Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was our nation's preeminent apostle for social change and the acquisition of political power by nonviolent direct action. Part of the genius of his leadership was his astute recognition that no matter how compelling the argument for ending racial segregation may have been on the merits, there was no way African Americans, who were just 12 percent of the population, could achieve this without the support of a majority of white people in America -- hence his unavoidable need reach to reach white people and persuade them of the justness of ending segregation and supporting the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Today we are at tipping point. In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, a substantial number of African Americans (and many white people too) no longer believe that the police operating in their communities will treat them fairly and impartially. Samuel Walker, co-author of the book The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America, told the AP:
Within the African-American community, there has been an experience of disrespect, offensive language, mistreatment in terms of stops and so on. And there's a sense that the police are out to get them.
Inimai Chettiar of the New York University law school's Brennan Center for Justice echoes this sentiment, telling the AP:
African-American communities are tired of being over-policed, over-prosecuted, sent to prison, having men taken away from their communities, having families broken.
This lack of trust in police is further aggravated when we learn that, according to the Wall Street Journal:
A Wall Street Journal analysis of the latest data from 105 of the country's largest police agencies found more than 550 police killings during those years were missing from the national tally or, in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved. The result: It is nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.
What we do know, however, is that young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police officers than young white men are, and six times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses, despite a lack of evidence that black people use or deal drugs more than white people do.
Against this reality, I believe the following proposals for action should be seriously considered:
- This Jan. 15, 2015, on the occasion of the 86th birthday of Dr. King, before the nation commences its annual weekend celebration of his birthday, President Obama should address the nation from the Oval Office on the issue of race and policing in America. The precedent and template for such a nationwide address is the March 18, 2008, speech he gave in Philadelphia when, while still a U.S. senator running for president, he was compelled to address the issue of race following the national frenzy over his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of the church that President Obama and the first lady had attended for years.
- The president should aggressively follow up with the task force that the White House created last week to spend 90 days studying police practices in African-American communities across the nation.
- A procedure should be in place whereby any disputed shooting of an African-American person by the police automatically triggers the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle the case.
- In the event of a disputed shooting of an African-American person by the police, local African-American civil, religious and political leaders must publicly and unequivocally denounce any resort to violence as a credible or acceptable response to the disputed shooting.
- In the event of a disputed shooting of an African-American person by the police, local white civil, religious and political leaders must publicly support the appointment of the special prosecutor mentioned above and understand that their silence on the matter will be construed by most African Americans as support for the police shooting.
- The Department of Justice and the Department of Defense must show strict accountability for the military equipment provided to local police departments in their policing of African-American communities.
- Local African-American and white civil, religious and political leaders must forge a coalition of self-interest to insist that the federal government recognize the need to repair and develop our nationwide infrastructure of roads, bridges, and highways and address our polluted rivers to create jobs, at a minimum wage of not less than $15 an hour, for young African-American and Hispanic men.
- Police must wear body cameras at all times.
- Just as FBI Director James Comey requires all new FBI agents to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., all members of police departments serving African-American communities should be required to read Dr. King's April 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail."
- The Department of Justice should engage Dr. Joseph Marshall, a former MacArthur Fellow and the executive director of San Francisco's Alive & Free (formerly known as the Omega Boys Club), to train and educate members of police forces serving urban communities about African-American teenagers and young adults.
If the current widespread distrust of the police among African Americans (and a significant number of white people) continues unabated, we as nation may face a threat greater and more immediate than ISIS to the peaceful existence of our society in the near term.