Instructor Reflection-The Racial Injustice of Police Brutality (11.2)

By Karen Brehmer, Oakland University

April Foley chose racial injustice as the topic for her visual essay in a composition II course at Oakland University in the winter semester of 2021. Visual essays for this course are research projects designed to fulfill a multimodal component for the course objectives, demonstrating skills of academic research and rhetoric. 

In May of 2020, when the world was quiet and watching, Derek Chauvin stood on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds until Floyd died. April chose this moment, along with Breonna Taylor – killed by police fire in a no-knock warrant at the wrong address – as a powerful statement to end her long (unfinished) list of black lives who were taken by police (or “authoritative” figures) in recent years. 

Her overall project on racial injustice begins with the suggestion that not a lot has changed in this country since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the march at Selma. Her project ends with the proposal that one of the only solutions – after all this time – is to reconstruct the system entirely; that this isn’t working. 

April’s work here is thorough and unapologetic but also fair and balanced. It isn’t over-emotional; the music is subtle; the questions in her survey are fair; she doesn’t include interviews or talking heads that are charged with cries of justice, or overly emotional responses of knee-jerk reactions – footage easy to find and exploit in situations of tragedy. Instead, there are news reels of live-footage, transcripts from phone calls from the incidents, and footage from the scenes themselves. These videos are graphic at times, but there are warnings to help aid anyone who might not want to see it – and it speaks to the level of integrity in April’s work. There is raw truth here; content viewers need to see in order to understand and/or assess the ultimate arguments being made: that there is racial injustice at the hands of the police and that the solution may rest in defunding the police and reallocating that money to other community services.  

April’s original project was a PowerPoint presentation, where the J. Cole song “Be Free” (located on the Michael Brown tab) was able to play automatically through the entire presentation as viewers worked their way through each slide. There are more benefits to the revisions she’s made in the website layout, though the absence of the automatic play of the J. Cole song loses the tone she initially set. A “fix” – were this original tone desired – would be to place the J. Cole link on the introduction page and direct viewers to play it as they move through the presentation. 

Additionally, there are some moments where more content could help this argument. Some of the survey questions could use more detailed questions/answers – it is good to know that those who took the survey come from differing backgrounds, but offering a range of those backgrounds gives the audience an idea of who is responding, and how (given the small number of responses). Adding more references/sources from the civil rights movement – perhaps laced throughout the presentation after Trayvon Martin – could provide a mirroring effect; suggest parallels to the issues that haven’t changed much over time. Finally, more information on what defunding the police really means would benefit viewers overall – this seems to be a misunderstood concept and while April touches on that, more details would only help. 

The shift from the PowerPoint presentation to the website layout was a benefit to the project. PowerPoint tends to compact the content and have more restrictions to where the eye goes (and where the creator can place content). For the website, April uses the navigation buttons on the left well, dividing her content and points into each person/sequence. It was already a well-organized presentation, but the website layout allows her to navigate viewers herself – and at their own pace. Her technology, sources, use of rhetorical devices, and balance of logical appeals are executed with professionalism and accuracy. 

As for the topic itself, she pays homage to the black community and honors them by being truthful and respectful to the men and women who have died at the hands of those who were meant to protect them. The attention – stripped of false pretense and false praise – is focused on the victims, in addition to those who still need to answer for what they have done, and a call for a change on our policing system. A call for peace.