Almost nine months have passed since Amber Guyger, an off-duty Dallas police officer still in uniform, entered Botham Shem Jean’s fourth-floor apartment and opened fire, killing the beloved song leader and Bible class teacher as he prepared to watch a football game on TV.
Still, the grief and the heartache never stray far from Bertrum and Allison Jean, parents of the 26-year-old accountant who left his native St. Lucia — a small island in the Caribbean — to attend Harding University in Searcy, Ark., and later worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dallas.
Botham Shem Jean sings at the Dallas West Church of Christ in September 2017. Photo by Namon Pope
The desire to see their son, to touch his smiling face, to hear his beautiful voice sing praises to Jesus once again grips the Jeans all the more during trips to this Texas city, where Botham Jean’s life ended suddenly on a Thursday night in September.
“For me, every day it’s going to be on my mind, especially as we are here in Dallas,” said Bertrum Jean, who traveled with his wife to attend the recent Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit, hosted by the Dallas West Church of Christ — Botham Jean’s home congregation — and sponsored by the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
“It’s as if it just happened,” the father said of his son’s death. “That’s how I feel.”
For Allison Jean, occasions such as the racial unity summit — dedicated in Botham Jean’s memory — and a simultaneous mission trip by Harding students to St. Lucia make her proud of the difference her son made in his short life.
“I see his work in all of this,” said the mother, wearing a #BeLikeBo T-shirt during an interview at the Dallas West church.
“It’s like a roller coaster,” she added. “There are days when I feel that God has taken him for a reason, and I get comfort that he’s with the Lord. Then there are days when I miss his physical presence, and I miss his telephone conversations.”
Months after Botham Jean’s death, trauma strikes his parents in unexpected ways.
While in Dallas, they needed to obtain medical records for an insurer. At Baylor Medical Center, where their son was taken after the shooting, they learned he initially was identified as a John Doe.
“That hurts because Botham was not a John Doe,” Allison Jean said. “He did so much, and he was so affable and always so upbeat in everything. He didn’t deserve to die.
“I know there’s a time to live and a time to die,” she added, referring to Ecclesiastes 3, “but certainly not in the way he did. I feel a wicked act was inflicted upon him right in his own home. That, for me, is the most hurtful part of it.”
Mugshots of Amber Guyger in 2018. Public records photo
WFAA-TV in Dallas recently obtained and broadcast a recording of Guyger’s 911 call from Botham Jean’s apartment.
Guyger has said she mistakenly parked on the fourth floor instead of the third floor, where she lived directly below Botham Jean’s residence. She said she confused his place with her own and thought he was a burglar.
On the 911 tape, Guyger repeatedly insists that “I thought it was my apartment” and voices concern that “I’m going to lose my job.”
Three days after the shooting, police charged Guyger with manslaughter. Later, she was fired and indicted by a grand jury on an upgraded murder charge. Her trial is set for September, a year after Botham Jean’s death.
“That was very, very, very hard,” Allison Jean said of the 911 recording.
“Listening to it, it sparked some anger within me because I’m not hearing the dispatcher pay much attention to him,” the mother added. “I didn’t hear the dispatcher ask about his condition, whether he was breathing, whether he was responsive. … And I’m wondering whether it was because it was a police-involved shooting that the victim didn’t matter.”
Allison Jean, a former top government official in St. Lucia, said she believes the tape was leaked in an effort to gain sympathy for Guyger.
At the Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit, an attendee wears a “Justice for Bo!” shirt. Photo courtesy of ACU’s Carl Spain Center
“I think it’s wrong,” she said.
For many, “Justice for Bo!” has become a rallying cry seen on T-shirts and social media hashtags.
“In addition to grieving his loss, I’m consumed with ensuring he gets justice,” Allison Jean said. “I read all the news articles that bear his name. I’m in touch with the attorneys from the DA’s office to find out about progress from the case.”
The family filed a civil lawsuit in federal court, arguing that the city and Dallas police “failed to implement and enforce such policies, practices and procedure for the DPD that respected (Botham) Jean’s constitutional rights.”
But lately, especially after a right-wing radio host characterized her as a scheming mom looking to get rich off her son’s death, the fight has made her weary, Allison Jean said.
In a Twitter post, family attorney Lee Merritt condemned the shock jock’s statement as “dangerous, defamatory and uniquely evil.”
“Right now, since I came to Dallas, I’ve just been thinking about whether I should really fight for justice,” Allison Jean said. “I know the one just God is the one whom I serve. So I keep thinking, ‘Should I just leave everything up to him?’”
Asked what justice would look like, she replied, “I thought justice would mean some punishment to the person who inflicted harm (on Botham Jean). But right now, since I realize we’re dealing with principalities and powers — we’re dealing with a secular world and not only the spiritual that we believe in — I’ll just leave it up to the Father.”
For his part, Bertrum Jean said he knows “nothing could bring Botham back to me.” No outcome in a criminal or civil court will change the fact that his son died.
Allison and Bertrum Jean, parents of Botham Jean, reflect on the Christian Acappella Music Awards paying tribute to their slain son after his death. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
“All my mind is on is, I want to see him again,” the father said, his voice choked with emotion. “I know he’s in a place where he should be, with the Lord. I want to be in heaven with him.
“Honestly, she’s the last person on my mind,” the father said of Guyger. “I don’t mind seeing her, and I have no hatred for her. Everybody who knows me, I’m about love.”
Whatever happens in the justice system, Bertrum Jean said, he’ll leave it in the Lord’s hands.
“Honestly, they could give her 100 years in prison, and I would take no pleasure,” he said. “Until I could see my Botham again, I will not be happy.”
Focus on positive change
The four-day racial unity summit brought the family — Bertrum Jean, Allison Jean, older sister Allisa Charles-Findley and younger brother Brandt Jean — to Dallas.
Bertrum and Allison Jean address the Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit at the Dallas West Church of Christ. Photo courtesy of ACU’s Carl Spain Center
They sat close to the front as Jerry Taylor, founding director of ACU’s Carl Spain Center, welcomed conference attendees. About 350 Christians from across the nation registered for the summit.
“Our presence here … speaks to our commitment to keeping the beautiful life and the horrific death of our beloved Botham Shem Jean alive,” Taylor said. “We will not suffer memory loss when it comes to recognizing the great tragedy of what the Jean family lost, what Dallas West lost, what the city of Dallas lost and what the world lost when Botham innocently lost his life.”
Dallas West minister and elder Sammie Berry, described by Botham Jean’s parents as his “Texas father,” told the crowd the slain Christian “was an outstanding young man with a bright future.”
“While he lived, he let his light shine on all of those who came near him,” Berry said. “So we’re here to honor him, but we’re also here to bring about some positive change.”
Allison Jean said of the summit: “Anything that will promote what Botham stood for, I fully support it. Racial unity is one of the things that Botham really tried to do. In fact, I don’t think he even recognized race because he was always with everyone. He blended very well at Harding, which is predominantly white.”
A mission team from Harding with the Jean family and other St. Lucia church members during a trip several years ago. Photo courtesy of Todd and Debbie Gentry
At the same time as the Dallas event, a dozen-person mission team from Harding landed in St. Lucia.
That island nation of 180,000 people is where Botham Jean dreamed of winning souls to Jesus and running for prime minister one day.
Harding teams led by Todd and Debbie Gentry, college and outreach ministers for the College Church of Christ in Searcy, began annual trips to St. Lucia in 2013.
At the time, Botham Jean worked as a student intern for the campus ministry. The Gros-Islet Church of Christ, where Bertrum Jean serves as a part-time preacher, was a new church plant on the island’s north end.
“We spent hours discussing the possibilities of how a team of Harding students could help grow and encourage those followers,” said Debbie Gentry, who with her husband became Botham Jean’s “Arkansas parents.”
The shirt worn by Harding mission team members on a recent trip to St. Lucia. Photo courtesy of Todd and Debbie Gentry
On the latest trip, students spent four days in a Gros-Islet elementary school, teaching health and wellness, social studies and religion. That school is the same one where the original mission team coordinated a day camp that Botham Jean helped arrange.
“Our relationship not only with this school but with the ministry of education in St. Lucia has been cultivated,” Debbie Gentry said. “We have been invited to teach in all the schools in the island.
“It is amazing how free we were to talk about God and our faith,” she added. “We sang religious songs freely and prayed in all the classrooms. In all subjects, we were encouraged to speak about our faith in Jesus Christ.”
Nonetheless, the trip was difficult for all who knew Botham Jean, she said: “This year, we are walking with the entire church through grief and healing. Our hearts are broken over the tragic death of our dear friend and brother. Without a doubt, we have felt Botham’s absence in a big way.”
But just as Botham Jean “served because he loved God with all his heart, soul and mind,” she said, the Harding team did the same — knowing that he would be pleased.
The family has established the Botham Jean Foundation, with his sister serving as president, to keep his memory alive and serve vulnerable communities in the U.S. and St. Lucia.
Allison Jean, right, mother of shooting victim Botham Shem Jean, hugs a mourner after a prayer vigil Sept. 8, 2018, at the Dallas West Church of Christ. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
On Sept. 6 — the anniversary of his death — the foundation plans a “Be Like Bo” Day that will feature the launch of a mentorship program.
“It’s a hard day, but we want to change it and bring good out of it,” said Charles-Findley, a member of the Kings Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y.
After the racial unity summit, Bertrum and Allison Jean flew home to St. Lucia to join the Harding group.
Even before returning to the island, though, they braced themselves for the torment that they’d experience there.
St. Lucia, like Dallas, stirs so many memories, so much anguish.
“I miss him being there, just going to the various homes that he visited,” Bertrum Jean said of past St. Lucia mission efforts. “It breaks my heart that he won’t be there for that work.”
The nightmare never goes away.
(Bobby Ross Jr. writes for The Christian Chronicle, where this story first appeared. The original version of this story can be found here.)
Jennifer Pinckney had hoped to be in Bible study on the evening of June 17, 2015.
But her six-year-old daughter had other plans.
The two were in the senior pastor’s office at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on the night that Dylann Roof opened fire during the church’s Wednesday night Bible study, killing nine people. Among the victims was Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and Jennifer’s husband.
She and her daughter heard the shots, barricaded the door and hid under a desk in a secretary’s office, according to her testimony during the penalty phase of Roof’s trial.
“Be quiet. Don’t say anything,” she told her daughter. The two survived.
In the years since the attack at Emanuel AME, Pinckney has worked hard to pick up the pieces and to give her daughters a sense of a normal life. She was recently in Atlanta, where her daughters were taking part in a dance competition, and sat down for an interview with RNS.
It has been almost four years since the tragic events of the Charleston shooting. Can you take us back to the day it happened and what you experienced?
In the beginning, you’re in denial. You don’t always register when things happen. Especially as traumatic as the Charleston shooting. You just kind of think to yourself, “Did this happen to me?”
To be honest, at first, I was a little in denial that it really happened at all. I can tell you that I immediately went into mom mode to protect and be there for my two girls, which was and still is my first priority. I can remember getting home that night and seeing police cars everywhere in our yard and allowing my girls to briefly look out the window as I tried to explain to them the reality of what had happened.
Jennifer Pinckney, widow of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, speaks during a Feb. 9, 2016, event at Duke University on the violence that targeted Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Photo courtesy of Megan Mendenhall, Duke University
How are you and the kids doing?
We have our good and bad days. We are living in Columbia, S.C. I’m adjusting to being a single parent, and the girls are doing well in school and enjoying participating in dance competitions, which they have been involved in since they were little girls.
When did it become real to you that your husband was gone?
Because he traveled a lot it was easy for me to think that he would be coming home, so at first, it was like he was gone on a trip. It wasn’t until they brought his car home that it became real to me. I can remember sitting in his car and crying. That’s when it became real for me. There have been other moments, but I can remember that one vividly.
Are there any other emotions that you had to deal with after your husband was murdered?
There are just different little things I went through, like when I’d go into his closet, the bedroom, the bathroom, I never moved his pajamas that he had left out. Even when I’m looking at my girls, sometimes I can see him in them.
There has been so much said about your husband, who was he to you?
Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s wife, Jennifer Pinckney, top right, sits with her daughters, Eliana, right, and Malana, left in pink sweater, during services honoring the life of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, on June 26, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., at the College of Charleston TD Arena. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
There are many people who think they knew him, but they don’t, which is one of the hardest things that I have to deal with.
Clementa was so relatable to whoever he would meet. He was a tall man, so when he would talk to the girls, he would kneel down to their level to speak to them. He was a calm man. Even when he served in the state Senate, his colleagues would say he would hear both sides and would remain calm in listening. One of his favorite sayings was “Have you thought about it this way?” He was truly an attentive man. As busy as he was, Sunday was our time as a family. He would intentionally block that time off for us even after preaching on Sundays.
What type of pastor was he?
I can still remember his sermons. In fact, after his death, I went back and listened to some of them. Although I was in the room when he preached them, listening to them again ministered to me. His sermons felt like he was ministering to me from his grave.
His sermons have ministered to me through some tough moments in my life.
A lot has changed in America the last three years; what are your thoughts?
(Deep Breath) Yeah, a lot has changed, which is why I think much prayer is needed.
What is your life like today?
After the incident took place there were lots of people around, and the phone was constantly ringing, then after a while, everything just stops and people move on. I’m a mom first, and raising my two girls is my first priority in life. I want to make sure that I do that role well.
How do you raise two girls, whose father was killed because of a hate crime?
You know, I try to teach them just because someone may not like you, you have to go beyond that. You’re always going to run into difficult situations and different kinds of people, and you have to get beyond that person’s ignorance.
What would you like for people to remember about your husband?
That he loved God, he loved and respected everyone. It’s also important to note that no matter how busy he got, the girls and I came first. He would always take time for us. Clementa would hear everyone’s point of view. Many of his colleagues called him one of the most peaceful people that they knew.
Do you sometimes ask yourself why this didn’t happen to someone else?
I don’t because it shouldn’t happen to anyone else.
How have you handled the pressure of being in the public eye?
Before the tragedy, most people didn’t even really recognize me. When the tragedy happened and the media started coming around and started coming to my house, I had to go into protection mode to make sure that my girls were cared for.
Actress Vivica A. Fox, left, poses for a photo before President Donald Trump speaks at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The Democrats seeking the White House have issued proposals on overhauling education, agriculture, technology and immigration. But none of the candidates has made specific pitches on how he or she would transform the nation’s criminal justice system.
Although the Democratic candidates have talked broadly about systemic racism — with several backing some form of reparations to the descendants of slaves — none has gone deep on mass incarceration or police reform.
It’s an omission that has frustrated some activists who hoped such issues would receive greater attention in a Democratic primary that includes two black candidates and is dominated by an overall push to the left on many social fronts. Some are worried it’s an early sign that candidates won’t pay enough attention to voters of color.
“This is not a marginal issue,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is hosting several White House hopefuls this week at his annual social justice convention in New York. “Are they going to keep consent decrees? Are they going to deal with mass commutations? They’re going to have to deal with these questions.”
Sharpton pressed some Democratic presidential contenders on the issue Wednesday during the first day of his National Action Network conference. Under questioning from Sharpton, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he would reverse an order from President Donald Trump’s Justice Department that restricted the federal government’s ability to use court-enforced consent decrees when state and local law enforcement agencies are accused of abuse. Those agreements, popular during President Barack Obama’s administration, generally provide a road map for changes in law enforcement practices.
“There must be accountability for enforcement of the law, there must be accountability for use of force, and federal funds to local police departments and sheriff’s departments must be tied to accountability,” O’Rourke said.
Other candidates including Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg will appear at the conference in the coming days and could face similar questions.
Such venues present an opportunity for voters to hold candidates accountable on issues specific to the black community. Sharpton’s conference is the year’s first such gathering of civil rights leaders and activists featuring so many of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls.
It comes at an awkward moment for Democrats as Trump, who has little support among black voters, has sought to portray himself as an advocate for criminal justice. He’s touted signing legislation last year aimed at addressing racially disparate federal prison sentences for crack cocaine offenses.
Although they have avoided some specifics, multiple candidates have taken steps to address systemic racism.
In the Senate, Booker has reintroduced legislation to decriminalize marijuana, and he was a co-sponsor of the First Step Act targeting crack sentencing. Before running for president, Harris proposed bipartisan federal legislation to end cash bail. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for criminal justice reform in her announcement speech in February but didn’t offer details on what that would look like.
Speaking at Sharpton’s conference on Wednesday, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro spoke powerfully of the need for reparations. O’Rourke said he would support legislation that would create a commission to study the issue.
“Criminal justice reform is not a second-tier issue for African Americans,” said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. “Particularly for younger African Americans, it is competing against, if not trumping, some rather conventional issues for the attention and concern of these voters. It is a very good issue to home in on, and it makes all the sense in the world for them to talk about it.”
Criminal justice reform was thrust into national politics in 2014 with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which highlighted the killings of black people by police and exposed patterns of bias in departments across the country. Under Trump, the Justice Department has generally taken a different stance on such issues, calling for less oversight and more praise of local law enforcement. In the years since, calls for reform have ushered in new local leadership, from district attorneys to mayors in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
The 2020 Democratic primary offers a fresh opportunity and bigger stage to wrestle with criminal justice, particularly with the entry of Harris, whose credentials as a former prosecutor are part of her narrative and criticism, or the potential entry of former Vice President Joe Biden, who may have to reckon with his role as the Senate Judiciary chairman who presided over the passage of the 1994 crime bill.
It will likely not be the last time the candidates meet under such circumstances, with the National Urban League conference in Indianapolis and the NAACP convention happening in Detroit, both set for July. Black Lives Matter is also considering hosting a Democratic town hall during the primary.
But, Sharpton points out, his conference is the first and only convening ahead of the first Democratic debate in June in Miami, and he said he wants criminal justice reform on stage there.
Brittany Packnett, who is active in the Black Lives Matter movement, echoed that hope. With so many Democrats seeking to gain a leg up in the primary, she said it’s important that criminal justice “doesn’t completely fall off the agenda.”
As long as unresolved historic injustices continue to fester in the world, there will be a demand for truth commissions.
Unfortunately, there is no end to the need.
The goal of a truth commission — in some forms also called a truth and reconciliation commission, as it is in Canada — is to hold public hearings to establish the scale and impact of a past injustice, typically involving wide-scale human rights abuses, and make it part of the permanent, unassailable public record. Truth commissions also officially recognize victims and perpetrators in an effort to move beyond the painful past.
Over the past three decades, more than 40 countries have, like Canada, established truth commissions, including Chile, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa and South Korea. The hope has been that restorative justice would provide greater healing than the retributive justice modelled most memorably by the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War.
There has been a range in the effectiveness of commissions designed to resolve injustices in African and Latin American countries, typically held as those countries made transitions from civil war, colonialism or authoritarian rule.
Its effectiveness is still being measured, with a list of 94 calls to action waiting to be fully implemented. But Canada’s experience appears to have been at least productive enough to inspire Australia and New Zealand to come to terms with their own treatment of Indigenous peoples by exploring similar processes.
Although both countries have a long history to trying to reconcile with native peoples, recent discussions have leaned toward a Canadian-style TRC model.
But the most recognizable standard became South Africa’s, when President Nelson Mandela mandated a painful and necessary Truth and Reconciliation Commission to resolve the scornful legacy of apartheid, the racist and repressive policy that had driven the African National Congress, including Mandela, to fight for reform. Their efforts resulted in widespread violence and Mandela’s own 27-year imprisonment.
Through South Africa’s publicly televised TRC proceedings, white perpetrators were required to come face-to-face with the Black families they had victimized physically, socially and economically.
There were critics, to be sure, on both sides. Some called it the “Kleenex Commission” for the emotional hearings they saw as going easy on some perpetrators who were granted amnesty after demonstrating public contrition.
Others felt it fell short of its promise — benefiting the new government by legitimizing Mandela’s ANC and letting perpetrators off the hook by allowing so many go without punishment, and failing victims who never saw adequate compensation or true justice.
These criticisms were valid, yet the process did succeed in its most fundamental responsibility — it pulled the country safely into a modern, democratic era.
Similarly, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not designed to take South Africa to some idyllic utopia. After a century of colonialism and apartheid, that would not have been realistic. It was designed to save South Africa, then a nuclear power, from an implosion — one that many feared would trigger a wider international war.
To the extent that the commission saved South Africa from hell, I think it was successful. Is it a low benchmark? Perhaps, but it did its work.
Since then, other truth commissions, whether they have included reconciliation or reparation mandates, have generated varying results.
Some have been used cynically as tools for governments to legitimize themselves by pretending they have dealt with painful history when they have only kicked the can down the road.
In Liberia, where I worked with a team of researchers last summer, the records of that country’s truth and reconciliation commission are not even readily available to the public. That secrecy robs Liberia of what should be the most essential benefit of confronting past injustices: permanent, public memorialization that inoculates the future against the mistakes of the past.
U.S. needs truth commission
On balance, the truth commission stands as an important tool that can and should be used around the world.
It’s painfully apparent that the United States needs a national truth commission of some kind to address hundreds of years of injustice suffered by Black Americans. There, centuries of enslavement, state-sponsored racism, denial of civil rights and ongoing economic and social disparity have yet to be addressed.
Like many, I don’t hold out hope that a U.S. commission will be established any time soon – especially not under the current administration. But I do think one is inevitable at some point, better sooner than later.
Wherever there is an ugly, unresolved injustice pulling at the fabric of a society, there is an opportunity to haul it out in public and deal with it through a truth commission.
Still, there is not yet any central body or facility that researchers, political leaders or other advocates can turn to for guidance, information, and evidence. Such an entity would help them understand and compare how past commissions have worked — or failed to work — and create better outcomes for future commissions.
As the movement to expose, understand and resolve historical injustices grows, it would seem that Canada, a stable democracy with its own sorrowed history and its interest in global human rights, would make an excellent place to establish such a center.
Tarana Burke seen on day two of Summit LA18 in Downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
2018 was a whirlwind year for Tarana Burke, the founder of the “Me Too” movement. During the latter part of 2017, the long-time activist skyrocketed to fame as the phrase “Me Too” became a uniting force for victims of sexual violence. On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano sent a tweet in response to initial reports of allegations that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted numerous women. The tweet asked women who had been sexually assaulted to reply ” me too.”
That tweet made waves. Days later, millions of people used the hashtag #MeToo across social media, many of whom initially credited Milano with starting the “Me Too” movement. But Burke’s work on behalf of sexual assault survivors had been known long before Milano’s viral tweet, and it was black women who collectively spoke up to tell the actress that Burke had founded a “Me Too” movement over a decade before, during a time when there were no hashtags. Milano, who was unaware of the activist’s work, tweeted an apology. She also publicly credited Burke, and reached out to ask Burke how she could help amplify her work.
The two women traveled the media circuit together, appearing on “Meet the Press.”
Soon, organizations began to celebrate Burke in her own right. In March, she was honored at the 2018 Academy Awards. She appeared on magazine covers, including one of the six covers of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” issue, where actress Gabrielle Union, also a survivor of sexual assault, penned an essay calling Burke a “kindred spirit.”
The Bronx-born activist was the guest editor for ESSENCE magazine’s November issue, where she spoke about the future of the movement. She oversaw an edition filled with essays dedicated to black women’s right to heal after sexual violence and articles about the culture of silence around the sexual assault of black women and girls.
In an interview, the mother of “Me Too” said she never imagined she’d be in such a position of visibility. But, she didn’t feel like a hero. Instead, she told the magazine, she felt “dutiful,” and much of that duty was to ensure that black women weren’t shut out of the “Me Too” movement. While Milano’s intent wasn’t to steal Burke’s work, her celebrity status did catapult the conversation around sexual assault into the media, particularly in a way that resonated with white women. And it pained Burke to see black women erased from the narrative.
“The world responds to the vulnerability of white women,” she told ESSENCE. “Our narrative has never been centered in mainstream media. Our stories don’t get told and, as a result, it makes us feel not as valuable.”
In November, she also spoke about her duty to re-center the mission of “Me Too.” During her first TED talk, a speech dedicated to survivors and activists, she described how the past year had been an emotional roller coaster.
“This movement is constantly being called a watershed moment. Even a reckoning. But I wake up some days feeling that all evidence points to the contrary,” Burke told the audience.
A year later, “Me Too” was described as a “culture shock.” Harvey Weinstein was indicted. Bill Cosby was finally sentenced to prison in September for allegations of rape which were reignited after comedian Hannibal Buress mocked Cosby during a stand-up routine in 2014.
Despite the success of “Me Too,” Burke said the movement had become unrecognizable at times, as people, including the media, presented and interpreted “Me Too” as a vindictive plot against men, instead of as a voice of support for survivors. Her speech was a call to refocus the energy of the movement on survivors of sexual assault.
She also called to dismantle the building blocks of sexual violence: power and privilege.
Now, in 2019, it seems like her two key missions of the “Me Too” movement: visibility for black female survivors of sexual violence and the dismantling of power and privilege will finally converge.
Burke appeared in Lifetime’s six-hour docuseries, “Surviving R. Kelly.”
The three-night special is a deep dive into the background of singer R. Kelly and the decades of sexual assault allegations against him, weaving testimonies of his alleged victims — all black and brown women — with interviews from their friends, parents and teachers. Burke is part of a team of experts, including activists, journalists, and cultural critics, assembled to shed light on why the singer’s history of abuse — while heavily reported — has been ignored.
Burke has devoted her career to working at the intersection of racial justice and sexual violence, and she spent significant time in Selma laying the groundwork that would later evolve into the “Me Too” movement.
In October, days before the one-year anniversary of the tweet that launched “Me Too” on social media, Burke returned to Alabama to talk about her roots as an activist.
For Burke, that appearance was indeed a homecoming, as she stood before her elders. This included Rose Sanders, her mentor during her formative years in Selma, who waved at her from the third row of an auditorium in UAB’s Alys Stephens Center.
It was a semi-full circle moment. In March, Sanders, who made history in 1973 as the state’s first African American female judge, proudly told a room full of people in the Dallas County courthouse during the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee that Burke started the “Me Too” movement in Selma.
As Burke took the stage to cheers and a standing ovation, she paid homage to her elders.
“I know I have my family from Selma here,” she said, lovingly holding out her hands. “You all are part of my story.”
“People keep thanking me for coming to Birmingham,” said Burke, smiling widely as the audience simmered down. “That’s because they don’t know I have ties to Alabama. I relish the opportunity to come here.”
For close to an hour, Burke talked about her childhood, her early years in Selma, and the life-changing moment that would lead her to start the movement known as “Me Too.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Burke was groomed to be an activist as a child.
“I had a normal family,” Burke told the audience. “Except for I had a grandfather that was a Garveyite.” Her grandfather, a close follower of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, made sure she was well versed in the readings of black liberation. On car rides, they would listen to cassette tapes of John Henrik Clarke, a native of Union Springs, Al. who was a scholar and pioneer in the field of Africana studies.
“You can read that Bible, but make sure you have your history right along with that,” she said he’d tell her.
Burke’s mother, while she never referred to herself as a feminist, surrounded Burke with the works of Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins.
“I was wrapped in Black feminist literature growing up.”
Burke was discovered at age 14 by the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, an organization founded by Rose Sanders in 1985 to educate young people about voting rights and the political process. And it was through that organization that Burke says she learned about the impact youth could have.
“That was the first time an adult had said to me, ‘you have power now.’ ”
Through her work with the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, she became an activist. One of the first cases she worked on would be the case of the Central Park Five, a group of black and latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989. Their sentences would be overturned decades later.
“It’s so funny how we talk about due process in the White House now,” referencing President Donald Trump, who in the 1980s took out full page ads in four of the city’s newspapers, calling for the return of the death penalty, but in 2018 demanded due process for former White House staff secretary Rob Porter and speechwriter David Sorensen after allegations of domestic abuse, and Brett Kavanaugh, his nominee to the Supreme Court who was faced with allegations of sexual assault.
HER JOURNEY TO ALABAMA
Burke traveled to Alabama for college where she continued to organize, starting at Alabama State before transferring to Auburn University.
“Your college campus is practice for the real world,” she told the audience.
After graduation, Burke went to work in Selma, where an experience changed the trajectory of her life.
While working as a camp counselor for the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, she met a girl she would describe to the audience as “Heaven.”
As a counselor, she had started workshops where young girls could speak openly and reveal stories about sexual violence and assault.
One day, Heaven made a beeline for her. Immediately, Burke said, she knew something was wrong. At first she avoided Heaven because she didn’t feel equipped to provide guidance for what she knew would be devastating news.
“I thought to myself ‘I’m not a counselor,’ said Burke. “But in my heart, I thought, that happened to me too.”
But in that moment, Burke said as she lowered her voice, those words didn’t seem like enough. But later, she realized that phrase was the one thing she needed to tell Heaven.
Burke told the audience she spent years afterwards feeling guilty. Over and over again, she’d ask “what difference does ‘me too’ make?”
Turns out, the phrase would make a lot of difference.
JUST BE, INC. : THE BEGINNING OF ME TOO
In Selma, Burke started Just Be, Inc., an organization focused on the health and well being of young girls of color. As the organization grew quickly, Burke noticed a pattern — when the girls gathered together, stories started spilling out. And when the girls shared their stories, Burke said, she’d always think about her encounter with Heaven.
As her work in a Selma junior high school continued, the stories from young girls kept coming and Burke started to notice a common thread. The girls told their stories as if they were normal experiences, not revealing painful secrets. None of the girls knew they were describing acts of sexual violence.
The tipping point came when Burke saw a 12- year-old student waiting for her “boyfriend” after school — a boyfriend who was 21 years old. To make matters worse, it was a man Burke already knew. He had been dating one of the girls at a local high school the year before.
“How do you tell a 7th grade girl that this is not a relationship, this is a crime?” said Burke.
She realized it was up to her to change and translate that wording into a conversation that young girls could understand.
“So we had to figure out how to simplify that language.”
DESIGNING THE TOOLS TO TALK ABOUT SEXUAL ASSAULT
Burke had previously read about how to teach young people to talk about sexual assault, but recognized no one was relaying those messages to girls.
“Nobody was speaking healing into our community,” said Burke. “How can we heal something that we can’t name?”
She and her team started off by teaching the girls ways to recognize sexual violence.
Burke started going into the community to find resources, starting with another junior high school.
She also went into a local rape crisis center, located next to a homeless shelter. But, that environment, said Burke, wasn’t a comfortable or safe space for young girls. In order to get to the crisis center, girls would have to walk past groups of men huddled outside of the center who would often yell catcalls.
Burke says that walk into the rape crisis center was the turning point.
“That day was the nugget,” said Burke. “Adult women don’t report sexual violence. Do you think these children would go through that?”
“THE BIRTH OF ‘ME TOO’ “
Looking into the audience, Burke reflected on guidance from her mentors in Selma
“An elder once told me: you have to take what you have to get what you need.”
With that advice, she started a Myspace page for her project to gain visibility. Her goal was simple: she wanted people to see the resources she’d compiled and the work she was doing.
Soon, Burke says, people started reaching out to thank her. She knew the next step was to distribute the resources to even more people.
“I remember sitting with my two friends in my living room and wondering ‘how are we going to make this work?’ ”
The method they came up with was simple — she and her friends packed the resources into glossy folders and shipped them out around the country.
Soon after, Burke left Selma to move to Philly.
THE AFTERNOON OF 2017
“I always intended for ‘Me Too’ to be a movement for survivors,” said Burke.
But for years, the challenge was getting people in the room to have the conversation about sexual assault.
“Filling up a room like this would be impossible,” said Burke, motioning to people sitting in the Alys Stephens Center.
She said she would have to reach out to churches to ask them to speak. She describes the tweet Milano sent in 2017 as a “lightning bolt” that gave life to the healing she had been trying to bring to young girls for more than two decades.
Alyssa Milano’s “me too” tweet reached millions on Twitter in 24 hours. On Facebook, there were more than 12 million comments, posts and reactions.
But she says she wasn’t upset that it took a viral hashtag to catapult her cause.
“What I care about is getting the room full now. We are just not comfortable being uncomfortable,” said Burke. “This is hard, but we have the ability to get this right.”
And getting it right, says Burke, means believing survivors and not blaming them for being victims of sexual assault.
“If we woke up and found out that 12 million people all had a disease, we wouldn’t ask ‘well, who were they touching?'” Burke remarked, a statement met with uproarious applause.
The focus, she says, should be on what happened and how to stop it.
But people have misconstrued the message of the movement to be about taking down powerful men.
Burke told the audience she was in the room when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that she was allegedly assaulted by Kavanaugh. She says powerful men like Kavanaugh were the “epitome” of unchecked power and privilege.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen any modicum of accountability in our lifetime,” said Burke. “This is not about crime and punishment. It’s about harm and harm reductions.”
But Burke knows why the “takedown” narrative has caught on: “if you say something over and over again, people will start to believe it.”
And now, says Burke, it’s time take back the focus in order reach communities of survivors who desperately need the help of the movement.
“Outside of Black women, it astonishes me that we have no conversations about native women and sexual violence.”
“ME TOO” IN ALABAMA
Rose Sanders had to leave the Alys Stephens center early, so she didn’t get to say a formal goodbye to the activist she once mentored. But she beamed with pride as she talked about Burke, the young student she took under her wing.
“It’s awesome. She’s true to her cause. And I’m glad she’s pushing 21st Century (Leaders). And I’m hoping she’ll do it more.”
Sanders says there’s an even greater need for community focused leadership development now, and wished there were more young people involved the struggle against sexual abuse.
“When I started (the organization) it was in 1985, 20 years after the civil rights movement. It became clear to me that very few young people even knew about the movement,” said Sanders. So we were fortunate enough to get people like John Lewis, Rosa Parks and Jesse Jackson to come to our camps.”
But Sanders has plans to bridge the communication gap. She says she wants to build on Burke’s work, growing the “me too” movement into the “we too” movement.
“It’s not just about the survivors of the actual physical damage. It’s also about a mother who may not have been sexually abused, but has to suffer through (her child’s) abuse. It’s got to be “we too.”
This year, she plans to have workshops to educate attendees of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee about sexual assault, and has her vision set on bringing back Burke to speak on at least one of the panels.
“The people who are the actual victims of assault suffer the most damage, but so does everybody that’s connected to that child or that woman that’s been sexually violated,” said Sanders. “We too are also hurting and it’s going to take all of us to resolve it.”
And as Burke closed her speech, she also acknowledged that the movement was bigger than her, and challenged the room to take action after the lecture and challenge institutions to protect survivors and prevent sexual assault.
“I’m a 45-year-old black woman. It’s not enough to celebrate me if you’re not going to commit to ending sexual violence and the movement I stand for.” said Burke.
“This is really about people being able to walk through life with their dignity intact.”
When a U.S. senator asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “Can you define hate speech?” it was arguably the most important question that social networks face: how to identify extremism inside their communities.
As I found in my 2017 study on extremism in social networks and political blogs, rather than overt bigotry, most online hate looks a lot like fear. It’s not expressed in racial slurs or calls for confrontation, but rather in unfounded allegations of Hispanic invaders pouring into the country, black-on-white crime or Sharia law infiltrating American cities. Hysterical narratives such as these have become the preferred vehicle for today’s extremists – and may be more effective at provoking real-world violence than stereotypical hate speech.
The ease of spreading fear
On Twitter, a popular meme traveling around recently depicts the “Islamic Terrorist Network” spread across a map of the United States, while a Facebook account called “America Under Attack” shares an article with its 17,000 followers about the “Angry Young Men and Gangbangers” marching toward the border. And on Gab, countless profiles talk of Jewish plans to sabotage American culture, sovereignty and the president.
While not overtly antagonistic, these notes play well to an audience that has found in social media a place where they can express their intolerance openly, as long as they color within the lines. They can avoid the exposure that traditional hate speech attracts. Whereas the white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville was high-profile and revealing, social networks can be anonymous and discreet, and therefore liberating for the undeclared racist. That presents a stark challenge to platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Of course this is not just a challenge for social media companies. The public at large is facing the complex question of how to respond to inflammatory and prejudiced narratives that are stoking racial fears and subsequent hostility. However, social networks have the unique capacity to turn down the volume on intolerance if they determine that a user has in fact breached their terms of service. For instance, in April 2018, Facebook removed two pages associated with white nationalist Richard Spencer. A few months later, Twitter suspended several accounts associated with the far-right group The Proud Boys for violating its policy “prohibiting violent extremist groups.”
Still, some critics argue that the networks are not moving fast enough. There is mounting pressure for these websites to police the extremism that has flourished in their spaces, or else become policed themselves. A recent Huffpost/YouGov survey revealed that two-thirds of Americans wanted social networks to prevent users from posting “hate speech or racist content.”
In response, Facebook has stepped up its anti-extremism efforts, reporting in May that it had removed “2.5 million pieces of hate speech,” over a third of which was identified using artificial intelligence, the rest by human monitors or flagged by users. But even as Zuckerberg promised more action in November 2018, the company acknowledged that teaching its technology to identify hate speech is extremely difficult because of all the contexts and nuances that can drastically alter these meanings.
Moreover, public consensus about what actually constitutes hate speech is ambiguous at best. The libertarian Cato Institute found broad disagreement among Americans about the kind of speech that should qualify as hate, or offensive speech, or fair criticism. And so, these discrepancies raise the obvious question: How can an algorithm identify hate speech if we humans can barely define it ourselves?
Fear lights the fuse
The ambiguity of what constitutes hate speech is providing ample cover for modern extremists to infuse cultural anxieties into popular networks. That presents perhaps the clearest danger: Priming people’s racial paranoia can also be extremely powerful at spurring hostility.
The late communication scholar George Gerbner found that, contrary to popular belief, heavy exposure to media violence did not make people more violent. Rather, it made them more fearful of others doing violence to them, which often leads to corrosive distrust and cultural resentment. That’s precisely what today’s racists are tapping into, and what social networks must learn to spot.
The posts that speak of Jewish plots to destroy America, or black-on-white crime, are not directly calling for violence, but they are amplifying prejudiced views that can inflame followers to act. That’s precisely what happened in advance of the deadly assaults at a historic black church in Charleston in 2015, and the Pittsburgh synagogue last month.
For social networks, the challenge is two-fold. They must first decide whether to continue hosting non-violent racists like Richard Spencer, who has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” and remains active on Twitter. Or for that matter, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who recently compared Jews to termites, and continues to post to his Facebook page.
When Twitter and Facebook let these profiles remain active, the companies lend the credibility of their online communities to these provocateurs of racism or anti-Semitism. But they also signal that their definitions of hate may be too narrow.
The most dangerous hate speech is apparently no longer broadcast with ethnic slurs or delusional rhetoric about white supremacy. Rather, it’s all over social media, in plain sight, carrying hashtags like #WhiteGenocide, #BlackCrimes, #MigrantInvasion and #AmericaUnderAttack. They create an illusion of imminent threat that radicals thrive on, and to which the violence-inclined among them have responded.
This article has been updated to correct the political characterization of the Cato Institute.