The Arise Television Town Hall Meeting which held last Wednesday in Washington DC agreed at the end of the conversation that African Americans had come a long way, in spite of the killings of members of the community by the police. Ongoing reforms in the US criminal justice system and the great achievements of African Americans in various fields of endeavour suggest that beyond the Barack Obama years in the White House, African Americans have so much to crow about. Agreeing there will be a drastic fall in the number of deaths and crimes when policemen are chosen from the communities they serve with the abolition of the notorious Broken Window theory that has nailed black neighbourhoods as perpetually criminally infested zones, the conversation proffered trust and accountability as the binder between communities on one side, the Department of Justice and the Police on the other. In a way, it was an agenda for the next US President. Nduka Nwosu who monitored the meeting reports
The Arise Television Town Hall Meeting that held last Wednesday in Washington DC with the theme: Guns, Cops & Black Lives could not have come at a more appropriate time, what with the emergence of a Donald Trump as Republican candidate for all he represents to the white supremacists and the emergence of Hillary Clinton as Democratic Party candidate.
Hosted by Debbye Turner Bell and Charles Aniagolu, it was another evening in DC where participants and key speakers weighed in on why in spite of eight years of Barack Obama presidency, racism in America continues to be the bane of the African-American. As if the participants were being listened to by the two presidential candidates whose surrogates in any case debated their cases strongly during the conversation, last week was one of finger pointing, Clinton telling the world Trump is a bigot, promoter of the alt-right movement led by Steve Bannon, Breibart News CEO and Trump’s new campaign boss, the likes of his tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos for his racist rants on tweeter, and Trump calling Clinton the bigot because she and her party have been exploiting African-Americans, giving them nothing in return for their votes.
The conversation reviewed two turbulent years in America, years that gave rise to outrage, anguish, frustration, pain and sorrow over the loss of loved ones and the birth of a movement, Black Lives Matter, with the question: how did we get to this point in history and where do we go from here? Experts in the field of law enforcement and civil rights are confronted with the vital question whether the police will represent safety and protection rather than fear, oppression and death for coloured people moving forward.
By way of personal experience, sometime in 2014 this reporter had arrived Union Station Washington DC from New York and picked a cab heading for Maryland preparatory for the coverage of the summit between Barack Obama and African leaders with Goodluck Jonathan in attendance. Along the way shortly before connecting the Interstate 495 (Capital Beltway) from Potomac, a police patrol car waved at the driver to park which he did. The officer accosted the African-American driver of Senegalese descent and asked if he had his papers correct. He answered in the affirmative with a Yes Sir his hands on the steering. Everything else was a yes sir, yes sir. The police officer said “okay. I saw a tag behind you and I wanted to be sure who the owner of this car is. You can Proceed, the police officer, ordered. “Yes Sir, thank you sir”
The driver later explained the only reason he was halted was because of his colour and this criminalization of the African-American.
With this mindset in view, the Arise News Town Hall conversation is best appreciated from the perspective of experience. Many blacks as accomplished as they may be express fear when encountered by the police, not because they are criminals and hateful of the police but because there are scores of documented evidence of black people who were gunned down in questionable circumstances and blacks more than any other group suffer from racial profiling. A research carried out by the Guardian, revealed 37 per cent of unarmed people killed by police were black in 2015 despite being only 13.2 per cent of the US population
Britanny Packett who is described as an activist and a member of the White House taskforce on policing added: “This epidemic is disproportionately affecting black people. We are wasting so many promising young lives by continuing to allow this to happen.” The analysis observed 102 unarmed black people were killed in 2015, about five times the number of unarmed whites killed about the same time.
Around the St. Anthony Police Department within the neighbourhood Philando Castile was shot, the police department showed figures or citations on its traffic stops just about the same rate as other close suburbs but with 47 percent of African Americans receiving more of the arrests and this has been the trend since 2011. The US Justice Department observed that in Ferguson the focus was more on raising revenue than keeping public safety
By way of response St. Anthony City Manager Mark Casey lamented: “We do share concerns about the information and what it represents. Racial inequality, in terms of arrests, citations and incarceration, is a complex yet urgent challenge for all of us.”
The Roll Call
Earlier in 2014, Arise TV had hosted a similar town hall meeting following two deadly attacks by police officers on unarmed black men, an all too common feature in black dominated communities. Prior to the hosting of the town Hall meeting in 2014, Trayvon Martin a 17 year old African American from Miami Gardens in Florida was in 2012 shot in Sanford Florida by a neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman who sustained head injuries during his scuffle with Martin who insisted he acted in self defence. The Florida Stand Your Ground Statute allowed him to use lethal force, his lawyers argued. Citing the same law the police released him sparking thousands of protesting blacks pouring into the streets. A special prosecutor appointed by Florida Governor Rick Scott charged Zimmerman for murder but was acquitted by the jury July 13 2013 while the US Justice Department said there was not enough evidence for a federal hate crime prosecution.
In the summer of 2014, the Town Hall moderators observed, a new element, with the social media turning the heat on national debate. Such confrontations were seen in the glaring light of social media. Nothing could have demonstrated this better than the recent killing of Philando Castile by Police Officer JeronimoYanez who suspected his victim to be an armed robber; the video of the fatal shooting streamed live from the girl friend Diamond Reynold’s phone. While the case is still being investigated the officer who was away on temporary leave was recalled some days ago but for the protest of Black Lives Matter movement.
Then came Eric Garner who before his death was living in Staten Island, New York, Garner was killed in a chokehold that lasted for 15 seconds in spite of his complaint of being a sick man and the shout: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” that become the Black Lives Matter Movement chant. The New York Appeal Court let the officer who before a New York Daily News video was seen choking garner to death, off the hook. Worse of all, the jury ruled the public would not see the testimony it heard before refusing to indict the officer. Nearly always, this is a rehearsed script in a grand jury decision against black lives lost in the hands of the police.
Michael Brown was 18 when he was shot by Police Officer Darren Wilson August 9, 2014 in Fergusson Missouri. Protests were heavy with angry crowds from outside the region swelling the number and shouting “don’t shoot, don’t shoot, my hands are up” after watching the video and the pathetic entreaty of Eric before he was brutally shot. The debate nationwide was robust; people questioned if the police was really forthcoming in keeping a genuine relationship with blacks. Wilson was left off the hook expectedly by a jury which almost always is there to protect and empower the police even tacitly in killing more blacks.
In Cleveland 12 year old Tamir Rice lost his life over a toy gun. The Cleveland grand jury gave their verdict; Timothy Loehmann who killed Rice could not have known whether Rice had a toy gun.
Freddie Gray died while in police custody. He suffered spinal chord injuries while the police officer who killed him was released a week after police took him into custody
Walter Scott was accused of disobeying a day time traffic stop on April 4, 2015 in Charleston South Carolina. His car was found to have a non-functioning light. The man that shot him, police officer Michael Slager, was cleared of any offence. Although the video indicated Scott who was unarmed was shot from behind while he was running, Slager’s defence, which was contradictory was not considered a strong evidence for prosecuting him but the jury eventually indicted him for murder and the trial is scheduled to begin October 20, 2016.
Alton sterling’s death shook the state of New York with a ripple effect-demonstrations and protests. Sterling was accused of using his gun to threaten someone while selling his CDs. People around recorded the shootings
President Obama seeking to calm the frayed nerves of a nation shaken by Castile’s death observed that “when incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts, and that should trouble all of us.” He also spoke during the memorial of the five officers killed by an insane for the five officers killed Michael Xavier Johnson by seeking for unity at a time the nation was seemingly divided on racial issues.
Monique Pressley (Civic Rights Attorney) who participated in the Town Hall meeting observed that between 400 and 1000 black people are involved in police shootings every year, using the New York Times as her source, adding that there is tremendous animosity between police and black communities. Pressley who said blacks have made significant landmarks in their fight for equality, social justice and civil rights also noted the advent of social media gives the impression that race relations may have been badly hit because this is a season the world knows everything that is happening almost about the same time.
It hits the jobless, the socially disconnected, neighbourhoods that are not adequately catered for. The social media Pressley stressed creates both empathy and lack of sympathy. It shows us what we are the way we are with our racial prejudices.
Take the case of Milo Yiannopoulos who uses his tweeter account to advance his alt-movement and his mentor Steve Bannon as well as their Presidential candidate Donald Trump who has insulted blacks severally in this election season. Last month, Yiannopoulos blasted tweeter for permanently suspending his account “With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists.”
New Enemy for the Guns
A popular sculptor Okpu Eze’s titled one of his works ‘Sentinel’ referring a soldier as a gate keeper. What happens when the soldier points his gun at the citizen he is meant to protect? Guns are not meant to be idle anyway. Once in a while the owners want to prove that point and the consequences are diverse. So the guns that were used to subdue the enemy abroad are back and have been deployed to a new enemy frontline where the African Americans are the predators who must be hunted down. So will American guns returning from the Iraqi and Afghan war zones and now on duty with police, continue to assault the enemy within who according to Yiannopoulos are the Muslim terrorists and members of the Black Lives Matter movement? This questions resonates with the argument of one of the Town Hall speakers from Reston Virginia who said it was unfortunate the police in the US treats blacks differently.
Letting Officers off the Hook
According to Sydney, a member of the Town Hall, in answering a question from Bell, said there was need to demilitarize the police force because a heavily armed combat police ready creates a hostile environment and distracts in the conversation. Another was asked where millennials stood in this conversation because they seem to be less racially exposed, she agreed they are not noticeable in college precincts like in Michigan; they are there but not very obvious. Just as some noted not all police are bad; there are good and bad police just as there are good and bad people.
Why are officers not convicted?
A 23 year old Guinean immigrant Ahmed Diallo was shot on February 4, 1999 by four plain clothed men from the NYCPD. Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon and Kenneth Boss fired 41 shots with 19 getting to Diallo just outside the front of his home at 1157 Wheeler Avenue in South Bronx. They were acquitted of a 2nd degree murder for which they were charged. There were calls for reforms especially on matters that violate the constitution and anti-discrimination issues.
How much effort has gone into the execution of these reforms by the Department of Justice asked Aniagolu especially on police over-reaction in the course of duty? Is there much hope for justice, Michelle Jawando a civil attorney at the Centre for American Progress was asked and she fired the first shot observing there has been over the years this pattern of police misconduct in many communities but in dealing with the cases the DOJ looks at the full complement of the evidence to launch an investigation. Communities want accountability, she stressed. According to Edward Hailes, a civil rights attorney from the Advancement Project, there is a movement on the way, the people may not be happy but something is happening because the killing and the profilings are unacceptable. When the behaviour of police is completely unconstitutional, the DOJ is compelled to take some action to address the issue. The DOJ, Hailes maintained, receives cooperation with police even in the call for reforms by the police departments. Investigation, he noted, is all about trust.
Jawando told Aniagolu in response to his question whether Diamond Reynold’s video of the killing of her boy friend would be admissible in the cause of investigation. She said yes adding that transparency and a modicum of trust were all that communities needed in dealing with the DOJ on issues of this nature on admissibility of Diamond’s video in the investigation. Accountability comes into focus when the people want to vote their people.
Unrealistic Expectations from the Obama Presidency
Has the first black president exacerbated racial tensions in America? Jawando spoke of this unrealistic expectation of what a Barack Obama presidency would translate to for the African American; the symbolic presence of the first African American family in the White House has been an amazing moment. “I was at the DNC when Michelle Obama spoke of the children of slaves playing in the White House,” noting that her colleagues wonder what we mean when we say black lives matter; what about white lives matter?”
Eric Ham of The Hill Newspaper added that as a nation, we are yet to figure out how we should live among the different races. How would history judge Obama? His positon, he stressed, would be seen as largely symbolic. “As a nation we have never really figured out how to start the conversation. People believe blacks have come a long way, others like Donald Trump think otherwise. Jawando agreed blacks are still trying to grapple with racism. Progress comes in a moment of crisis, she noted. Yes we have now black CEOs; women are now admitted into the prestigious Augusta Golf Club. It has all happened at an enormous price.
Are we then moving forward? Michelle thought so noting she has been privileged to work in situations of profound experience, that African Americans have come a long way from the age of slavery. This is not the worst time for African Americans, she insisted.
Background checks for gun users, a member of the audience said were necessary for public safety. The Harvard student added he would see a clearance process put in place rather than feel unsafe in public places like libraries; there is need to regulate the carriage of guns and magazines. Ham’s emphasis came back to – the police de-militarisation.
The Political Angle
Symone Sanders a former media manager for Bernie Sanders now working with the Clinton campaign called Donald Trump a man full of inflammatory remarks; a man who said black lives were lousy does not deserve their votes, which is why he has failed to visit black communities. Omarosa Manigualt-Trump surrogate would not have any of that, adding that Trump has told African Americans he would not take them for granted. People are dying in Chicago, Detroit, New York; what do you have to lose if you vote for Trump who is ready to take you out of darkness? We will do some incredible outreach in black communities in the days and weeks ahead, she assured.
The women were hot on each other but both Bell and Aniogolu pleaded asking them to take it easy. Manigualt asked Sanders what golfing President Obama and Clinton were doing without a visit to flood ravaged Louisiana unlike Trump who was not playing with his grandchild like Clinton does. She said she was organising meeting with African American leaders, Director of African American Outreach for Trump “Trump is talking to African Americans. I organized meetings. He just met 100 pastors. Trump talked about police, told African Americans they would not be taken for granted.” How is Trump rebuilding trust between police and the people Sanders asked? Secretary Clinton, she said, is interested in training and retraining; supporting legislation that will help rebuild the police and the trust with the people whereas the Trump Crime Bill is very detrimental to African Americans
A comment from the audience told the Trump campaign surrogate that his candidate was a bad sale, a huge joke who does not deserve black votes “Candidate Trump has offended African Americans. Secretary Clinton has a lot of outreach to do, said Hailes. Can Trump get more of the black votes? Less than one percent, he predicted. A young black man from Arizona wondered why white teens walk around and nobody stops them “but I get stopped.”
Broken window theory proposed by James Wilson and George Kelling simply suggests that the disorder in a neighbourhood can be associated with criminal activities of the past but the Town Hall concluded it is racial and discriminatory. Yes there could be a drop in crime rate whereas there is a dramatic increase in incarceration of many young African Americans through the broken window effect.” It affects families.
It creates room for a disproportionate amount of police attention in black dominated communities. Policemen work towards targets aimed at arresting and incarcerating members of these communities even when there is no need for this,” said a contributor and to fix these broken communities there should be an attempt to make them crime free. The way to go about it is for the police to be chosen from among the communities they are expected to serve, said the lady from Burkina Faso. Aniagolu agreed noting that that was the British system.
Radio host Jamila Bey said she has no problem with police because she is one of them and they understand each other. Besides, growing up you are taught how to relate with them. She is against streaming police because of the consequences. “It could be dangerous,” she advised. Police in America have turned from serving and protecting the people to ensuring certain people are kept where they are. Why? It is a culture. These things are real.”
So where do we go from here? Bey advocated for a police community board with actual people who live among the people as their policemen. Hailes agreed adding the solution must be locally driven.
“There is hope,” Bey concluded.