Up in arms over killings by cops

Posted: August 15, 2014

THEY GATHERED in twilight in the shadow of the letters "LOVE" in the heart of Center City - hundreds of them, carrying signs with smiling, haunting images of the dead or written pleas like "Please Mr. Police Officer, Don't Murder My Sons." At 7:15, they began chanting names, finding a cadence.

"Mike Brown! Rekia Boyd! Sheron Jackson! Ervin Jefferson!"

At the back of last night's LOVE Park vigil sat Joyce Hall, 55, a retired corrections officer and grandmother from Upper Darby, who had just asked a reporter, "How many times do we have to protest - how many times do we have to sing sad songs . . . 'We Shall Overcome?' " She spoke of how her three grandsons were taught at age 5, or younger, to speak to police and to keep their hands in the air, even if their nose itches.

"Osman Hernandez! Oscar Grant! Miriam Carey! Sean Bell!"

At 7:20, the roll call stopped and the hundreds stood mute for 60 seconds, including Naweh Diggs, 24, a recent University of Pennsylvania grad now living in North Philadelphia. She's said she'd learned just the night before through Facebook of the national moment of silence prompted by the Mike Brown killing by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and said she had to be there because "I felt this keep happening over and over and over."

The Philadelphia vigil was one of dozens from coast to coast that drew thousands to mourn Brown's death and to air their grievances over the police-involved deaths of other young black men as well as the militarized cops in the St. Louis suburb who'd lobbed tear gas and aimed high-powered weapons at protesters earlier this week.

Last night, with Missouri State Highway Patrol officers taking over for embattled local police on the streets of Ferguson, a relative sense of calm finally descended - but the national conversation that began even as Brown's lifeless body was still on the street last Saturday only continues to grow louder.

Why have there been so many recent reports of unarmed black men killed in police encounters - not just Brown, an 18-year-old just three days away from starting college, but John Crawford, killed by cops in Ohio as he held a BB gun he'd picked up from a Walmart shelf; Eric Garner, who was arrested on Staten Island for selling untaxed cigarettes and died in a police chokehold; and Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old mentally challenged man shot by an officer in Los Angeles?

Are young black men the victim of racial profiling and bias, or are other factors behind the names that were called out at last night's vigils? Why is learning how to behave during a traffic stop a part of an African-American's upbringing, just like learning multiplication tables or how to throw a curveball? Will the circle of distrust in mostly black neighborhoods ever be unbroken?

The Rev. Larry Patrick, of Redeem Baptist Church in Strawberry Mansion - who grew up witnessing the strained police-community relations of the Frank Rizzo era in Philadelphia during the 1970s - said he believes things have improved locally. He credits efforts at community policing - beat cops getting to know a neighborhood's residents - and a police force coming closer to looking like the city's population.

Critics have noted that in Ferguson, the 53-man police department is 94 percent white, even as the public is nearly two-thirds black. In Philadelphia, whites comprise 37 percent of the population and 52 percent of the police force, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.

For Patrick, despite his optimism that things have improved in Philadelphia, he still tells congregants the same things he tells his 17-year-old son - to show deference to law enforcement, to keep your hands visible, that "if you're user-friendly it will be OK."

Such advice would probably be welcomed by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who said in a phone interview last night that unfortunately "escalation is the easy part" when police and the public encounter each other, while "de-escalation is the hard part."

Ramsey, who like most Americans has followed the unrest in Missouri with growing concern, conceded that generally "we can do a better job in policing of teaching and training officers in de-escalation." He suggested more role-playing - not just in officer training but for young people who might learn what a traffic stop looks like from an officer's perspective - might be one way to build better trust and understanding.

City Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. argued that one of the best ways political leaders can build better understanding is through policies that will show black kids at a young age that they are valued by society. That, he said, would mean spending more money on things like early childhood education and less of an investment in prisons.

"You simply have to turn on the lightbulb in young black boys' heads," Goode said. "By the time they're 7 or 8, they're faced with a bunch of societal barriers that are hard to overcome."

At last night's vigil in LOVE Park, everyday citizens spoke of those barriers - some large, and some bizarre. Hall, the Upper Darby grandmother, spoke of how her brother - a city corrections officer - was once pulled over by cops with his 12-year-old biracial daughter, because they wanted to ask the girl if she was being kidnapped. Like the others, Hall prayed for an end to the racial misunderstanding, the killings, and the whole cycle.

"You see when they had the dogs out on the people [in Ferguson], it looked like we were back in Martin Luther King days," she said, "and this was in 2014."

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: ph.ly/Attytood.com

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