On September 7, the police assaulted 19-year-old Parkland College student Oluwatobi Mordi, who goes by the name Toby. According to a statement by the Parkland College Social Justice Club, Toby was in the cafeteria waiting for his ride, when two white Parkland Police officers approached him and proceeded to question him. After he complied with a request to give them his ID, they falsely accused him of lying about his identity. At that point the officers grabbed Toby to arrest him. Toby broke free of the officers and ran, at which point a foot-chase scene which bystanders filmed, and which has over a million views on social media, broke out in the cafeteria. It ended with a white student knocking Toby to the ground and then the police charging in and beating Toby with a club repeatedly before handcuffing him and taking him to jail. Another white person can be seen holding the door shut so Toby could not get out. It was a classic US American case of self-deputized white vigilantes and police officers instinctually working together to hurt a black youth. As the saying goes, cops and Klan work hand in hand.
The right-wing mainstream local newspaper the News Gazette ran a story in which they further criminalized Toby, published a picture of Toby’s police mugshot, and regurgitated the police narrative word for word without even talking to Toby or any of the students or faculty who support him. The News Gazette has a history of serving unofficially as the propaganda arm of the police department. Black students and faculty members, the Parkland Social Justice Club, and a few local organizations such as Black Lives Matter – Champaign-Urbana, the Graduate Employment Organization’s Solidarity Committee, and a few UIUC student groups such as the Black United Front, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, and Students for Justice in Palestine have organized fundraisers and a rally to support Toby, and have criticized the Parkland Police and administration for long-standing pattern of disrespect against black students, staff, and faculty. One of the hopeful developments in the past weeks is increased solidarity and coordination between student organizers at UIUC and Parkland. Some of the Parkland students and faculty who organized or supported the permitted rally have been facing a white supremacist backlash and need wider community support.
I attended the rally, and spoke with several of its organizers and participants, and it is clear: Parkland College is a palpably repressive atmosphere right now. So many of the white administrators, faculty, and students there ooze white supremacist attitude out of their pores. The administration exercises such tight control over both students and faculty. Being there I could see fear on the faces of people who disagree with the status quo, fear of being associated with the radical “trouble-makers,” and that fear is rational. I know students and faculty who have been getting constantly harassed, followed, and threatened by white administrators, faculty, and students because of their pro-black politics.
There is definitely a social class element to this. Unlike UIUC, a significant portion of Parkland’s student body is working class, not middle class, and there seems to be an overseer-managerial attitude among white administrators and faculty that they need to exercise strict control over the students. They send police into classrooms to pull students out for minor behavioral issues. I’ve never seen such a thing happen to the middle class students I’ve taught at UIUC. UIUC students have behavior issues too, but we don’t treat them as a law enforcement matter. We deal with it like human beings. If a cop set foot in my classroom to target one of my students, I would be livid, and I know that there are undergrad, grad student, and faculty organizations that would support me if I were to get in trouble for trying to defend my students from the police.
At Parkland, white faculty seem comfortable, nay, eager to throw their black students into the clutches of cops like a Praetorian Guard throwing raw meat to into a cage of starving lions. White faculty and students instinctively side with the cops, without knowing any facts of the case, but when black students and faculty stand up for the student, those same white cop supporters suddenly demand to have “all the facts” of the case handed to them on a silver platter so they can weigh the black victim of police violence’s “worthiness” to be treated as a human being. That’s called white supremacy, when you automatically consider the cops heroes without even knowing what’s going on, but demand a mountain of evidence before you can determine the black victim’s worthiness of human concern.
“But if he’s not guilty,” the white supremacists stupidly ask, “then why did he run from the police?” For white supremacists, it is inconceivable that the police, the modern-day Slave Patrol, can do wrong. I don’t know why he ran, but given the reality of what the United States is – a white supremacist settler-colonizer empire – running from the police is a perfectly rational response for many black and brown people. Maybe he ran because he knows that the police kill black people in the United States on a daily basis for minor infractions, and in some cases for no infraction at all. Maybe he ran because he knows that black people in the United States die in police custody on a regular basis. Maybe he knows about Richard Turner, a houseless black man who struggled with mental health and drug issues, who died in the street in Champaign last November while surrounded by cops: who died in a county that has defunded mental health and drug detox services while increasing funding to law enforcement. Maybe he knows about Toya Frazier, Paul Clifton, and Veronica Horstead, all who died needlessly last year in holding cells in the local jail: all three poor, all three black, all three whose cases could have been approached better as public health and economic justice issues than law enforcement issues. Maybe Toby knows that the Champaign Police Department gave its 2014 Officer of the Year Award to white police officer Jerad Gale, who raped at least four women. Maybe he knows about local police Officer Matt “Mad Dog” Rush, who was so consistently brutal to black people that the police chief fired him, yet the larger police community, represented by the local police union, rallied behind “Mad Dog” and got him reinstated in 2015. Maybe he still remembers 2009 when Champaign police murdered black 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington for no good reason, for “breaking in” to his own house.
Maybe Toby ran because he knows that in the United States of America, the only time the public cares about the police harassing black people is when there is a viral video to go with it, and he needed to create enough of a spectacle that bystanders would film it. In fact, if those videos were not shared on social media, it is quite likely none of us would even know about it, let alone care enough to do something. The police would have taken him to jail and Parkland would have continued functioning without facing the slightest scrutiny. Maybe Toby ran because he was a scared teenager running for his life from armed white men who meant to harm him. To automatically assume that running from the police implies criminality is the height of mundane white supremacy. Maybe the police are the criminals. There certainly is enough of a recent history of local police brutality and abusive, unethical behavior for people to assume that the police doing the chasing, not the person being chased, are the criminals.
Given the repressive atmosphere created by the Parkland administration, police, and the far-too-many white faculty and students who are thoughtlessly complicit in perpetuating the institution’s white supremacist structure, it is extraordinary that resistance at Parkland exists at all. While there is a lot of fear at Parkland, there is also a lot of bravery: brave students in the Parkland College Social Justice Club and brave black faculty members who support them in spite of the constant harassment and threats they are receiving. They deserve community support. They deserve to be commended for shining a light on the racist authoritarianism that the Parkland administration is now backpedaling and playing mental gymnastics to cover up. Support Toby. Support the Parkland College Social Justice Club.