Jerjuan Howard

Black Student Union president, Jerjuan Howard.

20 days have passed since George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department. 

It’s been two months since Breonna Taylor was killed when Louisville Metro Police Officers executed a no-knock warrant, which has since been banned in Louisville by the Breonna Taylor law passed on June 12.

It’s been three months since Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by two white men while jogging in Brunswick, GA. 

The death of these three black people sparked a movement calling for long overdue change to systems shaped by systemic racism across the country. In the 20 days since Floyd was murdered on Memorial Day, much has changed. Public figures have been fired for expressing racist opinions, Democratic lawmakers have presented police reform bills and some cities are radically rethinking how they approach policing. 

Four days after Floyd’s murder, Western Herald spoke with the president of Western Michigan University’s Black Student Union, Jerjuan Howard, about his opinion on the protests and unrest.


First, how is your mental state?

I was mentally exhausted the first couple of days, I actually couldn’t watch the full video because I’m tired of seeing that narrative. It’s exhausting to constantly see that.

What do you think about the protests and how people have responded to the protests?

I think that’s just an American right to protest something that’s unjust, as this is. People have a right to be mad. People have a right to express anger over a system that constantly fails them. In terms of them turning into riots, I think people are beginning to lose faith in our justice system and the place (police departments) have in America as a whole. 

A riot is just a way for somebody to be heard if they can’t be heard in any other way. Change is not coming fast enough so they’ve taken it into their own hands and the result of that is these riots. I don’t blame them. History shows the reason why we’re here. Far too often I think we focus on what is happening instead of why. And the why justifies what is happening in my eyes.

Detroit’s police chief, James Craig, said he believed George Floyd’s killing was murder and, if it were up to him, he would’ve charged them immediately after. What do you think about that statement?

I agree with it. Everybody with two eyes can see the injustice that took place and America knows this. (Derek Chauvin) should be convicted of murder. It was execution, literally. But I also think it’s important for black people to not solely depend on injustice systems to get justice. 

History has shown that in more recent cases people get away with these things and you depend on these same systems to teach or to get justice or take care of you. If you give them the power to feed you, you give them the power to starve you as well. There should be some kind of check and balance going on when it comes to things like this.

To tie that into Black Out Tuesday on social media, do you think that’s an effective form of protest?

Yeah. Malcolm X has a quote, he was essentially saying that if America speaks in dollar bills and violence; if we come to them with peaceful protests and kumbaya-ing we’re not ever going to get through to them. You have to speak the same language as your enemy. If America respects the dollar bill, you hit them where it hurts, the dollar bill.

You’re from Detroit, right?

Yes.

Could you see anything like George Floyd’s murder happening in Detroit?

Yes, absolutely. I can see this happening in any city with these systems in play. The way the police originated in this country was the slave patrol so you can’t ignore the origins. And this is every police department in the United States that follows these guidelines so yes, it can happen anywhere. 

It’s not just bad people in these systems, these are bad systems; corrupt systems at the core. It’s very hard for a good person to exist in a bad system. There are good cops but it’s very hard for them to exist in a bad system.

For example, you may have a good cop who may understand that a certain area is economically deprived so he doesn’t give out that many tickets because he knows people could barely make it in the neighborhood in general.

Right.

But his police chief; the system requires him to meet a certain quota of tickets every month. So although he may be a good cop, there’s an incentive for him to give out more tickets even though he knows the people in that community cannot afford to have tickets. But he has to do this because the system that he’s a part of requires him to do this.

There are always incentives for good people to turn bad within these systems. 

I believe these systems can’t be reformed; they have to be completely rethought. They’re almost to the point where they can’t be repaired. This could happen in any U.S. city and the result can be the same. It can happen because the system protects these types of actions. Does that make sense, what I’m saying?

Absolutely, I think that’s a great analogy.

If there was no police brutality, there would be no riots; If there was proper economic balance, there would be no riots, but all these things we choose to ignore until people blow up and they riot. 

What do you think of social media coverage, thus far?

I’m not in Minnesota so I have no place to say if they should or shouldn’t do that. Somebody was literally killed on camera; lynched. I don’t think it’s my place or anybody else’s place to judge the actions of these people because those are the mentions that are running high and they’re frustrated.

This is not something new; the focus should not be on what they’re doing, the focus should be on how can we fix this or remedy this to the point where we can stop this from happening in the future. I will say this, though, the revolution should be more organized. Organized change in general is the route I would take. But I’m not knocking them for what they’re doing because that’s how they feel.

Do you think the Black Lives Matter Movement has been successful? Have they pushed hard enough for change?

Black Lives Matter has been successful when it comes to raising awareness. I don’t feel comfortable critiquing other black movements but I will say there is always room for improvement. I don’t want to put the weight of the entire movement on Black Lives Matter. There are other organizers who should be lifting the load off the Black Lives Matter movement, they just don’t get the same type of push back because they’re not as well recognized.

What changes would you like to see going forward?

I think when black people, in particular, are faced with a problem, you have two obligations. The first obligation is to hold authority accountable. When something bad happens, hold your elected officials accountable, make them get their stuff together. For example, if the school system isn’t teaching the right information, you have to hold them accountable and change the curriculum. 

The second obligation is doing it yourself. If they’re not teaching you the right curriculum it’s up to you, your community members to teach those children. I focus on that side of change more. 

I think a lot of our movements are reactive instead of preventive. We wait for certain things to happen instead of taking action and that’s not the proper view of activism in my eyes. (I support) full-blown self-sufficiency so we don’t need anybody else because they don’t have the power to make change in our communities the way that we do.

Would you like to see people on social media and in their everyday lives pushing for change going past this?

Absolutely, I think that’s the biggest mistake that we make. We pick two or three people and say, ‘Hey they’re the leaders of the black race, they’re going to get everything done for us.’ But no, that’s not the case. We don’t need one or two people doing a lot, we need a lot of people doing a little. We need everybody pushing back on a system that oppresses us; we need a lot more unity. Everybody has a role.

What role do you think non-black people of color and white people play in this movement going forward?

In my eyes, people who are allies need to hold officials accountable. Things like that, being a voice in rooms we cannot get into or circles and spaces we cannot get into and are not a part of. It’s their job to push forward the narrative we would want them to say. Anybody that’s non-black that wants to help, that is where they can help the most. 

What will BSU do going forward to push for change?

Like I said, sometimes the preventative stages are the most important stages. Sometimes the truest way of black progression is through unity. BSU will continue to support and uplift our general body members and make sure we all understand this from a full-blown, black perspective.

They’ll know about the history of past situations like this, how they’ve played out and what we’ll do in the future to make sure we are fully prepared for these things to happen. We will prep our general body members to make sure that when things like this happen, we’re not always in a reactive stage but we’ve already prepared for these things and gotten our head on straight.

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