There are seven reasons why I’m hopeful despite the heart-breaking travesties of justice we have witnessed in Missouri, New York, Ohio, California and countless other places around the country, as police officers continue to kill black boys and men with impunity. Those reasons are:
· Ashley Yates, Millennial Activists United
· Rasheen Aldridge, Young Activists St. Louis
· Brittany Packnett, St. Louis educator and activist
· T-Dubb-O, St. Louis hip-hop artist
· James Hayes, Ohio Students Association
· Phillip Agnew, Dream Defenders
· Jose Lopez, Make the Road New York
These seven brilliant young leaders met with President Obama on December 1, 2014 to push for positive steps to address the criminal abuse of power on the part of police in our country. The offered a series of common sense proposals that should be enacted immediately:
· The federal government using its power to prosecute police officers that kill or abuse people.
· Removing local district attorneys from the job of holding police accountable, and instead having independent prosecutors at the local level charged with prosecuting officers.
· The establishment of community review boards that can make recommendations for police misconduct, instead of allowing police departments to police themselves.
· Defunding local police departments that use excessive force or racially profile. Instead of having the Department of Justice (DOJ) wholesale giving more than $250 million to local police departments annually, DOJ should only fund departments that agree to adopt DOJ best practices for training and meaningful community input.
· The demilitarization of local police departments.
· Investing in programs that provide alternatives to incarceration, such as community-led restorative justice programs and community groups that educate people about their rights.
President Obama met with these young people because he could no longer ignore the movement for justice they are igniting around the country. They recognize that the problem is not a few “bad” cops. The problem is a broken criminal justice system that is designed to protect its own and is structured in such a way as to reinforce white privilege. The issue isn’t personal prejudice but systemic racism. We have to change the system.
One of the consequences of the age of social media, smart phones, and instant communications is that police jurisdictions can no longer sustain the lie that police misconduct is a function of the occasional rogue cop. What might have been passed off as a local anomaly in the past is now revealed to be part of a persistent and invidious pattern of unequal justice, excessive use of force, and corrupt cronyism among police and prosecutors. We are discovering that what is happening in my city is not unique. Ferguson is everywhere.
African Americans have, of course, always known this. What is different now is that white people must grapple with this truth. It is creating enormous cognitive dissonance as white people struggle to square their belief in the legitimacy of the criminal justice system with the evidence of their own eyes and ears. We are in a moment of tremendous disorientation in white America, not unlike the response to television images of Birmingham police attacking peaceful protestors with dogs and fire hoses during the 1963 Southern Christian Leadership Conferences’ civil rights campaign there.
That campaign exposed injustice for the entire world to see, and galvanized passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The new civil rights movement being energized by the young leaders who met with President Obama has the same potential today.
This movement is providing a great service to white America. It is providing us with the opportunity to wake-up: to cleanse the lens of perception and see more clearly the reality of racism. It is also issuing a call to repentance: to change our minds and bring our actions into conformity with the demands of justice. The new civil rights movement is offering us the gift of wholeness.
In this season of Advent, these young leaders are our collective “John the Baptist” crying out in the wilderness. Mike Huckabee referred to them as thugs. I call them prophets. I’m hopeful that white America will listen to them, and not to the Herods and Huckabees.