A notion struck me as I studied the continuing stream of news about the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo.
After his funeral I wondered, could we be witnessing the birth of another historic civil rights movement?
If you are white, you may think that’s a ridiculous notion. A recent Pew Research Center Poll reveals that 80 percent of blacks believe the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.
But, only 37 percent of whites agreed. Even more troubling: 47 percent of white Americans think the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
This signals a disturbing disconnect. When 80 percent of one group of people says there is a basic human rights problem in America the rest of us ought to be willing to listen and discuss.
The circumstances surrounding Brown’s death have still not been adequately explained, to my mind, and coming on the heels of three other fatal incidents involving unarmed black men and white police officers the basic questions seem clear: Are cops in America too prone to strong-armed tactics when it comes to black and brown people?
Or do young minorities lack respect for others – especially the police – and engage in behaviors that invite the trouble? How can the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect be improved?
After Ferguson endured two weeks of looting and arson, demonstrations and violence there were genuine calls for calm and a national discussion about why another unarmed black kid had been shot and killed by a peace officer. Speakers inside the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church spoke about going forward.
Eric Davis urged the packed church crowd to immortalize his cousin’s death with a renewed effort to advance civil rights. “Show up at the voting booths. Let your voices be heard and let everyone know that we have had enough of this,” Davis said.
Those who came to the service openly said they believe Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson had grossly overreacted that awful Saturday afternoon. Why didn’t he simply arrest Brown if he was breaking a law or use a Taser instead of a deadly gun?
In other parts of town, supporters of Wilson’s answered with the still uncorroborated police version of the events of that day: The six-foot four-inch, 290 pound teenager had struck first and fast, wrestling for the officer’s gun and driving him to use deadly force to defend himself.
But there was no forum for the two sides to talk to each other.
Even the often grandstanding Rev. Al Sharpton, who flew in from New York to attend the funeral, seemed to understand that Brown’s death could be a pivotal event to improving race relations. “There have been other times in history that became seminal moments, and this is one of those moments,” Sharpton told the congregation. “And, this young man, for whatever reason has appealed to all of us that we’ve got to solve this and not continue this.”
In strong language Sharpton urged all African-Americans to push for positive change instead of hitting the streets with violent protests and “sitting around having ghetto pity parties.”
Just what Sharpton and other civil rights activists plan to “solve this” remains a mystery. But here’s a challenge: get organized. Make the nation truly understand what life is like for inner city minorities who encounter police in their neighborhoods. Take a page from dignified heroes of the past who peaceably fought for their rights.
As Rosa Parks did in Alabama in 1955 when she quietly refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person and challenged her arrest. As students in North Carolina did in 1960 when they staged silent sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
None of them stopped their peaceful demonstrations until segregation policies crumbled under nationwide public pressure and the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
To those who declare themselves today’s “community leaders” I say, launch a nationwide movement for change instead of simply showing up to scream into television cameras at the scene of the latest controversial death. Galvanize your people and send them forth in productive and noble ways to change what is wrong.
Is it right that in 2014 minorities must still fight for what they see as their full rights as American citizens? No.
No more so than it is right that a police officer is automatically condemned and branded as a criminal when a fatality occurs on his watch.
For the Rosa Parks strategy to work in today’s world everyone will, first, have to admit we’ve got a racial problem. And, second, all involved will have to convince their constituents to act responsibly.
Minority communities have to re-dedicate themselves to promoting a cohesive family structure stressing the importance of education and setting goals. They should instill respect for human life and the idea that a good work ethic means success.
Our youths who embrace the temptation of drugs and criminal activity as a suitable way to make a living must be redirected. The startlingly high number of black-on-black crimes has to be acknowledged and addressed.
The challenge to law enforcement? Adopt new policing practices that focus on community relations and better management of tense situations.
Anyone with a brain understands that police officers put their lives on the line every single day and their dedication needs to be honored, their need to protect themselves acknowledged.
But there can surely be fewer bold displays of military-like might, increased use of Tasers instead of guns, more dashboard cameras to capture the undisputable facts of a situation and updated training for officers who patrol at-risk areas.
Police academies should include specific course work in race relations and psychological techniques to diffuse disputes.
But there is a third component: The rest of us. We have to truly listen to and understand each other.
This can be an important crossroad in the way issues of race and poverty and crime and confrontation are dealt with – but only if we seize the moment.