“Looters take advantage of New Orleans mess,” “Police thought 12-year-old Tamir Rice was 20 when they shot him,” “Felon and University of Chicago professor share the stage in speech about felon rights.”
What do all of these headlines have in common? They serve to disparage the voices and narratives of people of color. Within this context, The Alligator further perpetuated the silencing and erasure of marginalized people with its article that was published last month.
On Thursday, Oct. 11, UF Intersections, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, hosted an event that focused on humanizing the effects of mass incarceration. Typically, when we think about mass incarceration, we think about the issues we read. We focus on the words that pop out of our screens or off of our pages. This event successfully provided a platform for real people whose work within the criminal justice system breathes life into those very words.
Reuben Miller and Jhody Polk shared their invaluable insight into mass incarceration by prompting us to interact with the system rather than merely study it. At one point during the talk, Miller asked us to reimagine how we as a society can respond to offenses we consider criminal. Polk then challenged us to venture out into the Gainesville community and interact with those we normally would avoid. Overall, this event was an opportunity for students, faculty, staff and community members to rethink the definition of a just society. As such, when the title of the article downgraded this momentous occasion to “Felon and University of Chicago professor share the stage in speech about felon rights,” the entire event was not only denigrated, but The Alligator became complicit in cultivating the damaging narrative of people of color that is subliminally presented to the public.
Polk cannot be relegated to simply a felon. She is an organizer. A mother. An advocate. Despite her past she is worthy of more than a deprecating label. When Polk and Miller spoke, they challenged us to see the people beyond these labels. This is extremely important because it requires us to consider their humanity before judging them. When the media referred to people of color who were ravaged by Katrina as “looters” instead of families devastated by a natural disaster fighting for survival, we only saw their crime and not their circumstances. When the media labeled a 12-year-old child with a toy gun as a 20-year-old with a real weapon, we were given the imagery that there is nothing wrong with the adultification of children of color. When the staff of The Alligator chose to call Polk a felon in spite of the other titles she currently holds, they conveyed the message that the work Polk is doing does not matter. The Alligator implied that Polk must always be judged by her past actions and not by her present accomplishments, her community service and her unrelenting push to remain a productive member of society.
Words matter. Titles matter. Humanity matters. As members of the media, you have an innate responsibility to write with integrity, decency and morality as you amplify your words to the impressionable public. We are disappointed that Polk was demeaned and purported as a degrading label that does not capture the amazing dialogue she provided about her past as well as the opportunities to bridge the gap between UF and the Gainesville community.
Natasha Joseph is a UF graduate student in Tropical Conservation and Development.
Ebony Love is a student at the UF Levin College of Law.