A desperate mother was calling for help to defend her son as he was thrown to the ground and handcuffed by the ‘jump squad’ – plain clothed police officers battling the drug dealers. From the commotion of a gathering crowd she yelled at me ‘what are you going to do about it?’
The Question has remained with me for over 40 years. During those early days of the Community of Hope in a section of Washington, DC notorious for its open-air drug markets I saw first hand what happens when a neighborhood becomes a war zone, when the police behave like an occupation army in enemy territory.
The Question surfaces again in the wake of Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York where unarmed young black men in harm’s way have been killed by white law enforcement officers who have not been charged with criminal offenses. Crowds are gathering once more to watch, protest and demand action.
On the street that day 40 years ago I was the only white person in the crowd. But I had been in the neighborhood long enough to learn on how differently I viewed the police and how differently they viewed me.
I had never feared the police. There have been a few times when my heart has raced while being pulled over for a traffic violation. But I’ve never been mistreated or even spoken to rudely by the police – never the victim of racial profiling. I’ve viewed them as protectors and peacekeepers — always treated with respect.
I saw how different it sometimes is for black people, particularly men with no criminal background or intent. I knew an African-American car dealer in the neighborhood who for no reason he knew of was once hand-cuffed, locked in a paddy wagon, driven around all night until finally dropped off at his business the next morning with no arrest or charges. We talked that morning. He was glad nothing worse had happened.
As a passenger in a ‘scout car observer program’ I also saw how stressful policing can be. I learned the importance of training officers to defuse rather than aggravate potentially deadly attacks on themselves as well as those under arrest.
The Question – “What are you going to do about it?” motivated us at the Community of Hope to do something. First we got acquainted with the officers at our precinct in the Washington, DC neighborhood – the 14th Street ‘riot corridor’ so named during the riots following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We hosted police community meetings. When the police got acquainted in the neighborhood they would occasionally get out of their cars just for friendly conversation. Eventually the officers and a few of the men in the neighborhood – some of whom had arrested by the officers — played softball games together.
Since most of the police officers were white, it was then as now, a discussion of race relations as well as policing and criminal justice.
In spite of the tensions we learned that the neighborhood desperately wanted police protection from crime and drug dealing and the police needed good relationships to do their work well.
As our mission developed we discovered that our faith community had a lot of influence in the neighborhood with both residents and the police. Faith communities at their core are transformational – of individuals and systems. We began to ask ourselves what, as well as who needs to change.
A call for a national discussion to confront our differences and grievances has been sounded again. In our neighborhoods, schools, churches, wherever we gather it’s the same question “what are you going to do about it?”
a few questions to get the discussion started
- Why do black and white perspectives vary so widely especially on policing and the criminal justice system?
- What contributes to black/white divisions and tensions?
- What do blacks and whites wish others knew about them?
- What is the extent of black disadvantage and white privilege in America?
- How does the growing income and wealth inequality in the U.S., affect black and white communities?
- Have you or anyone you know of been the victim of racial profiling?
- How does the black/white divide affect other ethnic and immigrant groups, particularly Hispanics and Asians?
- What actions should be taken to advance racial and cultural understanding, equality and justice?
- How can faith communities contribute to reconciliation?
- What other questions should we be asking?
And perhaps a word to the faithful from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah is in order:
“seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Amen!
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