Audience members switched back and forth between boos and applause several times on Tuesday night during a panel discussion at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night. While most of the evening featured even-toned, healthy discourse, it seemed fitting that passions ran a bit hot at the end of an event titled: “Nonviolent Social Change Symposium: Poverty, Racism and Violence.”
Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, National Bar Association President Benjamin Crump, Showing Up for Racial Justice National Coordinator Dara Silverman, and moderator Arthel Neville, FOX News anchor, discussed issues such as the unequal treatment and sentencing of African-Americans in the justice system, Confederate symbols and how the media affects race relations.
The timing of the panel – amid a national conversation about gun control, police shootings, presidential campaigns – is no accident. The MLK, Jr. Commission organized the event to expose the tension behind these topics so that common ground might be found in the run up to the march and commemoration for iconic civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, Jan. 18.
The peak of an on- and off-stage disagreement started when moderator Neville disagreed with a point made by Silverman and Crump.
Silverman brought up the group of white, armed anti-government activists who occupied federal land in Oregon earlier this month.
“The thing that I would ask for us to look at is the treatment in the media of (the armed activists) and what would happen if that was people of color?” Silverman said, implying that the activists’ plight would be taken as a hostile act, not a social demonstration.
Some have speculated that if the so-called “Bundy brothers” had been non-white men, there would have been more intense media coverage. National media outlets chose less dramatic language for their headlines such as “Peaceful protest followed by Oregon wildlife refuge action” by the Associated Press and “Armed Group Vows to Continue Occupation at Oregon Refuge” by the New York Times.
Her question was generally well-received by the crowd of 200 but Neville challenged Silverman’s premise and said that had the activists rioted or acted violently, the media would have covered it more.
Neville’s comment was met with shouts of disapproval from the audience and immediate reactions from Silverman and Crump, who both raised their voices in response, speaking over one another until Neville gained control of the two panelists and crowd.
“Were there violence that happened to take place on that land you were talking about, it would have been shown. That is all I am saying,” Neville said.
Again, her comment was met with shouts from the audience.
“No it wouldn’t,” yelled Derrick Wallace from the crowd.
Wallace and many other audience members shouted indiscernible comments toward the stage before quieting to hear Silverman speak.
People need to acknowledge the differential and biased treatment of blacks, she said.
Neville nodded in agreement before ending the panel because of time restrictions.
A majority of the night, however, was spent in relative calm.
“The issue that is on so many of our minds, and certainly our televisions (is) the relationship between communities and the police officers who serve them,” said City Manager Sheryl Sculley during her opening remarks.
Earlier this month, San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus met with the Police Executive Research Forum and the Department of Justice to discuss police reform. From those meetings, Sculley said, McManus has identified ways further focus SAPD on procedural justice. In addition, SAPD will begin outfitting all of its officers with body cameras beginning this spring.
To address the problems of poverty, racism and violence Sculley said the City has taken action by supporting educational programs such as Pre-K 4 SA and Head Start, which work to change the trajectory of children from underprivileged neighborhoods. She also cited the launch of the Diversity and Inclusion Office in 2013 that works to cultivate an environment of respect and inclusiveness among the diverse populations of San Antonio.
Cisneros, former HUD Secretary and current CityView chairman, said local government is where change really begins, not at the federal level.
“As the state governments are fighting over state’s rights issues revisited, it falls to communities to create a real sense of social justice,” Cisneros said. “I am honored, I am pleased that we live in a city that takes that concept seriously.”
Neville asked Crump if he noticed any recurring themes that plagued the young men of color his organization, MyDAD 360, works with. Her question prompted a discussion among all three panelists about the unequal sentencing of African-Americans and whites as well as the “vicious cycle” of unemployment and poverty black men and women face following their sentences.
“We have to look at the structures that are in place to see what has allowed so many little ‘Billies’ to be successful and not get the conviction, and all the ‘Leroys’ and ‘Junebug’s always get the conviction,” Crump said.
Cisneros pointed to education as a means of correcting the disparity between races. San Antonio’s public schools are not doing what they need to do because they’re not funded correctly, he said, leading to problems such as cutbacks, broken equipment and improper class sizes – especially among inner city schools.
“We are not only building in the structural unfairness in the jurisprudence system, but the education system as well, and we need to address this,” Cisneros said.
Neville also invited questions from the audience. Among the most notable questions was one addressed to Cisneros, asking whether he agreed with the controversial movement to change the name of NEISD’s Robert E. Lee High School’s name. Many believe that because Lee was the commander of the Confederate army, glorifying him sends the wrong message to students.
Cisneros said he believes the high school’s name should be changed. While he acknowledged that Lee and the Confederacy are a part of American history, he said the names of the city’s public high schools should reflect modern values.
Neville and the three panelists stayed afterward to speak one-on-one with the attendees who were not able to ask their questions during the event.
*Top image: The panel discusses nonviolent social change. Photo by Scott Ball.