Now that the cacophonous sounds of righteous indignation over the shooting and killing of a young Missouri man named Michael Brown has died down; a few words from this corner.
In the Civil Rights era of my life, a great deal of time was spent marching, protesting, meeting, arguing, and teaching on the issues of Police and Community relations. For most of the 20th Century, battles were fought in communities, laws were proposed but never passed, and police turned a blind eye to the numerous neighborhood lynchings of African American Men that took place throughout the nation and particularly in the south. To this day, the absolute truth about who killed Emmitt Till and who bombed the Church in Birmingham is still out there.
In Jacksonville, Florida the policeman who shot and killed Michael Alexander at Boulevard and the MLK Expressway was never charged with anything. There were no witnesses, no evidence except a dead motorcyclist and a patrolman following this young man allegedly for speeding. How did a traffic citation turn into a death sentence? There were protests and marches, but no violence. There could have been, but something more profound happened.
The Sheriff at the time, former FBI agent Dale Carson, immediately met with community leaders privately and publicly to find out what he already know could be done. Community policing began along with a slow hiring of African American police officers who would no longer be bound to patrolling “Black” neighborhoods, but who became policemen in fact rather than symbolically. The real change for Jacksonville’s force did not happen until the next Sheriff (Jim McMillan) made it a practice not just a reaction to an issue.
The African American Community discussed among themselves the basics: “You don’t need to agree with why you are stopped by the cops, but you had better respect the uniform until you can get a lawyer.” Arguing your case in the street with a man (and now women) who have a gun, a shotgun, a taser, a billy-club a car and access to instant backup, is not the wisest course of action for anyone. It is especially true when you start from that place that says “this person is doing this to me because I’m Black.”
This is not to justify the action taken by the Ferguson, Missouri Policeman. But it is to say that a healthy respect for authority until you get in a position to right the wrong done against you is now available in this country. All of the protesting, song singing, preaching and praying will not change the facts of what happened or what could have happened had the issue not escalated to a killing… because of what? Walking in the middle of the street?