In the wake of the protests following a grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, President Obama met Monday with civil rights leaders and, separately, with a group of young activist leaders andtold them that the task at hand is to initiate a “sustained conversation” that addresses the “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”
Two days later, a grand jury in New York City failed to indict the white police officer whose chokehold killed Eric Garner as bystanders taped the incident. “We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability,” President Obama said on Wednesday.
Black men are not dying at the hands of (mostly) white cops – nor are those cops being excused from legal responsibility – because of mutual distrust between black and brown people and law enforcement agencies. To suggest so simply, and perhaps deliberately, mistakes the symptom for the disease.
Trust, or lack thereof, is based on lived experience, and it is the actions of law enforcement in communities of color that has eroded black and brown Americans’ trust. To present the situation as mutual distrust not only obscures the specific causes of that distrust – it intimates that everyone is equally responsible for the problem. The call for “conversation” as the solution then reinforces this idea that the legitimate problems with law enforcement vocalized by minority communities are really all just one big misunderstanding.
Our political leaders should not begin to offer solutions for a problem if they won’t even name it: systemic, institutional racism exists in police forces throughout our country.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglass famously said. “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
From the prosecutor and the grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island to the halls of Congress – where reform ideas like the End Racial Profiling Act or the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act have hit a dead end – and a thousand places in between, our government institutions have been largely unresponsive to demands for real structural reform. Much like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, grassroots protests in Missouri and New York and across the country – including the hundreds of actions of civil disobedience, bridge and highway shutdowns, and walkouts – are the engines of change, and communities and grassroots organizers are the ones providing the concrete solutions to the problem.
“As young people of color who are often criminalized for our mere existence,” explained Phillip Agnew, the executive director of Dream Defenders, “we are the experts in how our communities are treated by law enforcement. We accepted the president’s invitation so that we could present our expertise and needed policy changes.”
Ferguson Action, a growing national coalition of activist groups from affected communities, already has a national proposal full of needed reforms, including: a comprehensive federal Department of Justice review of police abuse; the development of use-of-force standards and recommendations for training; the use of DOJ funds to support and implement community oversight mechanisms; the withdrawal of DOJ funds from police departments engaging in discriminatory practices; and the demilitarization of local police departments.
We also need a national public database of police killings. Facts are a powerful tool, but they are only useful if they are known, documented and publicly available. When the Center for Constitutional Rights settled the 1999 stop-and-frisk case we brought against the City of New York in the wake of the Amadou Diallo murder, the NYPD was required to track and provide us with information on the stops it made going forward.
The resulting decade of data conclusively showed what black and brown New Yorkers already knew from experience: cops disproportionately stop people of color, and stop them without cause and with greater use of force. That data enabled us to bring a second lawsuit against the stop-and-frisk program, and a federal judge ruled that it violated both the fourteenth and the fourth amendments to the US constitution and the Civil Rights Act. The judge also ordered a comprehensive set of reforms, including a pilot program testing the use of body cameras on police (which is one of the president’s suggested reforms in the wake of Ferguson).
That desire for more facts and more supposedly indisputable evidence – and the hope that visual records can be a deterrent to police violence and harassment – has led to the many calls for the use of body cams nation-wide. Studies have suggested that there is a dramatic drop in abuse when officers are wearing body-cams.
But it’s not enough to slap a camera on every cop’s lapel. First, we need to answer some important questions: Who has access to the data? When? How can it be used, by whom? Where is it stored, for how long? Communities need to be sure we are using the technical capacity to gather data for accountability and transparency, not as a new way to violate privacy and civil liberties.
Finally, affected communities – and youth of color in particular – must be at the center of the process of crafting reform solutions. The heart of the reform ordered after we won the stop-and-frisk case is a joint remedial process that brings community members and other stakeholders together to discuss and hammer out the actual law enforcement and accountability reforms.
A similar model was used in Cincinnati a decade ago, after the city was torn apart by scores of wrongful death lawsuits, a city-wide curfew, a boycott, a DOJ investigation and the most violent summer in the city’s recent history. Bringing those groups to the table yielded a decrease in the number of racially discriminatory stops and the number of civilian complaints, and an increase in black residents’ perception of fairness and professionalism by the Cincinnati police department.
The community-based reform processes in Cincinnati and just underway in New York are the models to follow. But we have to acknowledge that we need far more than a conversation, and right now, the protests in the street are bringing the pressure that will make real reform possible.
The protests are the road to reform.