12/21/2014 05:13 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2015

My Take on Ferguson

Many protests have taken place and much has been said in the past weeks about Ferguson and race relations in America. Meanwhile, the recent shooting of African-American teenager Akai Gurley in the stairwell of his East New York housing project has been qualified and downplayed because it happened at the hands of a "nervous rookie cop" (see press coverage of event) who entered the stairs with a cocked gun -- as if being a rookie excused gunning down a young black man. This last police-perpetrated homicide hit home particularly strongly with me, because I had read some of my poetry once with a young writer who lived in the same East New York projects--a talented guy with energy, verve and literary flair. I wondered to myself--could he not have been the young man gunned down instead?

While we have made some progress in race relations in this country, the judicial and police systems lag. African-Americans in particular continue to be arrested, sentenced and incarcerated at rates that dwarf those of their white counterparts--even when members of these two groups have committed similar offenses. That such things can go on in 2015 in a country that acquired much of its wealth from the appropriation of Native American wealth and on the back of African-American slaves is simply a disgrace. I don't know that there is much I can add to what has already been said in general terms, except that I felt ashamed listening to President Obama, whom I voted for twice and whose campaign I worked on (and himself an African-American!) when he half-heartedly condemned these events at a press conference, recalling the progress that had been made in race relations "in his own lifetime." No doubt he is right, but that does not excuse the present state of affairs. We have not come far enough.

I had the opportunity of spending a few hours several years back in the downtown Manhattan "tombs" , where people who are arrested are kept before appearing before a judge. This experience was an eye opener as there were literally hundreds of mostly young African American men there. I saw three, perhaps four Caucasians in the whole place. Whites don't commit crimes??? I was able to question two young black men there. Both were clean-cut and well-dressed. I asked simply: why are you here? One came from an immigrant Caribbean family. The police had conducted a search of his apartment looking for pot: they simply knocked on the door and his mom, not knowing that they needed a search warrant, let the police in. They ransacked his room and eventually found a bit of marijuana. I attended a leading mostly white private school on New York's Upper West Side growing up and I can assure you that half the school would have been jailed had their homes been searched in such a way. But the police would never dare attempt to illegally search the homes of affluent whites living on the Upper East Side or in Tribeca or wherever, especially when they might have lawyers for parents or know their rights (not that African Americans don't necessarily know their rights--you get my drift.) The other youth was a tall Ethiopian teenager with an Orthodox cross hanging over a Ralph Lauren/A & F type cardigan. He was rounded up in front of his housing project on the Upper East Side because he was out thirty minutes past curfew kissing his girlfriend. What a crime.

I realize that many factors play a role in the examples I cite above, including the judicial system itself; official versus real life police attitudes, not to mention the law and recent questionable policing techniques implemented in New York City and elsewhere. Some people will tell me that if I was indeed surprised by what I saw that evening in the tombs, then I was naïve beforehand. Perhaps I was. It's not that I didn't know that there were still appalling double standards in how whites and blacks are treated in this country--I just didn't quite realize how crushing the inequality still is. Two or three years later then, I wasn't surprised to hear about Ferguson and other similar recent events. I hope that this short piece contributes in a small way to helping the brave people of all races who are fighting for a freer and fairer America--one where equality and justice exist for all. Amen.