Bloody Sunday march

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civil rights protestI suppose if there’s one theme to my quarter century writing editorials, it would be civil rights.

During the Rev. Shelly’s sermon Sunday, she even mentioned me by name and my role in advocating for school desegregation.

So in the afternoon, following the annual congregational meeting, wife Toni, daughter Robyn and I joined hundreds of people, black and white, to walk to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama.

The film, “Selma” recently depicted what happened when demonstrators attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Rather than protecting these hundreds of the peaceful marchers, police confronted them with tear gas and billy clubs. Scores fled bleeding, some badly injured in what historians consider one of the darkest moments in our nation’s history.

Now, so many years later, we marched to remember. The crowd gathered at North Side High School on a sunny day with temperatures in the low 40s. Police and emergency vehicles guarded our path along the St. Marys River, to the Martin Luther King Jr. bridge. As we walked, I read the┬áslogans chiseled along the bridge’s sidewalk such familiar slogans: “Peace with justice,” “equality for all.”

Unfolding along the bridge echoes the great sermons of the past for civil rights. But I can’t linger. The crowd carries us onward. A mile or so into the march, we reach the eastern side of Fort Wayne’s downtown. Moments it seems later, we’re on Main Street and Freimann Square. We assemble around bleachers. The crowd grows quiet as we await words from the speakers.

One of my favorite preachers, the Rev. Bill McGill, presides. First up is Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a black Olympian and Fort Wayne native. We cheer her and her brief remarks. Mayor Tom Henry welcomes the crowd. Finally, Rev. McGill reads the very words of Dr. King’s address in Montgomery, Alabama. I’m reminded once more of King’s eloquence. What league, Lincoln, FDR and King!

After visiting with friends, we walk to Hall’s Gashouse restaurant for an early dinner. I’m reminded of how much has changed in our country since Bloody Sunday 50 years ago. In every state of the South, you can find black officials. Under President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, black and other minority citizens can and do vote, if not in the numbers I’d hoped to see.

I imagine that many citizens of Selma must have taken note this past weekend that the celebrity who came to their city to commemorate Bloody Sunday was a black man, President Barak Obama.

No doubt lots of people at such marches noted that the country still has a long way to go before we say we practice racial justice. They can readily cite recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, Ohio, and New York City. These recent tragedies expose our many shortcomings.

Yet like Dr. King, we’ve seen the Promised Land. So we lock arms. So we march. So we remember. So we pledge ourselves anew. So we go home to work for justice. Yes, this is a different America.

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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 Missouri

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Michael Brown, Jr.
Michael Brown, Jr.

I doubt we’ll ever know the full story of how it happened that the Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson came to shoot and kill Michael Brown Jr. in broad daylight on a street in Ferguson, Mo.

The shooting August 9 set off a week of demonstrations. Some protestors threw bottles and broke store windows. Some looted. Others called for peace and brought food and water to the demonstrators. Many demanded the prosecutor indict Officer Wilson for murder. Meantime, Michael Brown’s funeral drew thousands to the church. That included the nationally known Rev. Al Sharpton. He gave the eulogy.

For the rest of the country, the shooting opened an old, festering wound about how white police treat black citizens. It’s not common for an officer to shoot and kill a citizen, especially one who, like Brown, is unarmed. Yet in so many communities across the country relations between police and black citizens remain sensitive if not downright hostile.

Black citizens don’t need sociologists who study this stuff to tell them that blacks are more likely to end up with longer prison terms than whites for virtually the same drug-related offenses. Across the board, blacks in most communities and cities are more often
charged with traffic and other misdemeanors. Black citizens understand that two standards in the justice system apply: One for whites and the other, more strict, for minorities.

Then there’s Ferguson, Mo., one of many seemingly thriving St. Louis suburbs. You’d think that in a town that’s two-thirds black, the powers that be would see to it that the police force has a similar make-up of blacks. But of the 53 officers on the force, only three are black. One of them has an administrative job with the department.

Likewise, Ferguson’s mayor is white; nearly all members of the city council are white.

As things stand now, a grand jury will not take up the shooting of Michael Brown until October. I imagine that by week’s end the protestors from outside Ferguson will have gone home. The preachers will find a new inspiration. The columnists and editorial writers will take up other causes. Like the Trayvon Martin shooting death by a neighborhood watchman in Florida, this tragedy probably will fade and the national focus will shift once more.

Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that the death of Michael Brown will not be forgotten. I want to believe that the calls for justice will echo throughout the land. Young Brown’s story did gain national attention. Just today, the September 1 issue of The New Yorker arrived in the mail. The cover portrays images of people raising their hands in a graphic reflection of Ferguson demonstrators who raised their hands with the message: “Don’t shoot.”

A beginning? We’ll see.

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