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Chicago Defender-Time for police to stop devaluing the lives of Black males

Time for police to stop devaluing the lives of Black males

By Andrea L. Zopp

I just sent my 18-year-old son off to college and as the mother of a young, African American man, my heart is heavy with concern over the possibility of him becoming a statistic should he ever encounter the police and not behave the “right” way. My husband and I have had “the talk” with him about how to act if he comes into contact with police. Make sure they can see your hands. Don’t make any sudden moves. Cooperate. And most important: Do not get an attitude.

Earlier this month, another 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, was apparently found lacking in his response to local police and the unarmed teen was shot and killed because of it. Since that tragic afternoon, Ferguson residents, most of them Black, have been protesting daily, outraged over the unjustified shooting of one of its own, and then outraged again and again over the misguided responses and continued violent tear gas attacks from police. And despite repeated calls from community residents, it took seven days for the police to release the name of the officer who fired the fatal shots that killed Michael Brown.

We may never find out what was going on inside the mind of that officer, Darren Wilson. But we do know that this kind of tragedy against Black men in America happens far too often. We also know that when the shooters are police, they are rarely held accountable for their actions. In the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed the deaths of three other unarmed African American men at the hands of the police. Eric Garner in New York. Ezell Ford in Los Angeles. And John Crawford III near Dayton, Ohio.

This unfortunate truth continues to stare us in the face. In America, a Black man doesn’t have to be threatening or dangerous to end up riddled with bullets in a morgue. Yet another uncomfortable truth gets swept under the rug rather than confronted and dealt with:  Police are responsible for these unnecessary deaths.

Now we can’t look at Ferguson and not speak to Chicago’s own troubled history with the authorities. We’ve come a long way since the confrontations and riots of the 1960s but we must continue to hold the authorities accountable for their actions.

It is time for a nationwide dialogue on police accountability. It’s time for the Black community to have “the talk” with police, an adapted version of the one they have with their own sons. For police, I think it should go something like this:

Don’t have an attitude when you come into our community. We expect the same level of respect that is accorded to all of the people and communities that you are charged with protecting. Remember that the overwhelming of the people you come in contact with in our neighborhoods are law abiding citizens who want the same things you do: safe, crime free streets.

You have power, don’t misuse it. You have a badge and a gun and you can legally arrest people. Judicious use of these tools goes a long way to preserve peace. There are many serious crimes in our neighborhoods. Unarmed teenagers and young men are not the chief threats that we—or police—face.

Good policing de-escalates conflict. In the heat of the moment, tempers run high. Police are responsible for calming things down. Yet in Ferguson, community protesters who are rightly demanding answers to a wrongful death have been met with militarized police and have been treated as less than human. And when sporadic looting broke out, it was the community, not the police, who stopped the perpetrators.

Some credit for doing things right in Ferguson must be given to Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. He has been a strong, yet understanding presence in his hometown of Ferguson where he now leads security.

And U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Ferguson last week to meet with the FBI, police, civil rights leaders and the public. He pledged to oversee a full and fair investigation into Michael Brown’s death, and “to ensure that this tragedy can give rise to new understanding—and robust action—aimed at bridging persistent gaps between law enforcement officials and the communities we serve.”

Holder’s commitment to Ferguson sends the message that what will really count in resolving this matter—and preventing others like it in the future—is steadfast cooperation and mutual respect between police and communities. If real change is going to happen, more effort must be placed on defusing volatile situations instead of letting them boil over.

Of course we also must recognize that cooperation is a two way street and, in order for it to truly work, we in the African American community have to be willing to put aside our anger and our misinformed view that helping the police keep our communities safe is “snitching.”

Real change is in the hands of those at the local level. When neighbors and police officers value each others’ lives and perspectives, they will be able to work together constructively. The transformation of Ferguson can only be done by the people of Ferguson. Reclaiming our neighborhoods in Chicago from those who do not care who they shoot or kill cannot be done without us.

Let’s hope that Ferguson sets an example for the rest of the country about how to transcend a senseless tragedy and turn it into meaningful change for urban communities.

Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League
Published in the Chicago Defender on August 27, 2014