The slaying of Michael Brown has cast a tragic pall over race relations in America, and the faces of his heart-broken parents provide the emblematic image of the summer of 2014. It should have been otherwise.
As the investigation into the facts of this horrifying incident proceeds, we are left with the painful, inescapable realization that our justice system has brutally failed once again, for there can be no justification whatsoever for the police slaying of an unarmed young man. The preliminary forensic evidence adds further outrage to the public reaction, and we are left to wonder how a travesty of justice of this magnitude could occur in the 21st century. Have we learned nothing from numerous incidents of police overreaction resulting in tragedy in recent years?
The tragedy was compounded by the release of a video, which appeared to be intended to discredit the victim and suggest that somehow killing him was justified. We have seen the outrage from people responding to the video. But where is the human decency and shame of those who would use such a video to try to whitewash the slaying of an unarmed young man?
There is no mystery, however, as to why the community has risen up in outrage. And yes, rioting, looting and destruction of property are unacceptable, if understandable, responses. In the words of my father, Martin Luther King, Jr., "violence is the language of the unheard."
But it is absolutely critical that community leaders and activists put an end to the rioting, because the credibility of the protest depends upon it. As my father shared in a speech he delivered in 1960, "if we ever succumb to the temptation of using violence in our struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness." Conversely, the American Civil Rights Movement demonstrated time and again, it is possible to set an example of dignified protest that can win the support of the public for a good cause, but only with a firm commitment to nonviolence.
The overwhelming majority of those in Ferguson who have protested the slaying of Michael Brown have demonstrated peacefully, despite the negative character of the media coverage. Indeed, most of the protesters should be commended for their commitment to nonviolence and the creative techniques they have used to raise consciousness about this injustice, including the raising of arms above their heads and saying "Please don't shoot," as Michael Brown is reported to have done just before he was slain.
I am also encouraged that some white citizens have also participated in the nonviolent demonstrations, earnest in their participation in protesting against racial injustice. It's my hope that the character of the demonstrations will be strengthened in the days ahead by enhanced multi-racial participation, along with an ever-increasing commitment to nonviolence. Americans of all races have a stake in the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Ferguson and in strengthening the integrity of our system of justice.
Among the reforms needed to prevent such travesties of justice in the future, it is essential that law enforcement personnel be better-trained in practical nonviolent alternatives to threatening and assaulting suspects. Police departments across the nation must develop nonviolent "rules of engagement," so that they don't reflexively respond to suspected crimes with violence. This will require more in-depth training in the behavioral psychology of conflict-resolution, so police have tried and true techniques of preventing and de-escalating violence.
Law enforcement personnel should also be more closely screened for attitudinal problems with respect to people of different cultures. After acknowledging that most law enforcement personnel are fair-minded and do a difficult job, it only takes one exception to create a terrible tragedy. Racial insensitivity and outright racism among law enforcement personnel is still a major concern of people of color in their communities, and there is an urgent need for greater understanding and bridge-building in police-community relations.
In addition to a stronger focus on better training for law enforcement, America urgently needs programs to provide jobs and educational opportunities in economically-depressed communities. With teenage unemployment rates approaching 50 percent or more in many communities, it is not surprising that many young people become vulnerable to violence. We can put millions of America's idle young people to work helping to repair and restore America's deteriorating infrastructure, public utilities and transportation systems. Nothing would revitalize the nation's sagging economy more than such a commitment. It's hard to imagine a major project that would do more good for our young people --- and our country.
Granted, it is hard to imagine such reforms being implemented in the current political climate, in which needed change is routinely obstructed by congressional gridlock. But the current legislative paralysis should not be accepted as a permanent reality. An increase in voter turnout by 15-20 percent in underserved communities would shake up incumbents in Congress and motivate them to embrace a more bipartisan and constructive spirit. They would surely get the message that a new day of elevated expectations for them has arrived, and their continued service as elected officials depends on their embracing a real commitment to cooperation. For this to happen, citizens must take the lead in mobilizing voter registration, education and turnout programs on a scale yet unseen across the nation.
Above all, the people of Ferguson, law enforcement and citizens alike, and every American community must aspire to forge a new unity based on mutual respect, understanding and goodwill. One way to meet this challenge is for communities to initiate creative projects to help develop a culture of nonviolence, like The King Center is doing with our "Choose Nonviolence," "Nonviolence 365" and "N.O.W. (Nonviolence Opportunity Watch) Encounter" initiatives.
As my father said, "The aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community." This is the way forward to end the current climate of violence and despair --- and to a new era of progress and hope for our country.
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