “Mom-Mom” how she felt at the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He said she told him the most important thing is, “What did you do next?”

“The only thing I can say to people who think violence is the only way is what are you going to tell your kids when they ask you, ‘What did you do after this?’ Mr. Weatherspoon said. “Do you want to tell them that you were unheard and turned to riots or that you used your hands for violence – or that you used your mind and came up with creative ideas to lead to change?

“We’re living in history. When our children and their children learn about this time, they’re going to be learning about this summer and this pandemic and the riots and, basically, what is happening now. I will ask them how they want to be remembered. If they want to go about doing it the right way, fall into rage and anger, or follow the lead of the people who came before us and do it the right way.”

That was the critical thinking and discussion that Dr. Allen was seeking in embarking on a search for long-term solutions.

“At Delaware State University, we want that plan and path forward to be how we do business every day,” President Allen said. “One of the ways we do that is to encourage candid, sometimes very tough, dialogue around some of our nation and our communities most pressing problems.

“Today begins that journey. We literally are just beginning a conversation that is long overdue and must include action.”