NAACP Convention in Cincy: “We Can’t Breathe”

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Yesterday, the summer from hell got even hotter. Three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers were fatally shot and three others were wounded after responding to a 911 call reporting “a guy carrying a weapon” near a part of the city that had seen protests calling for police accountability in recent weeks. That guy has now been identified as Gavin Long, a 29-year-old former Marine. Despite efforts by some commentators to tie the killing to Black Lives Matter organizing, little else is known about Long’s life or the motivation behind the shooting.

What is known is that Sunday’s bloodshed is the latest in a string of mass killings and episodes of gun violence that have rocked the country for the past two months and beyond. These highly publicized tragedies include the June massacre of a largely Latino and LGBTQ crowd at a nightclub in Orlando, the recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—both black men—at the hands of police in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, MN, and the ambush of Dallas police during an otherwise nonviolent protest earlier this month. Last week marked one year since the mysterious death of Sandra Bland while in police custody following a traffic stop in Waller County, Texas. Yesterday marked two years since a New York City police officer killed Eric Garner using a chokehold. Because that death (like Sterling’s, Castile’s, and many others in recent years) was recorded and shared via social media, the world watched as Garner, an unarmed black man selling loose cigarettes in Long Island, died while telling the man who strangled him, “I can’t breathe.”

It feels like the nation as a whole is struggling to catch its breath.

On Saturday, the national conversation about the role of policing came to Cincinnati by way of the national NAACP convention, which kicked off this weekend and will continue through Wednesday featuring the theme “Our Lives Matter, Our Votes Count.” Corey Pegues and Eric Broyles, two authors of books on law enforcement’s relationship to communities of color, joined local organizer and activist Iris Roley for an NAACP-hosted presentation to around two dozen conference attendees. Lezley McSpadden (the mother of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed black man shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014) was originally scheduled to appear on the panel, but wasn’t present on Saturday.

Pegues’ background allows him to understand multiple perspectives during times like these. During his teenage years he dabbled in the drug trade, then went on to serve 21 years with the New York Police Department, an organization he described as “the sixth largest army in the world.” Though now retired from the force, in 2008 he became the first black commanding officer of the 67th precinct in Brooklyn. He was one of a handful of black officers who reached executive-level positions within the department, and therein lies part of the problem as he sees it in cities such as New York. People of color may make up around 50 percent of the NYPD, but they’re mostly low ranking, he said. “There’s no power from minorities,” he told me in an interview prior to the panel discussion, and that means when the time comes for disciplining rogue cops, honest soul-searching related to race and policing, and instituting significant policy reforms, there are few people at the table who have roots in the most aggressively policed communities. That rootedness and the perspective that comes with it are key. “In black communities, police hunt. In white communities, they protect and serve,” Pegues said.

Law enforcement leadership with ties to communities of color and a willingness to break the blue wall of silence are important, according to Pegues, who said Saturday that he encourages young black people to take the entry test, become officers, and change the institution from the inside. Broyles and Roley offered outsiders’ perspectives. Broyles is co-author of “Encounters With Police: The Black Man’s Survival Guide,” which he wrote with a childhood friend, a fellow black man who’s a veteran police officer in Hamilton. According to Broyles, others can take the long view and work on reform, but that’s not his focus. “It’s going to take decades to solve the problem, so how do we keep people alive in the meantime?” he asked the crowd Saturday. His book offers advice on how to survive a police encounter unscathed so that a person who feels they’ve been unfairly targeted can make it home to file a written complaint, file a lawsuit, and pressure for systemic change through voting and lobbying elected officials.

Roley, who has played a key role in reforming Cincinnati’s police force through the Collaborative Agreement, offered the conversation some historical perspective by reminding the audience that between 1995 and 2001, 15 unarmed black men were killed by local police. The work she and others began even prior to the highly publicized shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas by CPD led to a process of reform now known nationally as the Cincinnati model, she said. Fifteen years ago “was pre-social media, so Cincinnati had to focus on its own problems,” Roley said Saturday, highlighting how smart phone cameras and networks such as Twitter and Facebook have in recent years made death at the hands of police national and international news in the span of hours or days. But the relative lack of broader scrutiny at the turn of the 21st century left Cincinnati activists to handle that spate of police violence as they saw fit. In the end, pressure from community channeled through a class-action federal lawsuit and the Collaborative Agreement has made CPD look good in comparison to other departments nationwide, Roley said. “Now they get to get grants and get money from the DOJ [U.S. Department of Justice].”

I can’t think of a single time anyone on Saturday’s panel referenced “Black Lives Matter,” either the national organizing network that carries the name or the phrase that’s become a rallying cry for people nationwide concerned about police violence. That lack of acknowledgement could be a sign of a generational divide—there were no young people among the speakers—or it could be a sign of the rift between how today’s racial justice movement is portrayed in national media and how it actually looks on the ground in cities like Cincinnati. It could also be testament to the context in which the event took place: The NAACP bills itself as the country’s oldest civil rights movement, and in such moments it feels obvious that legacy civil rights organizations are playing a role that’s much different from that of new groups led by millennials with strong direct action and social media components.

Whatever the reason, Saturday’s event made it clear that many Americans feel the need to make it explicit that black lives matter and are calling for a reinvention of policing. In moments like this one, when the questions so obviously outweigh the answers and the stakes feel so high, it’s wise to listen to these conversations and participate.

Dani McClain reports on race, gender, policy and politics. She is a contributor to The Nation and a fellow with The Nation Institute. She lives in Cincinnati. You can follow her on Twitter at @drmcclain.

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