The day before Thanksgiving a group of protesters in Riverside joined thousands of demonstrators across the country, angry and frustrated that a grand jury declined to issue charges against Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen four months ago. The officer has since resigned from his position with the department in an effort to allow the city to heal as stated in his resignation letter.
The announcement of the grand jury’s decision sparked protests throughout the community that ranged from violent outbursts on the streets to silent signs of solidarity like the St. Louis Rams “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pre-game gesture by five players, to the online outpouring of empathy shown by the almost half a million people who shared, liked, or commented on The Oregonian newspaper’s photo of Portland Police Sergeant Brett Barnum hugging Devonte Hart, the young Black male protester with tears in his eyes whose mission in life has been to promote love and understanding through “Free Hugs”.
As I mentioned to a fellow newspaper publisher shortly after the violence erupted in Ferguson, I wasn’t surprised by the grand jury’s decision and unfortunately I wasn’t surprised by the unrest. It’s a pattern that has been repeated in cities across the country that have been marginalized and neglected. I am not surprised that thousands of Americans took to the streets, or to social media, or just sat silently in protest, but I admit I am tired. Tired of the empty gestures. Tired of the lack of articulation of a goal that will lead to systemic change. Tired of what has become “the spectacle of protest.”
I recently discussed my passion for 19th century American literature with a friend. My favorite writing took place in the decades leading up to the Civil War. People like Frederick Douglass, one of our country’s most outspoken abolitionists, wrote passionately about the need to end slavery in America. Writer/philosopher Henry David Thoreau penned Civil Disobedience after he was jailed for refusing to pay taxes to a country keeping a large percentage of its “citizens” in bondage. His treatise inspired generations of individuals across the globe to become “change makers” – from Ghandi and his fight against British imperialism in India to Dr. Martin Luther King’s fight for equal rights for Blacks in the segregated south to Cesar Chavez’s struggle on behalf of California’s farm workers. In all of these instances, the spectacle of protest was essential for change, but the spectacle was just a part of, and not the entire plan. There were clearly articulated goals with multi-pronged approaches. And an important element was “the franchise,” the key tenet of a democratic system. I wonder how many Ferguson protesters understand that important element of “civil disobedience.”
There are many critical issues that have been illuminated by the recent incidents in Ferguson:
The need to change the use of deadly force as the first and only option (remember it took only 90 seconds for Officer Wilson to shoot and kill the unarmed teenager from the moment he confronted him on the street), the need for stronger community/police relations, the de-militarization of our local police forces, and integration of police forces across the country, as well as eliminating disparities in a justice system that disproportionately targets and imprisons people of color…all of which are achievable and worthy goals that protesters can champion.
How change occurs is not magic. It’s not new. It’s not hidden in our libraries or schools or corporate offices. Change happens when citizens show up. But not just showing up to shut down an interstate… or destroy innocent small businesses in our communities…or throw bottles at empty City Hall buildings. But showing up when City Hall is open for business.
Take our region for example.
The week after the shooting of Michael Brown, we published an article on the successful use of body cameras by the Rialto Police Department. In the story our contributor Corey Arvin, interviewed not only the chief of police (who is appointed to his position) but Rialto Mayor Deborah Robertson (who is elected by the people, and who – along with the elected city council – approves the appointment of the chief to his post). The type of policing the city experiences is related to the city’s leadership, either the elected city council or the top city management. And most of these types of decisions are not made behind closed doors. They are part of a very public process.
I remember when my parents were frustrated with what was happening to minority students in schools on San Bernardino’s Westside. They became activists. They had no special education or training. We were a working class family. But they understood the power of their vote and voice. (This was before we actually owned the VOICE.) And when they weren’t happy with the progress they were making outside the system, my father ran for school board to make a difference from within the system. There was no spectacle without strategy and clear goals: improve the education of minority students in the district and open neighborhood schools in a part of the city that had very few left open. While in office my father made sure Muscott Elementary School was reopened and renamed Dr. Howard Inghram Elementary School, Franklin Middle School was reopened and renamed King Middle School, and he made sure before he retired after 12 years of service that the blueprint for the Westside’s first high school was part of the district’s master plan. Arroyo Valley High School now stands on what was an empty field for my entire childhood.
Yesterday, I traveled to Sacramento with my sister Lynn, as a guest of our mother for the first session of the 2015-16 State Assembly. My sister shared with me a passage from a book she is reading for her studies in Mediation. In the book The Crossroads of Conflict, author Kenneth Cloke, an expert on dispute resolution, argues that all conflicts are catalysts for learning…evolution, growth and wisdom move towards reconciliation, collaboration and community. “Interests therefore reflect not merely what people want, but why they want it,” he explains,”and as a result, encourage them to communicate at a deeper level, learn from each other, work more collaboratively, and redesign and transcend the antiquated dysfunctional power and rights based systems and structures that caused, aggravated, or sustained their dispute.”
With the recent incidents in Ferguson we are at a crossroads. We can continue the spectacle of protest or we can make real change. Ferguson can become a catalyst for substantive change in law enforcement throughout the nation and that should be a movement we all show up to support.