- August 23, 2014 in Columnists
When the protests end in Ferguson…
There’s a reason why I haven’t been writing column after column about the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri. I knew when the story broke that it would become a huge, long-lasting national story. Facts would become optional, voices would become shrill and race would divide the nation. I’ve written columns about it but grew so disgusted with the story that I didn’t want to be involved in the melee. We’ve treated the story as if it’s the most important story in America and with apologies to the Brown family, it isn’t.
It’s tragic that a young man is dead in Ferguson, Missouri. Seeing some people, mostly out-of-towners, riot and loot and burn stores has been disgusting, infuriating but sadly predictable. Watching a militarized police department act like Israel in Gaza while arresting journalists has been shameful. But the peaceful protestors have succeeded in this case. There’s a prosecutor working on the case. A grand jury is investigating. The federal government is investigating and Michael Brown has been autopsied three times. Let the facts reign supreme.
Then a video by a black internet preacher named Jonathan Gentry went viral in which he blasts rioters as the “planet of the apes,” calls out Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, the NAACP, President Obama and mocks the civil rights movement and the idea of marching. Gentry went on Fox & Friends and apologized to America for “our behavior.” He’s appeared on Fox News and other conservative radio shows and websites because when a black face is spewing the conservative line they’re quickly granted their 15 minutes of fame. Alan Keyes, Michael Steele, Herman Cain, Ben Carson. Add Gentry to the list.
When one of the editors of iPinion, Debra DeAngelo, posted the video to Facebook and asked me about it, I knew I had to cobble the columns I’d written into one and write what I’ve really felt about Ferguson. So I apologize in advance if what I’m about to say seems disjointed.
I, too, cringe when I see Jesse and Al headed for a microphone whenever there’s a death of a black man at the hands of a white. Despite what many whites think, neither man has much support in the black community. A Zogby poll last year found that of several listed black leaders “none of the above” was the biggest vote getter among African-Americans. I’ve also been uneasy seeing black folks coming together again and again for convicted criminals like Mumia Abu-Jamal or Crip co-founder Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams. And I thought O.J. Simpson was guilty as soon as the case hit the news.
While some of the points Gentry makes about black on black crime not receiving the same attention as Michael Brown is legit, if he’s trying to reach black folks he’s not going to fare well by delivering a virtual minstrel show using Amos & Andy-Stepin Fetchit vocal shtick that would only be funny to bigots. Gentry also says he’s been stopped by police many times and it’s never gotten out of hand, so that “debunks” police brutality. One doesn’t have to be Einstein to see the fallacy of his argument. I’m black and have never killed a black man so I guess I’ve debunked black on black crime!
But how come black on black crime doesn’t receive the attention of a white on black crime? For one thing, a white cop killing an unarmed black teen is a man bites dog story. Rollin’ 60s Neighbor Hood Crip kills Inglewood Family Blood in a drive-by isn’t a big story. It’s not rare. And you know what else? Society as a whole doesn’t care about blacks killing blacks. John Q. Whiteman reads “Another black teen is killed in the ‘hood” in the newspaper and he turns to the sports section and finishes his Cheerios.
Despite the lack of national media attention, there are black mothers burying their children every day in this country. Local nonprofits, local ministers and churches, ex-cons, ex-gangbangers and others are on the streets working hard trying to stop the violence. But of course any attempt to get the guns out of the community is thwarted by the gun lobby.
In my home community of Fairfield, California, Larry Bluford, an ex-con, founded an organization called Operation T.H.U.G.S. to help stop the violence and point young kids in a different direction. The Leaven is another organization that operates in Fairfield. Similar groups and community organizers are doing the same thing from coast to coast. But you could write that story every single day so it doesn’t sell.
Whatever my disagreements about Gentry’s buffoonish delivery, self-promotion and difficulty finding anything positive to say about black people, he is right that we need to change. While he offers no specifics, allow me. The Ferguson Police Department has 53 officers and only three (or four, there is some discrepancy) are black. Ferguson is 67 percent black and 29 percent white. Yet the mayor and five city council members are white. The sixth member is Latino.
The race of the suburb’s government and officers don’t mean they’re racist or can’t be effective. But with nearly 7 out of 10 residents African-American, why aren’t they more involved in the community? In addition to that marching and protesting why weren’t they registering people to vote? The last mayoral race in Ferguson saw a 12 percent voter turnout. That’s pathetic. You can’t say you’re concerned about the direction of your community if you’re not participating in charting the course.
Likewise, young black men and women in Ferguson (and not just in Ferguson) need to start taking a look at going into law enforcement. There are lots of things that can be done to make a department more sensitive to the needs of the people they’re serving but actually having blacks who’ve grown up in the community will help in that effort. There’s a deep mistrust of the police in black communities due to law enforcements aggressive policing and many young people find themselves being treated as suspects first and citizens second. Officers of color will give minority communities more role models.
Citizens could form a review panel that plays a watchdog role on law enforcement. Such a group could meet with the city council and chief of police with suggestions that could improve law enforcement as well as community relations.
Ferguson could reach out for federal grants in order to equip offices with squad car and lapel cameras that would both protect the public and shield officers from false allegations of brutality. At the same time residents can form Neighborhood Watch groups to help keep their community safe. Nextdoor.com provides a way for neighbors to keep in touch via an online network of their neighbors.
If black men and women can hit the streets to protest then they can also get involved with Big Brothers and Big Sisters and mentor young people in the community. With 70 percent of black children born out of wedlock and one out of three black men involved in the wrong end of the criminal justice system, there’s a shortage of fathers. There’s a shortage of men able to teach young men how to be men. And it doesn’t have to be a formal organization because grandfathers, uncles, aunts and others can reach out to their grandkids, nephews, nieces and others.
Education is another area to channel this energy. A recent story by Rebecca Klein in the Huffington Post highlighted the fact that the high school Michael Brown graduated from, Normandy High, has a four-year graduation rate of only 53 percent. Blacks are suspended three times as often as whites. Klein notes that in a 2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article Normandy was called “the most dangerous school in the area.”
What can people do to help that situation? Do the schools need volunteer monitors? Is the public involved in PTA? Is there PTA? Are there after school activities? Are there after school sports to give teens some avenue to channel their energy?
The Ferguson Public Library has been an oasis during this period offering residents bottled water, Internet access and respite from the riots. Sixty dedicated teachers have volunteered to teach children there during this stressful time. There’s no reason why people can’t continue to volunteer there to help kids who need extra help during the school year. And there’s no reason why every child in Ferguson doesn’t have a library card. And that goes for other communities as well.
There’s no cavalry coming. Don’t let a huge media spotlight and involvement of hundreds and thousands of people fritter away. The Michael Brown shooting has stirred folks’ passions but with no disrespect to the Brown family, we can’t just let it be about that. And the things I’ve written here apply to every town, city and county in America. If so many people are willing to go out on the streets and protest then do something long term. Don’t let this moment pass us by.
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- September 10, 2014 at 8:01 am