“It is our duty to fight for freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” – Assata Shakur
On May 14, Nicole C. Lee, world-renowned human rights lawyer and first female president of TransAfrica, returned to her hometown to give a talk at Greater Works Christian Fellowship. Co-sponsored by Open Buffalo, the event gave Lee a chance to talk about her legal advocacy work with the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., and to talk about the relevance of that work to the residents of Buffalo.
Lee began her legal advocacy work in the U.S. as a reluctant participant. She was pulled into the beginnings of what would eventually become the Black Lives Matter movement by a chance meeting with Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, and later with the mother of Jordan Davis. At the time, she was struck by the contrast between both women’s status as nice, attentive mothers, and the media stories circulating about both women and their sons. Both mothers, Lee reported, falsely believed that they could protect their sons from violence by raising them in nice suburban homes—a fact that has since caused her to reflect on the role of “respectability politics” in promoting complacency about police brutality.
These meetings, and the questions they provoked, eventually led Lee to work as a legal advocate in Ferguson, and later in Baltimore. Throughout her talk, Lee reflected on the contrast between what she saw and what the media reported. For example, in Ferguson, media reports juxtaposed raging fires with footage of protestors, even though the protestors were a 40-minute walk away. Meanwhile, very little was said about the fact that police officers shot tear gas into restaurants where protestors rested, and that vigilantes, taking advantage of Missouri’s “open carry” gun laws, shot into crowds.
Police brutality, particularly against black men and women, has reached epidemic levels in this country. Although she invited her audience to come up with their own site-specific solutions, she advocated a broad coalition-based movement that eschewed respectability politics in favor of “teach[ing] our police how to handle being in our community.” Open Buffalo Executive Director Franchelle Hart echoed this call in her opening remarks at the event, where she advocated community-oriented policing as an antidote to what she called a “war on compassion.”
Open Buffalo is grateful to Nicole Lee for sharing her insights into racism and law enforcement with her hometown, and looks forward to working with audience members in the coming months as we continue to fight for true community-oriented policing in the City of Buffalo.
Thanks, too, to event co-sponsors: Concerned Clergy Coalition, Partnership for the Public Good, and Greater Works Christian Fellowship.