Tackle violence without demonizing police

Rather than being portrayed as the enemy of low-income blacks, police should be seen instead as the community’s strongest allies against recurring violence.

By ROBERT L. WOODSON SR. | March 2, 2015

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn’s emotional response to a reporter’s question following a Fire and Police Commission meeting in November on the police killing of Dontre Hamilton is still reverberating around the nation on social media. 

The reporter’s question suggested that Flynn was being disrespectful to protesters at the meeting by being on his cellphone. The chief exploded in anger as he explained that he was following the developments of a 5-year-old girl being killed in a drive-by shooting while perched on her grandfather’s lap in the family’s home. He said that protesters know all about the last three people killed by police over the past few years but could not name one of the last three homicide victims in the city.

“Too many pseudo leaders have absolutely nothing to say about the devastating impact of deadly violence on their communities. They are silent; they’re M.I.A.,” he said in a local radio interview in January.

I shared Flynn’s lament with our network of grass-roots leaders throughout the country, praising him for his passion and his honesty in calling the black community to task.

Rather than being portrayed as the enemy of low-income blacks, police should be seen instead as the community’s strongest allies against recurring violence. Many of the people who are perpetuating mistrust of law enforcement do not have to suffer the consequences of their actions. Civil rights leaders, professional sports figures and celebrity entertainers tend to live in gated, secured communities where they are protected from the mayhem that is rampant in inner city neighborhoods.

In fact, the continued cry that “Black Lives Matter” seems to apply only when a black life is taken by a white police officer. This one-sided emphasis can result in dramatic increases in black-on-black murder due to “police nullification.”

Thirteen years ago in Cincinnati, a white police officer’s fatal shooting of a black youth prompted protests. For over a year, the city was boycotted; police were vilified. Some officers decided they would not police black neighborhoods as aggressively so as to avoid being labeled racist. The homicide rate in low-income black neighborhoods skyrocketed. None of the organizers, pastors or civil rights officials who demonstrated lost children, brothers or sisters because they did not live in those crime-ridden communities.

This issue of black-on-black violence is personal, as five members of my family have fallen victim to predatory street violence. The need to identify and support effective responses to this plague is of paramount importance. Black America is fighting internal terrorism. Every six months, more than 3,000 blacks are murdered by other blacks — a toll equivalent to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack every six months.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. advised that self-criticism is the highest form of maturity.  External challenges have never in the past resulted in the level of internal violence we are witnessing today. During the 10 years of the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate was 25%, the black unemployment rate exceeded 40%. When black America was in the iron grip of segregation and daily lynchings and had no political representation, elderly blacks were not afraid of their grandchildren as some are today. Strong family ties prevailed against the scourge of racism. Before the 1950s, marriage rates were equivalent between blacks and whites, and our churches were the moral glue that held us together and shielded us against the many external affronts. 

Elements of these old centers of moral excellence continue today in Milwaukee. The quality that makes them effective also renders them invisible. They are not protesting against external forces. They are quietly confronting the enemy within. These local groups are virtual transformation and redemption factories that promote personal responsibility among some of the most fallen members of society.

The following are just a few of many that I can cite along with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise’s Milwaukee Violence-Free Zone partners, Running Rebels and Milwaukee Christian Center.

The Alma Center works locally and nationally to break the cycle of domestic violence in families by changing abusive men.

Community Warehouse provides long-term employment opportunities and family support to people who have a history of being unemployed or incarcerated.

New Creatures in Christ is a recovery community that helps addicts, the homeless and others who have endured significant trauma to regain their dignity and become productive citizens.

Operation Dream pairs boys with positive role models, engages them in constructive activities, takes them on field trips and teaches them to work.

Let’s end the protests against police and begin instead to have a citywide dialogue on solutions to the challenges within the black community. Let’s begin to listen to the voices of those with answers, not those who are armed only with grievances.

By saying this, am I denying the need to hold law enforcement accountable? Certainly not. Police have the power of the state and should be held to a higher standard. They also have the right to expect fair treatment, as does any citizen.

The popularity of one program, Students Talking it Over with Police (STOP), is evidence that community and police collaboration can have a positive impact. The program that began in the 5th District five years ago has grown to include 50 officers who work with students in 45 Milwaukee schools. In the words of one of the program’s graduates, who said the program gave him insight into the life of a police officer: “You are just another person … trying to help the community and serving the community.”

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, based in Washington, D.C. This column expresses his personal opinion.