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Op-ed: Class canceled over police brutality

Brandon Wilson | TA and Ph.D. Candidate in the History Department

This letter was written in response to the police shooting of 15-year-old Branden Leachman on Sept. 26, 2018, as a part of a broader pattern of violent, aggressive and racist police behavior in the city of St. Louis. I am a teaching assistant at Washington University and a resident of St. Louis City, and chose to cancel all of my classes on Friday, Sept. 28. Deadly force is an unacceptable option against black children, and the system cannot be allowed to proceed uninterrupted so long as black lives are disregarded.

Dear class,

I am writing to let you know that the recent police shooting of a 15-year-old boy, Branden Leachman, at the intersection of Union Boulevard and Wabada Avenue, requires that our scheduled class this Friday, Sept. 28, 2018 be canceled. The shooting occurred close to where I live, and I feel it unwise and emotionally irresponsible to continue our business as usual.

As a resident of the city’s North Side, my safe commute to campus is consistently compromised by the St. Louis Police Department, and further jeopardized by a university that has failed to address the intersecting issues of violence, poverty and racism that has long plagued the city. Instead of addressing local issues as a member of a democratic process, this institution has instead chosen to build its endowment, inflate the wages of its highest earners and expand its colonial footprint upon surrounding communities. It has gentrified surrounding neighborhoods for its own development interests, avoided local income taxes that fund schools and social services, dealt closely with corporate institutions (Wells Fargo, Bank of America) known for racist mortgage practices and intertwined its endowment dollars with corporate members of ALEC (a lobbying group that has pressed for private prisons, fossil fuels and pro-gun laws like “Stand Your Ground”).

The circumstances of the shooting are, according to St. Louis police, “still under investigation.” But what is known is that the city of St. Louis is under a crisis that threatens the lives of its residents—particularly the black and the poor. Roughly one-quarter of all city residents live in poverty—twice the national average, according to federal census data. What’s worse is that swaths of the city’s segregated North Side suffer from poverty rates much higher, often exceeding 50 percent. It is an absurd statistic to grasp—that in a city home to some of the nation’s wealthiest institutions (Washington University among them) that large portions of the city’s population live without basic access to safety, food, education, hope.

And while the University wants to imagine itself divorced from the local reality of poverty and blackness, it is not. The toxic environment it has allowed, and indeed fostered in the City of St. Louis, is right now affecting my teaching and your learning.

It is important that such interruptions do not regularly, consistently or periodically affect your learning. To assure of this, the University ought to formally, publicly and unapologetically condemn the St. Louis Police Department for its pattern of prejudice and brutality against African-Americans. (Remember, just this summer, a group of your peers was harassed by Clayton police near IHOP). Furthermore, the University (as the region’s third largest employer) must hear the demands of students, staff and graduate workers to pay all employees at least $15 an hour or $31,000/year to ensure the University does not perpetuate poverty in St. Louis. The University must divulge its financial ties and divest from corporations responsible for destruction of people and communities: private prisons, fossil fuels. Instead, it should reinvest in local schools, businesses and community groups that make St. Louis a safe and healthy place to live. Police brutality and regional poverty must end, and who more obligated to make a difference than the region’s elite institution and third biggest employer?

Imagine a school integrated as a democratic citizen of the St. Louis community—engaged with improving the lives of our poorest citizens, contributing to public schools as a tax payer, uplifting the artists and entrepreneurs too often pushed to the margins of economic development. Imagine your undergraduate experience in an empowered, diverse St. Louis that thrives off of the University’s presence.

This week we were to discuss the Constitution of the United States. Few readings could have been more appropriate for this occasion. I ask that you spend the hour we would have used in class to re-read the document with its imperfections, its amendments, its historical context in mind. For the constitution is but a document, and represents nothing without the commitment of well-informed individuals dedicated to upholding its principles.

Sincerely, your teaching assistant,

Brandon Wilson