Us against them

Last summer, I got the chance to interview Ohio state senator Cecil Thomas, a former police officer and Cincinnati councilman who was running for the state senate election at the time. Talking to him in length about his past experiences and future ambitions, I learned about his perspective on police-community relations. His experience also became a brief history lesson for me on the Cincinnati riots in 2001. He said he played a major role as a mediator during those tumultuous times in Cincinnati. Like a lot of recent cases, the riots began with the shooting of a young African-American man by a police officer. The incident by itself didn’t cause the unrest, but it was definitely a catalyst for many underlying tensions in the community.

“Back in those days, early to late 90s, there were some serious issues regarding police-community relations,” Thomas said. “Citizens were fearful of the police…so it became a ‘Us against them’ mentality. I spent a lot of time putting out fires in that respect, as the head of the African American Police Association. And due to that strained relationship—and obviously due to a lot of other sociological issues, that were affecting the quality of life of people in the city of Cincinnati—due to those two entities: the police relationship and quality of life of citizens in certain segments of our community, all of that erupted into civil unrest in the year 2001.”

Mr. Thomas, who spent almost thirty years in the police force, said one of the antidotes to police-community issues is that police officers look like and reflect the people they serve.

I’m wondering now, with all that’s going on in Baltimore, if solutions like these are seen only in hindsight, or if it’s possible to implement lessons from history and avoid conflict in tense regions like Baltimore.

When I heard about the state of emergency declared in Maryland a few days ago — a final mark of the conflict’s severity — I was sympathetic to the tensions that led to such a dramatic unfolding of events. I was also a little distressed and disappointed, mostly in myself, for feeling out of sync with what’s going on there. Growing up with the privileges of excellent public education, racial inclusiveness, and caring communities, I haven’t had to directly face the frustrations and troubles that the people of Baltimore are facing.

And while this a momentous time in the city’s history, my distant perspective doesn’t allow me to feel the urgency or passion of the protesters. Moreover, with the number of recents incidents similarly involving police brutality and racial or economic disparity, and the round-the-clock media coverage that comes with them, it’s even easier to become desensitized to stories like this. (An Associated Press poll found that police killings of blacks was voted the top news story of 2014).

The most unfortunate thing about these police-community issues is their redundancy. If we’ve already seen the pain, injustice, and controversy of cases like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, why do we have to go through it again? Why do lives need to be lost and entire communities uprooted for the lesson to be learned?  I always look back to my conversation with Mr. Thomas, and think about how, instead of violence, cities like Ferguson and Baltimore can learn from history, from places like Cincinnati that have already experienced similar tensions—and come out stronger.

It may seem like the same thing is happening over and over again, but I understand that each community has its own nuances. And though, from a distance, we can preach for police officer body-cameras and less racial biasing and more diversity on police forces, only the citizens of places like Ferguson and Baltimore have the ability to truly understand the fabric that makes up their community — only they have the power to bring about change.

Though each case of a black man killed by a police encounter seems similar, just substituted with a different name and different city, it’s important that we don’t let the stories blur together. In that regard, I admire those journalists even more, who continue to tell those stories and bridge the gap between ignorance and knowledge. The unique communities behind each case reminds us that there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution to these police-community problems; but the increasing number of cases and overlapping themes remind us that there is definitely a huge systematic problem that needs to be resolved.

Featured Image credit to Wikimedia Commons 

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