An editorial by Kamau Franklin was published in the Charleston Gazette and in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (although the AJC took the editorial liberty to change/dilute the title). Thanks AFSC staff in Philadelphia and Atlanta for supporting the publication. You can read the full editorial below or at the links above.
The killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner represent the tip of a dangerous iceberg of resentment and anger toward police conduct. Those tragedies have galvanized young people across the nation into sustained action and long-term strategies to reimagine policing in this country. It’s a development that all those who care about our common future should welcome — and join.
Starting Thursday, the actual birthdate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., young people, youth groups, and organizations will gather in 10 cities across the south and other locations throughout the U.S. to launch South Organizing Against Racism (SOAR). They will address the root causes of the killings, profiling, illegal stops, arrests, and incarceration that primarily target black and brown youth. They will also put forward their solutions to a crisis that has eroded what little trust existed between working class and poor communities of color and the police.
Standing against the criminalization of youth of color and standing up for solutions looks different in different cities, but all aim to address the tragic impact of police violence across the country.
A recent ProPublica study found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men. Gallop released a poll showing that one in four young black men recalled unfair treatment by police within the last 30 days.
Radley Balko’s recent investigative piece in The Washington Post, “How Municipalities Profit on Poverty in St. Louis County, Mo.,” documents how traffic stops that target the poor lead to fines, administrative court fees, and warrants. Nationally, the excessive use of traffic stops to line the coffers of cities and counties has long been an irritant to black and brown communities, one that has been allowed due to the lack of a cohesive challenge to these policies.
Recently, after 20 years of uninterrupted practice, New York City’s stop and frisk program was ruled unconstitutional. For the past several years, more than 500,000 stops per year took place against mostly black and brown men, with less than 10 percent leading to arrest.
It took community action, along with a legal and media strategy, to challenge these policies, which came to light after a young African immigrant was gunned down because police claimed they mistook his wallet for a gun. As an attorney who worked on one of the class-action lawsuits, I heard firsthand these men’s feelings of violation and harassment. Feeling that they had nowhere to turn, people built up a hostility. The situation was not helped by the general attitude of police, which is to “take control” of the situation by issuing threats if the person stopped does not comply.
The disproportionate number of men of color imprisoned, taken away from their families, stripped of voting rights and of their humanity, is another issue young people are taking on through SOAR. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.
Those who need rehabilitation services are unable to receive them in today’s prison system, where punishment and profit are the directives of the day. The prison system includes wrongly incarcerated and/or victims of excessive sentences who are all left without skills needed once released. Many simmer with a sense of betrayal at being used as cannon fodder for a prison industrial complex that cares little about their individual lives.
It is this disparate treatment that has led to the reactions produced by the unwarranted killings of young black men.
Young people and allies have poured into the streets not only to say “Black Lives Matter” but to demand substantive changes and an end to the over-policing of young black men in particular. No other explanation suffices for the historical and present treatment of black people at the hands of the police; it can only be seen through a lens of targeted racial and class profiling that, if unaddressed, will continue to lead this society to the doorstep of racial unrest and heightened conflict.
If the police and governing institutions don’t pull back from treating fellow citizens as “war combatants” to test out the latest federally issued military weaponry, then the “beloved community” Dr. King dreamed about will not be realized. Instead, we will be left with the nightmare outlined in his 1967 speech detailing the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence abroad and at home.
Kamau Franklin is the South Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization working to build peace with justice in the United States and across the world.