Speakers at Panel on Social Justice and Jayland Walker Leave Attendees with Much to Think About 

By Alexa Baumberger , Arts and Entertainment Editor

The University of Akron’s Center for Conflict Management sponsored a panel on Thursday, April 20, to discuss the social justice ramifications surrounding the death of Jayland Walker.   

The panel was organized by social justice student Jameel Anderson, who wanted to promote social justice and equality through discussion.  

Students, faculty, and attendees had the opportunity to engage in dialogue after each of the three speakers addressed the audience. 

The panelists, Ben Holda, Imokhai Okolo, and Professor David Licate offered expertise on social justice, legal, and criminal justice aspects of Jayland’s case and the community response. 

Ben Holda, Coordinator of the National Guild Branch, was the first to take the podium. He offered the caveat that he was speaking from his own point of view as a former student and an academic, and what he shared was not the opinions of or endorsed by the National Guild Branch’s beliefs. 

Focusing on systemic issues involving the Akron Police Department, Holda described an “open season on peaceful protestors” that he has observed since last summer.   

“I want you to know that policing in this city goes beyond the systemic and that the issues we see and think are somewhere off in another community- happen every day, happen with members of The University of Akron police department,” Holda said. 

Holda believed that systemic repression is embedded in everyday branches of local government, with injustices increasing since the protests for Walker started in 2022.  

“What is most troubling is the record of malicious prosecution by the city,” he said. “The city knows that they beat people, that they violated civil rights. That people were peacefully assembled and ordered to disperse, which is illegal.”   

But what seemed to impact the audience the most was Ben’s recap of what he and other legal observers witnessed at this past Wednesday’s protest on April 19.  

According to Holda, what started off as a non-violent movement in Hawkin’s Plaza, quickly turned as police aggressed the protestors, using crowd-control-level amounts of chemical irritants.  

Holda described the Akron Police Department that evening as having an arbitrary timer, moving to threatening manners as that timer ran out.   

According to him, they moved back when the protestors were commanded to move back. APD asked them to move back again, but before finishing their sentence this time, APD began teargassing.   

“How many of you have seen tear gas? How many of you have felt tear gas? How many of you have seen a three-year-old get tear-gassed? I saw a three-year-old get tear-gassed,” Holda said as the audience sat in somber silence.  

After the panel, there have been more breaking stories about the April 19 protest. The Akron Bail Fund shared on their Instagram account that they had filed a lawsuit against the city regarding the treatment of protestors.  

On Saturday morning, various news outlets reported that a stipulated restraining order had been reached between the two groups as facilitated by an Akron magistrate.  

Saturday evening, the Akron Police Department released an edited video that included non-time-stamped aerial footage and limited body camera views. The chief of police asserted that protestors initiated the violence. However, the Akron Bail Fund attorney is reported to have said that the illegal actions of one of two bystanders did not give the police license to revoke the first amendment rights of the peaceful marchers.   

The community on social media appears in turmoil about the events of April 19, not unlike the events of the shooting of Jayland Walker.  

Next to take the podium was Imokhai Okolo, attorney, and former Akron Police Oversight Committee Candidate.  

“The thing is, the law is not fair. We operate off this thing called ‘fairness’ – the law is not,” Okolo said, speaking of his struggle to balance fighting the system while also working in it.    

Okolo repeated a question throughout his speech: “What is Justice for Jayland Walker?” Okolo believes black and marginalized people have been fighting systemic oppression since, as he put it, “the dawn of time.”  

“When this system says you’re supposed to have a trial, each side gets to tell their sides of the story, give their two cents. Jayland Walker’s family still doesn’t have their two cents,” he said. “We’ve been out in the streets trying to give it to them, but I ask, are we going to be able to? Did we get it for Emmet Till?” Okolo asked members of the audience.  

After explaining that black and marginalized people have been organizing for freedom since the slaves were first brought to America on ships, he stated that slavery is still alive and well- it’s just changed form.   

Okolo says he cannot tell people the exact step-by-step process of how we as a people make a change. He sees it coming only if people get outside and take their first step in getting involved with reformation groups.   

“I struggle to figure out how we’re going to get forward,” he said. How are we as a people going to move forward? Because it’s happening day in and day out. The only way forward is to get out in the streets, organize, and experiment with ways to make change,” said Okolo. 

He suggests that increased brain power and stronger relationships are the only way people can become truly liberated.

“Stay mad, stay vigilant – because there is no other alternative,” Okolo said. 

Last to take the podium was Professor Dave Licate, Chair of the Department of Criminal Justice Studies.   

Licate focused on what police do and the why behind what they do on the street. Part of his research has included working with police departments in Northern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania and doing frequent ride-alongs.  

Licate says he has seen both the good and the bad in the criminal justice system.  

“Have I seen things that shake the foundations of trust in the community? Yes. Have I seen the police stop people of color without constitutional basis to do so, or do things I wouldn’t recommend that bordered on illegal and unconstitutional? Yes,” he said.  

On the other hand, Licate has also observed the positive aspects of policing.     

“Have I seen the police do things that are incredible in terms of rescuing children, and other heroic activities to protect us? Yes,” he said. 

According to him, reform comes from building healthy and intelligent organizations from the inside.   

“If you’re sick and not feeling well, are you going to run a marathon?” Licate asked. It’s the same thing with our organizations, when our organizations are ‘ill’ and don’t have good administrative practices, policies, procedures, training, and technology; they’re more susceptible to corruption, they’re more susceptible to deviation,” he said.  

Licate believes in building healthier policing organizations through better training and various research-based approaches.  

He emphasized, however, that the intergenerational strife and mistrust between the public and police are more complicated.   

“Until you address that issue of trust and legitimacy, those reforms aren’t going to take. Or even if they do, if no one believes that they’ve actually occurred, what’s the point?” Licate said. Building trust and legitimacy becomes the focus of what we need to look at now.”  

Licate says the lack of trust was not born overnight and similarly will not be quickly rebuilt in three months or even a year.  

He described a model in which there needed to be internal and external pressure to move the needle.

“You need a sustained plan change effort,” he said.” “You need to do it in conjunction with the police department, who also has to have a sustained plan change effort, and you need to keep the pressure on both internally and externally to move forward,” he said.  

Licate also addressed the issue of limited immunity, which may limit the ability of the public to hold police accountable. 

“I think we need to discuss the issue of limited immunity that protects police officers right now,” he said. “I’m all about balance, but at this point, it’s virtually impossible to use civil rights laws to hold police accountable,” said Licate.   

He also believes that lawmakers should codify a duty to act that would make it mandatory for officers who see injustice to act out to stop it in the moment and to report it after the moment.

This would allow officers to speak out about injustice without fear of being alienated by the department. This is often why officers do not speak against other officers.   

Licate offered the example of George Floyd.   

“There’s a cultural issue here that might need to be overcome. Officers do need to be protected because they could be vulnerable if they say something about an officer of higher rank,” he said. “So, we need to codify and put in a policy that says if an officer sees somebody with their knee on somebody’s neck, they need to say back off.” 

Transparency and participation of the community are ways to build legitimacy, truth, and reformation, according to Professor Licate.   

Following the panelists’ speeches, attendees had the opportunity to ask questions and or make comments. The majority focused on specific steps that can be taken to create change in the system and how individuals can be involved without directly protesting.   

Both Holda and Okolo shared similar views of the system being designed to keep minority and poor individuals where they are.  

“Black Panther Party- some of the most successful reform has come from radical people on the outside,” Okolo said, supporting Holda’s view on the system being inherently designed for oppression.  

Ben Holda addresses Jayland Walker verdict as well as recent protests where pepper spray was utilized on what he referred to as a peaceful protest. (Julie Cajigas)

Regarding steps the public can take, the panelists agreed on multiple tips, such as educating oneself to better understand society at large. Another was getting involved with community organizers and programs like the Akron Bail Fund.   

Another point of agreement was making strides towards integrating the police academy with the education process and possibly requiring officers to obtain a degree before entering their field.   

Near the end, one attendee raised her hand simply to have everyone take a deep breath together following the intensity of the discussions.   

“Try to find balance. Allow yourself to enjoy life. That (indulgence of enjoyment) just can’t be the only thing you do,” said Okolo  

Though the speakers were emotional at times, the panelists did leave the room on a lighter note. All encouraged the initial step of getting out and involved with the community.