Part Two: Bespoke Solutions
As the days turn a way from Michael Brown’s funeral, thus finally laying to rest his thrice-autopsied young body, Ferguson, Missouri, is now — more than ever — ripe and ready for the change that can carry this predominantly black and woefully underemployed community forever forward.
We Cincinnatians know this because we survived the escalating tumult of 15 black men who died at the hands of or while encountering our own police force, but it wasn’t until the April 7, 2001 police shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas that we all — police, politicians and citizenry — learned some rough lessons.
Our Dear Ferguson, here are some bespoke solutions from one wounded and reborn city to another.
Where are your leaders? Your real leaders? During our protests, boycotts, marches and meetings, there were countless people from Cincinnati and elsewhere who used us to try to make careers and names for themselves. They turned out to simply be divisive blowhards, but we needed them, too, because they ultimately showed us all the kinds of people we lived among — our local and national neighbors. As they haphazardly played The Race Card they helped us discover our own power and capabilities deep within. Like you, we too were besieged by the NAACP, the New Black Panther Party, the reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson; we also had homegrown faith-based groups, a feel-good panel called Community Action Now (CAN), The Black Fist and gay rights groups who morphed the specificities of racism into a blur of human rights issues, which didn’t sit well with homophobic black preachers. In all, most of these groups had individual agendas and weren’t speaking to one another. Likewise, some of your leaders feel disenfranchised from big-ticket folks like Attorney General Eric Holder and Gov. Jay Nixon. Please tell them it doesn’t matter who gets snapped meeting with whom. The real stakeholders are the parents, small business owners and young adults who’ll be left in Ferguson after the clean up and camera crews have gone. Think counterintuitively, look to non-traditional leaders with progressive ideas who don’t owe anyone any favors.
Organize yourselves; make a joyful, organized noise. If you’re lucky enough to get federal intervention, then you must have doable, itemized demands — broken things (police department procedures, police hiring practices, lack of jobs, safe, affordable housing, lackluster schools) — that have long needed fixing but that you haven’t had the wherewithal to do anything about. There’s nothing like the anger after the shooting of a black kid to light the fire of progress. Use this tragedy to rebuild your town and your citizens’ collective self-esteem. The intervention of the Department of Justice and formation of the Collaborative Agreement felt stifling and patriarchal at the time, but we’d be lost now without them. They changed our policing practices, the ways citizens can lodge complaints and they guaranteed literal collaboration and transparency. Ask for the DOJ’s help if you haven’t already.
Make sure you’re ready for real change. It’s one thing to demand change and quite another to live with it when it comes, especially when that change comes with compromise and doesn’t look precisely like you’d planned. So when tangible change comes after the dust from tear gas has settled, you will probably feel left out, set aside. Literally atop the ground where Timothy Thomas died after running from cops for multiple seat belt infractions is a shiny new hipster playground called Gateway Quarter with bars, shops and restaurants that have displaced hundreds of poor black families and the bodegas they depended on. It’s a beautiful, sad, superficially cheerful place paid for, yes, by the blood and sweat of a police foot chase and a deadly shooting. Our city “leaders” were so afraid to desecrate the neighborhood and revamp it into something far removed from the shooting and riots that they hired a private development firm to take all the credit and all the flack for something only emotionally removed people could do — move unapologetically forward. It’s catapulted us into the 21st century and modernized our historic downtown but at great expense to lower classes. Economic disparity was part of the reason for our riots and subsequent boycotts.
Fire some folks. Stephen Roach, the cop who shot Thomas, moved to a different police force and, in the wickedest irony, pulled over Angela Leisure, Thomas’s mother, on a traffic stop sometime after the shooting. Neither said a word; Roach returned to his cruiser and drove away. Missouri Officer Darren Wilson should be re-assigned far away from Ferguson. He has breached the public’s trust. Police Chief Thomas Jackson should be fired for lack of public trust and inciting panic for releasing surveillance video of Brown the same day he finally released Wilson’s name as Brown’s shooter. Who can trust him to protect and serve again?
Make this about race, then don’t. As in the Civil Rights Movement, blacks and whites here protested together, got arrested together, went to court and defended one another together. It wasn’t until gays and lesbians entered the fray that black homophobia turned police issues into sexuality and class strife. Embarrassing. Distracting. Ferguson and St. Louis-area whites should make certain they’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with blacks in this until the very end. It will confuse racists and make it precisely the right kind of human rights struggle; it will have “community” stamped all over it, thereby erasing race. It will declare that Michael Brown is and could be everyone’s son unless, of course, he was a white boy. Then he’d still be alive with a written warning and a court date for walking in the street.
It all sounds easier than it really is.
It took Cincinnati years to get over 15 dead black men in five years. I could easily argue we still aren’t over it, especially when I drive through Gateway Quarter and see the shiny, happy people eating, drinking, shopping and reveling around the corner from Timothy’s unrestful place.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]