Beyond police protests, a push for dialogue in black communities

Protests for police and justice reform in recent months have grabbed attention, but a quieter bid to find solutions has also been afoot in black communities.

David Goldman/AP
The Rev. Raphael Warnock listens to members of the community during a town hall forum at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, Dec. 8, 2014. Dozens of people met at the church to discuss recent cases of unarmed black men being fatally shot by police and ways to improve the way officers interact with the public.

Beneath the surface of an America convulsed by protests and anger after the shooting of Michael Brown – a young black man – by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo., is also an America trying to find solutions more quietly and cooperatively.

Across the United States, “die-ins” and rallies to shut down freeways have brought high-profile attention to calls for police and justice reform. But from San Francisco to Baltimore, citizens have come together in churches and meeting halls to try to start a new dialogue.

Sometimes, the efforts have been in concert with larger protest movements such as Black Lives Matter. Other times, they have started on their own from a desire to build common ground. But they represent an effort by black communities nationwide to draw together and work locally in hopes of driving change.

“These past few months have coalesced an unprecedented amount of concern by community leaders, law enforcement, youth, and clergy alike to really come together, roll up the sleeves and come up with substantive, creative solutions – not just protest,” says Raphael Bostic, a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

  • In San Francisco, 100 members of the Bayview-Hunter’s Point community gathered earlier this month to send a list of 12 demands to the mayor and police chief, ranging from “hire more people of color on the police force” to “stop arming police with military-grade weapons.”
  • The Sunflower Community Action in Wichita, Kan., partnered with dozens of local groups to lobby legislators for police reforms, including special prosecutors for all police shootings and new citizen review boards with subpoena power. The group is also developing its own, low-power radio station with the aim of giving communities of color a voice.
  • In Sacramento, Calif., as many as 300 community leaders, clergy, law enforcement, and youths have met for four 2-1/2 hour sessions in an attempt to foster partnerships between law enforcement and youth groups and to push for a more diverse police force.
  • At a Sept. 9 town meeting entitled, “Now what, Baltimore?,” community members met to examine how to give more teeth to civilian review boards and to comb over the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights.

One of the rights for police is “that an officer can only be interrogated 10 days after a shooting,” says the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III, community activist and pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore. “Well, in that 10 days, so much can happen ... so we are saying the law that applies to you and me should be same for police officers.”

In Wichita, the goal has been to find ways to get a constructive conversation going. “The point of this is to offset the overabundance of far-right talk radio stations and develop a place where people on both sides can have a real dialogue and find answers instead of just talking past each other,” says Reuben Eckels, deputy director of Sunflower Community Action.

Among those issues, he says, is the need for police training in dealing with the mentally challenged. He also says African-Americans and Latinos need a forum they can trust to hear about the issues that concern them, from immigration and drug abuse to employment opportunities and education.

He says his group worked with the Kansas Legislature to examine a number of programs ranging from fair lending to helping former felons find work.

“A lot of these social justice issues are deemed radical in this area which is dominated by right-wing talk shows,” he says. “So we’re developing our own outlet.”

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