Day 6·Q&A

University of Virginia's Ian Solomon expresses anger, grief after George Floyd death in heartfelt essay

Many institutions, companies and organizations across North America have sent out notes of solidarity with the people protesting the police killing of George Floyd. Some of these messages have been criticized for carrying an impersonal or generic tone. Ian Solomon tried something different. 

'I don't want to understate how scary this current moment is for America', says Ian Solomon

Ian Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, published a personal essay on his grief over George Floyd's killing. (Submitted by UVA Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy)
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Many institutions, companies and organizations across North America have sent out notes of solidarity with the people protesting the police killing of George Floyd.

Some of these messages have been criticized for carrying an impersonal or generic tone. Ian Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, tried something different. 

He wrote a personal essay titled: "Today, again, I am overwhelmed with grief and rage."

Solomon spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about how the essay came about, how his brother died in 2011 while in police custody and more. Here is part of their conversation.

I was very moved by the essay you wrote. And I cannot imagine that this was something that was easy to write. Can you tell me why you felt it was important to share with your students and your community the words that we're gonna talk about right now?

I do a lot of private writing and journalling where I process my feelings. Last Friday, I felt I needed to say something publicly in my role as dean for my students. But I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I didn't feel like my writing, my private writing, was very dean-like.

So I invited students to have a dialogue with me and they told me they really wanted to hear my voice, that they needed to hear more from leaders. So I polished up some of my journalling and published it.

I think there's a lot of value in leaders showing their humanity and their emotions, and modelling how we try to channel emotions into constructive action.

You mentioned the dialogue with your students. Can you tell us what they're telling you?

Many of them are scared. Many of them are sad. Many of them are angry. Many of them are confused.

They want to make a difference. These are students who they, after you know, after the events in Charlottesville in 2017, they chose to come to the University of Virginia. They want to be part of a healing process. And yet they see events like this, and I think it just breaks their heart.

And they look to leaders. They look to professors. They look to us and say, show us what we can do. So part of my job, part of our school's job, is to help them process these experiences, help them learn from them, help them develop the skills where they can be role models for others and they can affect change in the world.

A person holds up a fist as people gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., on June 4, amid continued protests over the death of Floyd. (Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images)

When we read your essay, we learned that your brother, Sheldon Frederick Solomon, died in police custody. How did that experience shape the way that you see how justice is applied in America?

Brent, it's a crazy story. My brother called the police seeking help, because he had suffered some violence from people. But when they didn't help him, he started using salty language, and they charged him with harassing the police receptionist by phone, and had a warrant for his arrest.

And when they picked him up, he had a drinking problem. He was drunk. They're supposed to do a health check ... but they just threw him in a drunk tank.

And 24 hours later, he was lying on the floor of the cell with a cracked skull.

Do you think that the record on accountability has improved since 2011, when Shelden was found dead in that cell?

Sadly, no. There's lots of good police out there. There's lots of progress we've made on civil rights and racial justice.... But we also have higher expectations now.

I think, you know, when you when you watch the slow motion killing of George Floyd on video, while he cried out for mercy and cried for his mother, it just triggered something in lots of us. Lots of us black, lots of us white.

Demonstrators march June 4 in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Va., to protest against police brutality and the death of Floyd. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

And coming right after, you know, the lynching of Ahmaud Aubrey in Georgia, and the news about Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and then this video of Amy Cooper in Central Park. It was just too much.

And there was not a lot of faith that this government, that seemed to be more interested in division than unity, was going to do anything helpful about any of these things. I think that's what really triggered people to go to the streets.

[Former] president Barack Obama said on Wednesday that he sees reason for hope and opportunity in what's happening right now. Do you share that feeling?

I do. I mean, I don't want to understate how scary this current moment is for America. We are seeing an authoritarian response that is wholly disproportionate to what's actually going on in the streets.

Protest is a constitutional right, a fundamental American value, a core part of our democracy. Where I see hope is not the way the police systems are meeting the protesters, is not the way the police are treating the media. Heavens no.

Protesters march on Colley Avenue in Norfolk, Va., on June 3. (The' N. Pham/The Virginian-Pilot via Associated Press)

But it's seeing people around the world in Canada, Amsterdam, France, London, in every state of this country, many cities of this country, stand up to support us.

That's amazing. Right? That gives me hope that the democratic impulse around the world, because of human rights and civil rights, the desire and demand that we treat people with more dignity is still burning strong.

And we may come out of this better than before, as we have through other dark periods of history.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Yamri Taddese.

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