As rain started falling outside, the crowd started packing into the brick Methodist church just east of downtown Phoenix. The Rev. Reginald Walton stood at the pulpit to welcome this diverse congregation. As we know, he said, this is not about church but about community. At the front of the church sat a panel which included a civil rights attorney, a mother and educator, the mayor of Phoenix, the assistant police chief, and a few other community leaders.
Why are you here? Was the first question the reverend asked the panel. They were here to move the conversation forward, to move Phoenix forward in a time of discontent and division. Rev. Walton assured that tonight would be about solutions.
To keep the conversation constructive, the audience was asked to write questions on note-cards. The reverend would moderate the conversation with the topics raised on the cards.
The first part of the meeting was educational. For instance:
- The Black Lives Matter group felt they were being portrayed as a dangerous “terrorist” group. The assistant police chief assured the group that, quite the opposite, they saw BLM as a partner. That’s why he showed up for this conversation. The police want to be held accountable and want to know when they do wrong, when they do right.
- A question was raised about “for-profit” policing. Doesn’t the quota system for tickets and fines unfairly target certain communities? Answer: There is no quota system in Phoenix. A follow up question on private prisons was dodged.
- Asked about strategies for de-escalation of conflict, the mayor touted the success of the Phoenix police in this area. In fact, the U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently visited Phoenix to praise their de-escalation training as a model for the nation.
A question was then raised about structural racism and implicit bias. Repeatedly, the mayor and police representatives admitted that there are “bad apples” who discriminate and harm the community. But what can be done systemically? How can we be sure that the bad apples are brought to justice? The need for transparency and oversight were discussed at length.
The civil rights lawyer made a good point here about the “criminalization of the poor,” where common fines can lead to more serious violations when individuals can’t pay. For instance, a traffic ticket, unpaid, will cause the suspension of a license. A poor person still needs to drive to work, but is now at risk of a more serious charge for driving on a suspended license. What is the purpose of these sorts of fines, after all? A proposed solution was scaling fines to income level, or forgiving fines due to hardship.
One answer to this question bothered me. A panelist described the problem with use of a second-hand anecdote. His example: One time a white girl from a small town in Iowa, after serving in the armed forces, joined the police academy in Phoenix. She was placed in the Maryvale district (a tough part of town) and immediately started judging the people there– the food they ate, their tattoos, their dress. This is the problem, the panelist said. Culturally insensitive white people are policing the inner-cities. The answer was met with applause.
Well, what was the rest of the story? Did the woman learn from this initial encounter and become an effective officer, or did she become abusive? We were left with this generalization based on the image of a redneck officer. Certainly abuse of power happens, and minorities are victimized by this abuse. Examples of this reality sparked the Black Lives Matter movement into existence. Several local examples were discussed during the meeting. The problem is serious and needs to be addressed. The problem of racial injustice is complicated and wedged into multiple facets of our justice system. Generalizations, in my opinion, won’t help move the conversation forward.
One follow-up response during this part of the conversation struck me differently. Someone wrote that they in the community feel discriminated against. There is a feeling and perception of bias by the criminal justice system. This is important and valid. How people feel is always valid. What can be done to promote healing and progress in this area? Someone suggested conducting sensitivity and de-escalation training within the community, to increase exposure and communication without the tension of a real world encounter.
The most emotionally powerful moment happened when Rev. Walton preached for a minute about the Code of Silence. Just like sometimes officers will stay silent, refuse to “rat out” another officer for abuse, people in the community will sometimes not turn to the police to respond to conflict or lawbreaking. He invited a woman to the podium to speak. Her son had been assaulted and killed by a group of people. No witnesses helped or called the police. One assailant was convicted, but she had been fighting in court, alone, trying to convince the police to investigate the others. Her plea to the audience was to work not just to change the system but to transform the community. The audience listened in rapt silence, nodding of heads.
Bottom-up. Top-down. Both approaches are needed. A city councilperson rose to encourage us to vote. Get to know your representatives. Learn the issues. Voting registration tables are set up in the back.
The townhall meeting concluded with an activity. A new presenter came up, asked us to envision three circles. One was a sphere of control: what can I do, in my present situation, as a parent or teacher or mayor or officer, to promote justice and equality? The second was a sphere of influence: who do I know and how can I affect others to participate in promoting justice and equality? The third was a sphere of concern: who do you care about that might not have a voice in society?
We were asked to shout out some obstacles to justice and equality. Fear. Pride. Laziness. Ignorance. Bias. Lack of resources.
Finally, we were asked to write down three concrete responses to three questions:
- What are you going to do?
- When are you going to start?
- What is the first step?
A few people shared their responses to the group before we departed. For me, the first step is to prepare for classes next week. The more effective I am as a teacher, the more self-empowered my students become via their education.
My intention in attending this meeting was to simply listen and reflect. I left inspired by this group of citizens and leaders, proud of my city and motivated to work toward bettering my community.