Return of the Black Panthers

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I had lost track of the Black Panthers after they disbanded in the early 1980s.

But this week’s PBS special about the black nationalist movement brought it all back. During much of the group’s history, I was writing editorials for The Journal Gazette.

I championed school desegregation. That was the last thing the Panthers called for. For my part, I don’t recall writing much of anything about the Panthers or other black nationalist groups.

Yet the TV special reminded me that the struggle for black rights didn’t begin and end with the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr., the marches he led or the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

But for a time, the Panthers were another part of the story. And the special brought to mind that group’s call for full employment, decent housing and free health care.

But their founders like Huey Newton and Bobby Seales had no patience with advocates of school desegregation. They demanded that police officers stop abusing black citizens. At the time, police brutality was even more common than it is today.

I imagine one thing that’s changed is that departments that serve minority communities recruit minorities. That has meant a revolution in policing. In Oakland, California, during the era of the PBS special, the department had nearly 700 officers. Only a dozen or so were black.

One disturbing part of the story I thought the TV special skipped over were the tactics of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Abuse by his agents and local police, in fact, was so common that in Oakland and other cities, the Panthers started monitoring police patrols.

What the special did remind me of was how the Panthers performed social services in black communities. For example, the PBS program showed members serving free breakfast to mostly black children.

At their peak in 1970, you could find a chapter of the Black Panthers in 68 cities with thousands of members. They gave voice to a population in our country that’s often silent. Or that population is represented by a minority – the gang-bangers, the jobless and the drug dealers.

One review I read of the PBS special called it a whitewash. I didn’t think so. I didn’t think that the special glamorized the Panthers or was silent about the crimes of a few of their leaders.

Not unlike today, the Panthers’ era was one of great division in the country. Not unlike today, it was a time of great hardship for so many people.

Did the Panthers make a difference? I think it’s fair to say that they did. Their story belongs to any fair account of the historic struggle of black people for justice and equality.

So thanks PBS for the reminder.

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Dr. King at Plymouth

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mlkI picked up my daughter Robyn at her apartment and then headed for Plymouth Congregational Church in downtown Fort Wayne.

The event was the annual memorial service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I believe I’ve only missed one of these services. That was the year my wife Toni and I lived in Washington, D.C. when she was a program officer for the National Science Foundation.

So that must be about 20 such services I’ve attended through the years. I’m always inspired by the music, often even the preacher. Black or white, you could tell the speaker had put a lot of preparation into the sermon.

One year, Dick Hamm, a Disciples minister, longtime friend, brought the packed audience to its feet. I also recall the Rev. Jesse White, a black minister, who stirred people in like fashion.

Yesterday afternoon, the organizers departed from the usual program. Instead of one often eloquent sermon, the Rev. Bill McGill, himself a gifted black preacher, delivered Dr. King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop…” sermon.

I thought the change made a lot of sense. I’m not sure I got to thank the Rev. John Gardner, Plymouth’s senior minister, for whatever role he played in the change. I didn’t miss the usual sermon.

Robyn and I sat toward the front on the right side of this great sanctuary. My old friend Bill’s reading was so powerful I just closed my eyes and could hear Dr. King speaking to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Other clergy offered readings suited to the occasion. I was especially moved by one black female minister who occasionally speaks at Plymouth. Truly a gifted person.

The Heartland Chamber chorale provided special music. I didn’t recognize the spirituals, which is unusual. A young woman and a young man offered solos, backed up by the chorale. We all joined in to sing what’s known as the Negro National Anthem – “Lift every voice…”

At the end, we joined hands to sang “We shall overcome…” What else?
During the reception, I visited with a few old friends, people I nearly always see at the King event. I did greet a couple of folk from our Unitarian church. Seeing friends, no matter how I know them, is one of the things that makes the annual visit to Plymouth a highlight of my year.

Today is the official King holiday. What memories the occasion brings back for me. At the paper over more than a quarter century, I wrote scores of editorials calling on the school district to desegregate its elementary schools.

I cheered on the civil rights crusades, whether for voting rights, fair housing, the King holiday and equal employment opportunities. The country indeed has seen great progress. Who would ever have dreamed during the years Dr. King led the movement that we’d elect a black president? Twice?

We’re not there yet, judging people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, as King used to put it.

I feel proud to have played a minor role in crusading for civil rights in our community. I’m sure I’m not the only person who attended the service Sunday who resolved to do more this year on behalf of civil rights.

As much as I love this annual service, these events aren’t the most important legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His most important legacy comes when we see real changes in our communities. Yes, we shall overcome someday. It can’t come soon enough.

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Writing the last chapters

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William Sloan Coffin interviewed in 2011 on “Prayer”

“No, growing old isn’t hard. It just takes longer.”

That was the great peace activist and minister William Sloan Coffin when he spoke some years back at Plymouth Congregational Church here in Fort Wayne.

Coffin passed away a few years ago. These days, now at 77, I’m reminded of his reflection on aging. A lot of the Doonesbury comic strip fans might not realize that Rev. Sloan who used to appear regularly in the strip was modeled after the Rev. Sloan Coffin.

Earlier, at a large peace conference at his famous Riverside church in New York. I joined another Midwestern journalist to interview Coffin in his office. As I found him at the Fort Wayne meeting, he was at ease and eager to share his thoughts. He played the perfect host for this conference.

I’ve certainly come to agree with Coffin on growing old. It does take longer. It takes me at least 15 minutes longer to walk my four miles in nearby Foster. It takes me longer to get ready for the hike. (No jogging while I recover from a heel fracture.) It takes longer for me to decide what to wear when my wife Toni and I go out for dinner or to a movie.

It takes longer to read a book. I think I might have to pause often to find my place. It takes longer to eat dinner. But it also seems to take longer to assimilate what another person has just told me in a conversation.

I’m not sure I’d agree with the poet who said, “Grow old along with me/The best is yet to be.”

I probably won’t follow Dylan Thomas’ admonition, “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Whenever that dying of the light happens for me, in five years or 20, I doubt I’ll have any rage left in me. Unless of course the right-wingers take over the country.

Meantime, I consider myself very lucky. I’ve managed to stay in good health. I avoid eating red meat and don’t often have dessert. I do my push-ups and stretches on the living room carpet daily. I’m not much for going to a health club. I’d rather spend the time reading or writing than driving to and from a gym. But good health is a lot more than exercise.

I attend church services a couple times a month. (For Unitarians who don’t fear punishment after death that’s OK.) I go to various community meetings. Again, I sometimes skip them.

But I’m sure that the most important thing that sustains me is the support of my family, starting with my extraordinary spouse Toni but also with my daughter Robyn and son John and granddaughters.

I can’t neglect to mention the importance of my friends keeping me connected with the community and the world.

When I wrote editorials for the morning paper, people said, “Larry knows everybody in town.” That surely was an exaggeration. But not a lot. Anyway, that day is long past. But if I want to pass along an idea to a councilman, state official, U.S. senator, governor or mayor, I have no difficulty getting the person on the phone.

I do think that at 77 I’m a lot more at peace. I believe I’m calmer. Most nights I sleep like a baby. I’m more comfortable listening to other people without interrupting.

I’m not sure I’d rather be 67 or 57. I’ve found retirement a luxury most all the time. But a person needs to have patience with him or herself. As Rev. Sloan Coffin put it, “Growing old takes a little longer.”

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Still not equal

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Dr. Barbara Reynolds blogger/columnist at The Washington Post Root DC
Dr. Barbara Reynolds
blogger/columnist at The Washington Post Root DC

I was especially interested to read Barbara Reynolds’ op.ed. piece on civil rights in today’s morning paper.

Her piece, first published in The Washington Post, contrasts the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of today with those demonstrations of the 1960s civil rights movement.

If I had a signature issue when I was writing editorials for The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, it was civil rights. So here it is, long after my retirement in 2000, and I still carefully follow the story of the struggle of our black citizens and other minorities for equal rights.

In her column, Rev. Reynolds notes that at protests today, you have a hard time telling the legitimate activists from the “mob actors who burn and loot.”

She recalls civil rights leaders of that now long ago era, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Andy Young and, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In contrast with many of today’s demonstrators, such heroes and their followers in those marches and sit-ins exhibited great discipline and forbearance – even when police set upon them with billy clubs and tear gas.

These demonstrators wore suits, ties and dresses, attired in fitting fashion for the dignity and resolution their faces showed.

Dressed in torn jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers, many of the today’s Black Lives Matter demonstrators taunt police and appear bent on confrontation. Some throw bottles and rocks.

Yes, these young people have reason to be upset and angry. Black and Hispanic unemployment remains double that of white unemployment. In some cities, that contrast is more like three times. Social services are spotty and poorly funded.

Segregation in housing and schools in larger cities remains intractable. In a few southern states, public officials continue to seek ways to prevent black citizens from voting.

It would be an insult to minorities and their hopes for equality to point out the social changes that have taken place since the 1960s. Indeed, these are innumerable. In Barak Obama, we’ve even elected a black president – twice.

Nevertheless, equal rights for all citizens still appears the dream of idealists. Which at least explains in part the rowdy behavior of the Black Lives Matter demonstrators as they assess the reality. But they’re still missing something.

At the end of her column, Rev. Reynolds quotes the nasty lyrics of the rappers. Suffice it to say this sounds like the language of surrender, defeat.

What a far cry from the inspiration and hopeful songs of the civil rights movement. For me, the words still ring out – “We shall overcome.” Someday. Yes, someday.

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For heaven’s sake, join our democracy!

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Dr. Anson "Andy" Shupe
Dr. Anson “Andy” Shupe

I was saddened the other day to read the news that Anson “Andy” Shupe had died at age 67. Too young, my first thought.

Retiring to Bloomington, Indiana, he had been a professor of religion for many years at the Fort Wayne campus of Indiana University and Purdue University.

He had written a lot of books. He was regarded as a national authority in his field. I must have something of Andy’s on my shelves.

I mainly knew Andy as a frequent contributer to the letters column of the paper where I served as the editorial page editor. The day the paper announced his death they ran a news story and an editorial page tribute to this prolific writer to the paper’s letters column.

News of Andy’s death brought back memories of other regular contributors to our letters column.

In the early years of my career at the paper, we often received so many letters that we didn’t have room on the editorial pages. Some days, we opened up space on opposite editorial page and published a dozen letters more.

How well I recall Emma Newington, an evangelical Christian who always managed to get a religious message into her comments on otherwise secular issues. I got to know this kind lady in the early years of my newspaper career.

I recall, too, Tom and Jane Dustin, avid environmentalists, both fine opinion and letter to the editor writers.

I recall with warm feelings Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Bill McManus whose letters to the editor managed to avoid dry theology. Instead, he wrote about more public issues. No wonder, some years before he had served as the spokesman for the National Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.

As I look back, it sometimes seemed as if a entire parade of letter-writers would troop up the stairs from Main Street to the paper’s newsroom on the building’s second floor. Straightaway, they’d head for my office in the corner.

So many years later, I can picture them now – teachers, retirees, a spokesman for the city school district, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, the president of the labor union, the director of the Women’s Bureau.

They represented a cross-section of jobs and positions in the community. More than that, these writers were exercising their rights as citizens in our democracy.

Sometimes, they were mad at me for an editorial the paper published favoring gun control or abortion rights. Or, they wanted to second the paper’s editorial stand on some community issue. It was only when the writer made personal attacks on an individual that we refused to publish the letter.

My policy in dealing with letters that took issue with our editorial was to give those letters prominent space on the page.

I’m sorry to note that these days the paper publishes so few letters to the editor each day. A copy editor I often see in Foster Park explained that the paper doesn’t receive as many letters to the editor as in earlier years.

I’m not surprised, though I’m disappointed.

A decline in letters likely reflects two related trends. One is the decline in newspaper subscriptions. The other trend is that people who follow the news are more likely to read it on-line, on the newspaper’s web site.

In any case, a lot of readers are missing a great opportunity to get their views into the public forum for debate. To flourish, our democracy depends so much on citizens’ active participation.

Otherwise, we leave policy to people with a lot of money to contribute to candidates and to those with narrow and not always public-minded viewpoints.

It’s always been people such as Andy Shupe who make our public debates informative and our policies in the best interest of all citizens.

Maybe the extra coverage the paper gave to his passing will inspire another citizen or two to sit down and write a good strong letter to the editor.

Andy believed that when you live in a democracy, once in a while you should show up.

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Selma – The Movie

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selmaTo be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the film. Did I really want to be reminded of the awful things that happened during the 1960s? Did I want to relive the murder of Unitarian minister, The Rev. James Reeb? Or the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a peace activist, I believe, from Detroit.

Then, how could the British actor David Oyelowo possibly create a credible Martin Luther King Jr.?

I’m glad we took in the film. We caught the early afternoon showing. As uncomfortable as it sometimes made me feel, “Selma” nicely summed up what the story was about. It captured the marchers’ resolute courage. It portrayed the ugliness of the white citizens. I guess I didn’t need to be reminded of police officials such as Jim Clark and “Bull” Conner. But they were part of the story, too.

Such men embodied the deep hatred that I’ve always associated with racism and slavery’s ugly legacy.

I have no earthly reason to associate that small Alabama city with any important national event other than to summon up one of the seminal events of the civil rights era, indeed of American history

It was the mid-1960s. I was a graduate student in Cincinnati. During the day I either sat in some graduate seminar or was working on my divinity thesis. Evenings found me typing freight bills at Duff Truck Lines. Nobody I associated with in those days followed the civil rights movement more closely.

Even before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I was a huge fan of Dr. King. I found Oyelowo’s portrayal solid, credible. This King was reticent, not a bit boastful. Rather, given what he faced, he was full of self-doubt. Here also was the King I recall. Yes, he was a simple man. But wasn’t he eloquent in the pulpit! In private, the film shows a reflective man, not given to hasty reactions. This King made me think he had been given a holy mission. It was to win the right of black citizens in the South to vote.

For me, the actor’s cadence and reserved demeanor resonated. I could hear easily the impassioned voice of Dr. King 50 years ago.

The times depicted in “Selma” were such brutal times. You might find it hard to believe that somebody would plant a bomb at a church. That bomb killed four black girls. We saw them in the film all dressed up, chattering away, heading for Sunday School class, then the blast. But added to this crime, it was the televised beatings of marchers headed from Selma to Montgomery that stirred the national conscience.

“Selma” reminds us of key historical players throughout the drama. That included some of my favorites, such as James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young and John Lewis, later the eloquent congressman. Malcolm X even makes an appearance. For years I felt I personally knew them all.

Much has been written about how the film portrays Lyndon Johnson. I thought the actor Tom Wilkinson did a nice job of capturing LBJ’s blunt, even profane talk and overpowering personality. In the Oval Office, the actor playing Gov. George Wallace seemed to grow smaller as the talk with the president went on.

LBJ former aides and historians have objected that the film fails to credit the president with taking more of a lead on the Voting Rights bill. Here, we see Dr. King applying the pressure and winning LBJ’s acquiescence.

Director Ava DuVenay objects that she and her colleagues didn’t set about to recreate a history of this momentous era. That’s a fair defense. “Selma” isn’t a documentary. Yet I fail to see how getting LBJ’s role historically more accurate would have diminished the drama.

What is indisputably true about the film is how it tells the story of a defining moment in our history. The discrimination was real. The racism was real. The brutality was real. Also real was the courage of the marchers from Selma to Montgomery. And also real was the central role in this historic drama of an eloquent young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr.

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I remember Dr. King

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. kicks off a voter registration drive at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Ala., on Jan. 18, 1965, flanked by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Andrew Young. File photo by Ed Jones from The Birmingham News. (Ed Jones/The Birmingham News)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. kicks off a voter registration drive at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Ala., on Jan. 18, 1965, flanked by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Andrew Young. File photo by Ed Jones from The Birmingham News. (Ed Jones/The Birmingham News)

You’d think Fort Wayne’s religious community could come together once a year to celebrate the life and ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. We have for many years. This year there were two main services, one sponsored by the Associated Churches, I’m sure the more conservative, and the second the one my granddaughter Tanya and I attended.

Indeed, for a quarter century, we seemed to be all gathering at Plymouth Congregational Church downtown around King’s birthday. I only missed one service, the year my wife Toni and I lived in Washington D.C.

Through most all those years, you’d have to say the service was reasonably interfaith. That is, if you only invite a Unitarian to read Scripture it’s interfaith (That was me one year.)

Some services even featured a pretty progressive preacher, such as the black woman from a UCC church in Michigan and another year, an old friend during school desegregation battles, the Rev. Dr. Dick Hamm of the Disciples of Christ.

I even attended when the preacher seemed to think the service was a come-to-Jesus revival meeting, not so much a commemoration of the life and ministry of Dr. King. Even at that, I just loved singing the old Gospel music, the Heartland Chamber Chorale specials and, during the social hour, visiting with friends. I’m also sure to see so many friends from battles we shared for social justice and peace in our town. I endured the sermons.

I thought the service this year was the best, so focused as it was on remembering King. The readings were his words. My old buddy, a black minister, The Rev. Bill McGill of Imani Baptist Temple, sounded so much like King I teased him during the social hour of being related to the civil rights legend. Our Unitarian Minister, The Rev. Misty-Dawn Shelly, had a part.

This year’s musical highlight was baritone Carver Cossey’s singing, with the chorale, throughout the service. Later, I told Carver that he had such incredible breath control he’d never have to worry about drowning. He just laughed. Then, he explained that he had just learned not to rush the music.

I’m sure the Associated Churches’ service at an inner city church featured singing and maybe even preaching I would have found uplifting. I’m sorry that there seems to be any kind of rift over how to remember Dr. King properly here. But I’d bet that we’re not the only city in the country that has watched such divisions develop. Throughout his ministry King understood that too well friends and allies disagree.

This year’s service at Plymouth, as always, stirred poignant memories. I’ll never forget my visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The doors were chained that day. I stopped nearby at the reflecting pool where Dr. King’s casket seems to float. In recent years, this has become part of a 35-acre complex known as the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical site. The U.S. Park Service runs it. Thousands, black and white, visit every year.

Yes, memories. In another year, on a reporting trip to Memphis, I had my taxi take me to the Lorraine Motel. I climbed the stairs to the second floor. I stood at the door of the room and stared for some time at the bed Dr. King was said to have slept in for the last time.

Just a few paces away, I stepped onto the balcony where he stood talking with The Rev. Jesse Jackson when James Earl Ray shot him. Just the day before, he said he had been to the mountain. Like Moses, he had seen the promised land.

In our racially integrated public schools here and elsewhere you do get a glimpse of the promised land. But we’re not there. Racial divisions survive in jobs, income and poverty. The numbers of blacks and Hispanics locked up in prisons mocks any claims to equal justice.

I’m so gratified that my granddaughter Tanya wanted to join me for Plymouth’s King memorial service. You know, it’s in our own families where dreams of equal justice take form. It’s in our families where we keep King’s memory alive. It’s with those closest to us that we set the example for how to treat others, respecting and celebrating the differences.

Every year, we set aside a holiday to honor the founder of our country, George Washington. We set aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves. How fitting then, that we’ve set aside a day to honor the memory of Dr. King who pointed the way for us to grant full freedom to every person.

Next year, I’ll be at Plymouth Congregational Church once more. I’ll rededicate anew myself to that dream.

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The Cheney Doctrine

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Dick Cheney in 108th Congressional Pictorial Directory
Dick Cheney in 108th Congressional Pictorial Directory

I don’t doubt that former Vice President Cheney would direct the CIA to torture terrorist suspects “in a minute.” That’s what he’s been saying in recent interviews.

Never mind that the United States is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Never mind that we don’t torture prisoners in U.S. jails and prisons, whatever their behavior. Never mind that the torture of prisoners violates America’s basic values of decency and justice.

Never mind that after World War II the United States and its allies hung those Japanese officers who had subjected prisoners to water boarding, among other forms of torture. As we all know by now, water boarding is a practice the CIA and its contractors practiced on prisoners.

Never mind that skillful, professional interrogators can coax information out of detainees without resort to torture of even threats. Curiously, the talents of such people weren’t enlisted.

Never mind that even CIA Director John Brennan concedes he has no way to prove that the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” succeeded in soliciting good intelligence from prisoners.

I guess it doesn’t much bother Cheney and others the CIA torture actually killed at least two suspects. Which might explain why the CIA destroyed the videotapes of the interrogations. At least we know of two deaths in this program that the Senate Intelligence Committee managed to document. Cheney hasn’t even expressed regret that at least 26 persons were wrongfully detained.

Torture is morally wrong. Period. The EIT euphemism doesn’t change that. It matters not a whit that half of the American people now tell pollsters they approve of the torture. What’s more, there’s no evidence it has prevented new terrorist attacks on the American homeland.

In fact, torture didn’t prevent the so-called underwear bomber from boarding a plane headed for Detroit. The Nigerian native’s bomb just fizzled. Otherwise, a couple hundred people would have been killed.

I imagine Cheney and other higher-ups in the George W. Bush White House might still blame themselves for not acting on the intelligence that suggested terrorists were planning the 9/11 attack. Maybe blaming themselves might help explain why their Republican supporters have been so critical of the Senate report.

The report mentions how a number of the CIA interrogators were deeply affected by the suffering they inflicted on prisoners. The report cited spells of crying and nightmares. Funny how growing up in this country can make you sensitive to the suffering of others.

It doesn’t take the CIA or the Bush administration off the hook that officials informed members of Congress of the abusive tactics. It would appear that the attacks on the World Trade Center
made some U.S. leaders forget their sense of right and wrong.

President Obama ended the practice of abusing terrorist suspects some years ago. Thank goodness. the national shame will endure.

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Policing – the way forward

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Boston Police - Special Operations Officer
Boston Police – Special Operations Officer

These recent stories simply are heartbreaking. First to make national news was Ferguson, Mo. Police officer Darren Wilson shot to death an unarmed teenager Michael Brown. A grand jury declined to indict the officer. Thank goodness, he resigned from the department.

Then we heard about a Staten Island officer acquitted in the choke-holding death of an overweight, middle-age, unarmed black for selling cigarettes on the street. Actually, we got to see this on videotape. A United Nations panel of human rights expects expressed shock that the officer, again, wasn’t indicted.

There’s been even more news about police conduct. An 18-month Justice Department study of policing in Cleveland found a pattern of cruelty and routine violation of citizens’ constitutional rights.

In his column this Friday, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson cites a pervasive pattern of racism that persists throughout the country and infects police departments. Indeed, dating back generations, official reports have lamented the great racial divide in America. This divide can been seen in housing patterns, employment, segregated schools. As the Koerner Commission might have put it today, we remain two nations, separate and unequal.

Policing just happens sometimes to illustrate the worst side of that racial divide. But another side greatly complicates the picture. These recent stories brought to mind my own experience. I got to ride one night with a decorated Memphis police officer almost 20 years ago. I had joined two Fort Wayne officers to get a close look at the Memphis model program for officers encounters with mentally ill persons.

After a banquet honoring a number of Memphis officers, I climb into Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) member Tony Mullins’s patrol car. Shaved bald, husky, wearing black gloves, Officer Mullins was no cop I ever wanted to encounter in a dark alley. But what I witnessed that evening was a highly trained officer who handled those people on the street late at night with extreme patience. He didn’t yell at citizens. He didn’t order them to go home. Rather, his conversations involved his mostly listening to the person.

Like police departments throughout the country, Fort Wayne and the country departments here adopted the Memphis model of policing. Since then, police have made far fewer arrests of mentally ill persons. The CIT here had been such a model that our officers are now invited to instruct other departments on this highly successful form of policing.

As I suggested, the tragic encounters recently in the news represent part of the story about how police in this country treat citizens, particularly minorities. But CIT programs point the way to more just and effective policing everywhere. First, CIT officers are carefully screened even before they can start training. They receive hours and hours of additional classroom and field work. Then they’re supervised in the early days they’re formally regarded as CIT officers.

To be sure, part of the problem in many departments is racial prejudice among officers. How to deal with that when so much of the general population harbors those feelings? Surely for starters, you can’t have a department that doesn’t reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the community. Ferguson, Missouri, has only a handful of minority police officers out of a force or more than 50. This is just asking for tragedy. Beyond that, I hope community leaders, in light of the recent news, would examine the experience of towns and cities that have excellent records of police-community relations.

The good news is that these highly-publicized tragic encounters between police and citizens have sparked calls for reform from President Obama and other political leaders. Nobody can be proud of the tragedies, least of all police.

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A death in Ferguson

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Michael Brown, Jr.
Michael Brown, Jr.

I have no idea whether Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson should be found criminally liable in the August 9 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

I felt Wilson’s newly released testimony to the grand jury confusing. Eyewitness testimony was conflicting. The tragic encounter didn’t make any sense. For example, why in the world did Wilson need to get off 12 shots at close range before he no longer felt threatened by his suspect?

Consider: This all began when Officer Wilson ordered Brown to walk on the sidewalk, not in the middle of the street. So here jaywalking turned into a capital offense.

Beyond that, county prosecutor Bob McCulloch presented the case to the jury in a fashion that didn’t follow any procedure I’m familiar with. Rather than laying out the case for, say an indictment on manslaughter, McCulloch recited a case both for and against an indictment. He then left it to jurors to draw their own conclusions.

It doesn’t help ordinary citizens feel justice was done that McCulloch has a reputation for protecting police officers. Further, his police officer father once shot to death a black suspect. It also seems peculiar that it took months for the grand jury to reach a decision to not indict.

At his conference following the grand jury’s decision, McCulloch blamed the press for making a national story out of the case.

This was an extremely volatile case. Given McCulloch’s reputation and the national interest, he should have stepped aside and let the Missouri governor appoint a special prosecutor.

Then you have the investigation by the local police. From the news accounts, it appears so amateurish. Here’s Officer Wilson bagging his own pistol. Then local officials left Brown’s uncovered body lie in the street for hours.

Also puzzling, the investigator of the scene didn’t take measurements or conduct even the most routine examination of the police vehicle. Nor did the police tape record interviews they conducted with Officer Wilson. An odd procedure, to say the least.

It’s not that police never get charged for shooting a citizen. One study over seven years found 41 officers charged with murder or manslaughter. During the same period, researchers found that officers had been exonerated in nearly 3,000 shooting deaths.

For years, studies have noted that police are 10 times more likely to stop black male teens than white male teenagers. The Ferguson case provides yet the latest tragic glimpse at
a racial chasm in this country. Indeed, the demonstrations in Ferguson and around the country that followed the grand jury’s decision remind us that the very perception of injustice is not all that different from injustice itself.

I hope outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder does open a federal investigation of the case. Maybe that would quell some of the anger and show everyone that we really can expect and find justice when local officials fall short.

There are some powerful takeaway lessons from Ferguson. First, let’s be highly selective before pinning a police badge on a person. Then let’s see that their training meets national standards. Let’s see that the racial and ethnic makeup of the department reflects the community – unlike Ferguson.

For the rest of us, let’s get on about the business of championing justice. Too many resources have been wasted. Too many lives have been ruined. Too many lives have been needlessly lost. Michael Brown surely is one.

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