Doria Dee Johnson Lecture in History & Social Justice – March 23, 2023

Doria Dee Johnson Lecture in History and Social Justice

“Harlem’s Emmett Till: The Short Life and Long Death of Walter Vandermeer”

Robin D.G. Kelley
Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at UCLA

Thursday, March 23, 2023
5:00-6:30 PM
Pyle Center, Room 121 (Vandeberg Auditorium)

On December 14, 1969, Walter Vandermeer’s body was found in the common bathroom of a Harlem tenement apartment, victim of a heroin overdose. Barely 12-years-old, he suddenly became the poster boy for a new war on drugs, prompting a flurry of articles, legislation, drug education programs, and theater pieces. Turning Walter into a symbol, however, obscured the actual cause of death: the slow violence of racial capitalism and the carceral state. My talk traces Vandermeer’s premature death to the afterlife of slavery, colonialism, intergenerational poverty, racism, urban divestment, immigration policies, poor schools, and the administrative violence of the social services bureaucracy in partnership with the NYPD—the city’s secondlargest drug dealer. The state used his death to criminalize drug addiction, expand police presence, and prioritize punishment over therapy, while simultaneously waging war on radical groups such as the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, which had begun developing natural, community-centered, effective ways to resist the drug economy and treat addiction. Walter was caught in a carceral web and, I argue, died at the hands of a racist state. For my generation growing up in Harlem, he was our Emmett Till.

This event is sponsored by the Department of History at UW-Madison, with co-sponsorship from the UW-Madison Public History Project.