A Moment of Opportunity in Ferguson, and now in Baltimore

Carolyne Abdullah
April 28, 2015
The short list:
1999: Amadou Diallo, New York City
2001: Timothy Thomas, Cincinnati, OH
2005: Ronald Madison, New Orleans, LA
2006: Sean Bell, New York City
2012: Ramarley Graham, Bronx, NY
2014: Eric Garner, Staten Island, NY
others not named
2014: Michael Brown, Ferguson, MO
2015: Freddie Gray, West Baltimore, MD

We originally published this article on August 27, 2014 in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown. Today, sadly, as we mourn the death of Freddie Grey under police custody in West Baltimore, Md., the article is as relevant as it was last year. We offer it here again, in tribute to Freddie Grey, and with hope for change as communities and police authorities come together to address their distrust, frustration, pain, and anger.

Once again we find ourselves in this place – a place of tragedy, pain, outrage, frustration and confusion.

One tragedy in Ferguson – and now in West Baltimore – is that another mother, father, and community are experiencing a deep loss.  The life that was expected to progress will not; the dreams that were expected to be fulfilled will not.

A second tragedy is that another community has lost its trust in the very public institution – the police – created to be its servant and protector.

As the mother of three African-American young men, I feel this tragedy in the core of my being.  I have had “the talk” with them over the years about the relationship between young men of color and the criminal justice system in America and especially law enforcement.  Those have been painful conversations. 

Yet in the midst of my pain and grief for the family of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others, I also hold onto hope because of what I’ve seen in our work at Everyday Democracy.  Across the country, there are formal and informal leaders who understand that we can do better and who are committed to doing things differently.   

A group of people participate in the Michael Brown National Moment of Silence.We can and must act differently -- in our communities, and in our public institutions. We need to find meaningful ways of relating to each other across difference, of working together across racial/ethnic divides and across resident-police divides. We need to acknowledge and understand the reasons behind the lack of trust between communities of color and law enforcement.

At times like this, there is all-too brief media attention, with a spotlight on a particular event and a particular community. But that spotlight isn’t big enough. It fails to show the systemic nature of the divide between community members and the police. It fails to show the systemic nature of racism or the effects of structural inequities over time.  It fails to show the possibility for things to be different, of what it would look like if there were meaningful ways for all people to have a voice in the public decisions that affect their lives.

We are at a crossroads in America. 

We have the power to make the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray moments of opportunity as well as a movement.  We must use this opportunity to question our assumptions about “the other.”  We must be willing to reach across unfamiliar aisles, touch unfamiliar faces in efforts to build strong relationships, removing the false dichotomy of “us” vs. “them.”  We must be willing to take risks. 

We do not need to wait to ask ourselves some critical questions:  In what ways can I question my perceptions of “the other”? How can I build stronger and better relations with the people in the communities that I am charged to serve?  What can we do together to prevent another tragedy from happening elsewhere in America? How do we begin to think, talk and work differently together? 

A group of people participate in an anti-police-brutality rallyWhat is possible?  Starting in 2001, we and other national groups worked with Cincinnati in the aftermath of Timothy Thomas’s death; we have seen firsthand the power of coming together in the most difficult of times. That experience illustrates the power of a different kind of talk, a different kind of engagement. 

Working with a former police officer, then head of the Human Relations Commission, we were able to witness changes in community dynamics.  And while the work in Cincinnati continues, the stronger relationships there form the basis for a better way of working.

When a long-time African American community activist can say he has someone on the police force that he can call a friend, when they can partner on other issues like prisoner re-entry projects, you can feel a change is in the air.

Cincinnati represents one of the first steps in our journey of working with communities and police departments.   You will find other examples here, including a story of residents coming together with the police in their neighborhood after the death of Sean Bell.

With diligence, persistence, and courage we can forge not only a different kind of policing in America, but a different way for our public institutions to interact with those they serve.  I hold out the hope that one day “the talk” will no longer be necessary.

Check out some strategies to build trust and take action in the wake of Ferguson.


Photo credits: Flickr user Elvert Barnes

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