Melba Boyd is a native Detroiter and a distinguished professor in the department of African-American Studies at Wayne State University. An award-winning author of 13 books, her poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction have appeared in anthologies, academic journals, cultural periodicals, and newspapers in the United States and Europe. Today at noon, Boyd will be joining other community leaders for Wayne State University’s George Floyd in America: Black Detroiters on George Floyd event. (The virtual discussion will be hosted at wayne.edu/live. Registration is recommended.) The event is part of a new series — called George Floyd in America — that is presented by the university’s Office of the Provost, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Law School, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
Prior to the event, Hour Detroit spoke with Boyd about the ongoing protests, how the country has responded to the killing of George Floyd, and the future of policing.
Hour Detroit: What can people expect to learn from this event?
Melba Boyd: I think we’ll get some historical perspective on the Black community struggle with the abuses of the police and certainly some opinions about how that needs to be revisited. Because, of course, the [Detroit] city government has gone through different administrations that has had effects on the police, both positive as well as progressive. So there will be an analysis of that and also a sort of larger national discussion on police brutality, police murders, and the need to have an oversight commission that is comprised of citizens and not the police department.
What do you make of the momentum behind these protests?
I think the recording of the murder of George Floyd was so moving and so disturbing. I think it has influenced and affected people who before, just sort of had the thought like, “Okay, it happens, you know, the police didn’t mean it. It was an accident.” Excuses cannot be applied to what we saw in the recording of the murder of George Floyd, so I think the protests are necessary.
But for this moment, I think what’s fueling the rage — rather, the outrage — is the response and the attitude of the president. It makes people feel like they’ve got to say something. And they’re frustrated and also feel that the government is not going to do anything about it. As we saw Trump’s response was to, you know, attack peaceful protesters. So he could do a photo op in front of a church that he does not attend and to hold a Bible backward and upside down. It was the opposite of everything and so incredibly bizarre for that to happen because you have just in that one incident so many contradictions — including the violence that he uses in order to pretend that he believes in a religion that is about peace. But on the other hand, I think it’s important for people to see him for who he is. I think that his more recent aggressive actions indicate the problem with power when it’s in the hands of someone who is inhumane and totally insensitive to serious issues that impact a community that does not support him politically — and that’s no coincidence.
A common theme in your work is the division within urban life by class and race. How do you see that playing out today?
I think that the issue of race and class is extremely important, and I think in certain places, definitely in Detroit, we have dealt with that. I think we dealt with it more progressively than a lot of other places. But even here things should certainly be better. I think there is a political sophistication in Detroit that doesn’t necessarily exist in most of us in the country and that’s because it’s a place where Black people actually achieved a lot and developed a very significant middle class — especially during the time of the industrial revolution. Detroit had access and opportunities which wasn’t the case in many places in the country. But I think in addition to that progress that was made, in terms of my people and people of color here in Detroit, it’s also related to the fact that there was a major labor struggle. The economic changes since the end of the Industrial Revolution have severely impacted Detroit because a lot of the jobs that people used to do are done by machines, so the need for large manual labor is not there anymore and a lot of jobs went away to non-union states. [The North American Free Trade Agreement] was sort of the final nail in the coffin. So Detroit has been through a lot and went through a much more dramatic change than in the rest of the country because we are so dependent on the automobile industry.
Growing up in Detroit, what was your experience with the police?
Having lived in this city, when I was growing up I didn’t want to interact with the police under any circumstances in the 1960s. All kinds of abuses would occur. If you felt you were in danger, you didn’t call the police, because if they showed up, they were just going to make it worse. Generally, the Black community would police itself. Now I don’t feel that trepidation with Detroit police and my children who went to high school here never had that fear of the police that I had when I was in high school. I would see police just sort of show up when I would be outside of high school and they would grab a young Black man who was doing nothing, but maybe waiting on the bus to go home, and throw him against the wall. That attitude of enforcing and perpetuating this plantation mentality to make them afraid that they better not do anything. And even if you don’t do anything, you know, anything could happen to you if you had to deal with the police, especially if you were a Black male. And those were things that I witnessed, and I knew about; those kinds of horrible things happened all the time and there wasn’t really much you could do.
What should be done to improve the future of policing?
It makes a difference to have more women on the police force. Women are more likely to engage a suspect in conversation than to resort to brute force. Again, there are always exceptions to that. Now personally, I think police should be better educated. I think, as an educator, police should have at least one college degree so that they are forced to develop their thinking and become more aware of diversity in terms of the American population. They should be aware of the history of police abuse of people of color and understand what that means when they’re engaging them. They should know the law and have studied the Constitution of the U.S. They should also be better prepared to deal with difficult psychological circumstances where people act differently when they are afraid. People are experiencing fear and fear of [the police] — they should be trained on how to react to that. Using deadly force should be the last thing you do in the situation. And the idea of, “I feared for my life,” well, if you’re afraid of Black people, and you encounter a Black person and you fear for your life just because they are who they are, then you shouldn’t be on the police force. Because if you’re afraid of Black people, why are you policing them? You have to take courses on various aspects of American ethnicity, gender, and African-American studies and encounter African-American professors so they can see African-Americans in positions of authority. There are certain concerns that you might have, because of the history of subjugation and repression [of Black people], so on and so forth. However, once you engage that person, and you find out where they’re coming from, and who they are, and how they engage you, then you don’t have to resort to those prejudices. Interaction in a diverse situation is healthy for all Americans. It’s a lot of responsibility [to be a cop] and having that kind of power means that the person needs to have a lot of training and has to go beyond their sort of base instincts of fearing for their lives. Now, what do you think the other person is fearing? You.
What do you make of all of the attention that was garnered after the murder of George Floyd?
The world is paying attention to this and saying, “We don’t like this either, and we don’t want it to happen here.” And so I see this global impact and I think the same way about the global impact we saw during the civil rights movement in the ’60s and the peace movement against the Vietnam War. It makes a huge difference and it forces people who are in a position to make change happen. It’s the whole community crossing color lines and ethnicities saying, “No, this has got to stop,” People are just really shaken up and they are blinded. They don’t want their country to be known for this.
What do you have to say to the people who are not involved in the fight towards racial justice?
We have a lot of power: we have the power of our voices and we have our pens. People just have to speak up. There’s always going to be those horrible reactionary behaviors — people who are generally devoted to that kind of racial supremacy — but they will have to come to understand that that is not what this country is supposed to be about, because that is in direct contradiction to the Constitution of the United States. And if you don’t like the Constitution, then you really should not be here, and most places won’t want you either. But they don’t really know what fascism is. Now, if you try to have a conversation with them, they wouldn’t even be able to tell you why… they just, you know, come up with a lot of superficial comments and opinions. And it won’t be grounded in anything but blind faith and devotion to some really dumb ideas. There’s no limit to enlightening and advancing human beings.