A Message from WPDI CEO Forest Whitaker
June 23, 2020 – This year, the world saw Ahmaud Arbery jogging and being murdered by three white men, who faced no repercussions for months. We saw George Floyd be senselessly murdered by police officers, who kneeled on his neck and body as he repeated the words: “I can’t breathe” until his last breath. These are just some of the latest examples of a long and all too familiar list that has stained our nation. Breonna Taylor. Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Manuel Ellis. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. These are just some of the names that have made the news. As I hear each one, something inside me crumbles. And, I know that countless others did and do suffer injustices on a daily basis. This list doesn’t include the sensation of the sidewalk’s scorching concrete on my face from the times I was accosted as a young man in Los Angeles who felt powerless, or the hands that searched my pockets just a few years ago as a successful adult, when I was stopped and frisked in a New York City market. This list doesn’t include the countless microaggressions like what was caught on film in Central Park, where a white woman threatened a black man who had asked her to respect the law, trying to use the inequalities of our police system against him. Now, people are saying that enough is enough. These violations cannot happen anymore.
Our institutions must change. I don’t mean to suggest that all police officers are bad; they’re certainly the people we’re taught to call upon in times of danger. However, it doesn’t matter if some in uniform have good intentions when the system itself is broken. Our nation’s form of justice currently enables officers to humiliate, degrade, harm, and even kill men and women of color because they operate within a structure that allows them to do so with impunity. So, people are rising up. They are rising up and fighting back. It was unfortunate when some people took to looting and destroyed property, exploiting this turmoil for their own personal gain. It’s also unfortunate that some authorities have been inciting violence to simply prove a point when violence is precisely what we’re fighting against. But, for some protestors, each broken storefront or car window was a desperate attempt to say: “I’m here.” Those people need to know that they already are here, simply through their presence and their voices. Peaceful protests have been occurring worldwide, and they are being heard.
Over the past decade, I’ve felt the power of people coming from conflict and using action to connect us as one. This prompted me to found the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI) in 2012 and become a Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation at UNESCO. As I’ve been watching things unfold in America, I’m reminded of an experience in South Sudan’s conflict-ridden Eastern Equatoria State. There, WPDI’s peacemakers held a town hall that included many differing tribes and decided to disseminate information about a peace treaty to the region’s disparate communities. South Sudan has over 60 official languages, so the peacemakers banded together to translate it into dozens of dialects and languages, working diligently to form a unified voice.
Today, the many tribes and languages in South Sudan feel like a parallel to the organizers, hashtags, and social media accounts that are working for progress and social change in America. Many individual groups and activists have been fighting tirelessly to achieve their goals, but if we want to achieve continued action, progress, and federal reform, they must all come together to make decisions jointly. Even in WPDI’s Domestic Harmonizer program for middle schoolers in California, a whole-school approach is used across grades, which instills students with one voice and a shared objective of bringing peace to their communities. In order to achieve structural change, I think we can learn from these examples: we need to unite as one, with a clear and unified plan.
In the spirit of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent resistance, as we’ve also seen through Ghandi in India and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, we can make our views heard through many channels. We can start dialogues, call out abuses of power, peacefully march the streets, communicate on social media, and especially vote for what’s right. Changing our institutions begins with us. Together, we can help to enact new laws and policies. As a community that crosses cultural and economic boundaries, we can strive to ensure that violent police officers are held accountable for their actions and will think twice in the future.
Today, peaceful protestors from all races and walks of life are marching across their cities and countries, bound by their infinite power. This is the answer, and it gives me hope. Even in the face of COVID-19, people are willing to risk themselves and their health to fight for what’s right. The world is watching. It’s listening. It’s shifting. Thousands of people in every state across the nation have come together with the same intention, and they stand together in solidarity, screaming out for what’s right: equality for all. They’re looking to build a society that is more empathetic, more evolved, more dignified — more human. They’re reshaping how we live together tomorrow, in a post-coronavirus world. While these are unprecedented times, I already see that we can solve this problem together, peacefully. Systems and institutions don’t shift as quickly as we’d like, but we have to use this moment to help us unite as one. Don’t give up. This will take continued effort, but it’s possible to move from feeling powerless to becoming powerful. Stand together. I have hope. We are one.