Speaker highlights history of black oppression and improvements

The crowd of about 30 students remained largely silent as Laila Abdelaziz, legislative and government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida and USF alumna, used her experience in social activism to talk about race-related police bias last night in the Marshall Student Center.

The event, primarily organized by the USF chapter of Amnesty International, was titled “Exploring Police and Public Relations in the age of Black Lives Matter” and largely focused on society’s relationship with race since abolishing slavery.

“I’m probably from the outside a white woman who’s having a conversation about Black Lives Matter,” Abdelaziz said. “But I do want to say that as a Palestinian-American who was raised in Baltimore City, my whole life has been systematic violent oppression from systems that are far larger than mine.

“From a very young age, whether it was like when I was a child selling newspapers on the sides of Baltimore City streets in the 1990s at the height of the stop-and-frisk … I was really exposed to a lot of the systematic problems that I’m going to be discussing from a policy and social justice perspective today.”

Abdelaziz discussed how important slavery had been to the economy with entire industries being based on the work of slaves. She moved through the decades with a primary focus the development of the war on drugs, which has been linked to a rise in incarcerations.

“Even though the Thirteenth Amendment made slavery unconstitutional, it has this really interesting caveat in it,” she said. “The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery unconstitutional unless you’re a criminal. The wording of the amendment has a disclaimer for those in the United States who will be criminalized. When they leave (jail) there’s legislation at the state level and the federal level that legislates what former felons can and cannot do.”

She also pulled the issue of police brutality closer to home by citing numbers from the Washington Post, which created a database of shootings by police for 2015 that’s broken down by state. According to Abdelaziz, there were 71 people shot by police in Florida last year — which puts the state third in total police-related deaths — and 45 percent of victims were black. However, the database says there were 60 people shot by police in Florida, 26 of whom were black.

Abdelaziz also discussed the six-month struggle to create a Citizens Review Board for the city of Tampa — which she said had massive support from the general public and was primarily getting resistance from police officers — including the eventual compromise reached.

“At city council, after you hear two, three hours of compelling public testimony in support of Citizens Review Board, you’d literally just have the vice president of the police union going up in response as opposed to the idea,” she said.

A Citizens Review Board did officially start meeting in the beginning of this year, but it’s not what Abdelaziz and the primary driving force behind creating it, Justice for Tampa, had been hoping for. They’d hoped for an independent review board that was fully funded and could issue subpoenas.

“We did not get an independent Citizens Review Board, we got a review board that’s staffed by a police officer,” Abdelaziz said. “We got a citizen’s review board that does not have subpoena power so we can’t demand that you answer these questions in this investigation. And it’s not resourced the way we wanted it to be. It’s a step forward, we have the space … but it’s not where we need it to be at.”