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From the editor: Working to heal the racial divide - News Article

From the editor: Working to heal the racial divide
March 28, 2015
By Gilbert Bailon

Legacies of racial segregation and strained race relations run deeply in the roots of many large urban areas in America, including the St. Louis metro area.

Such delicate topics often are talked around or ignored because bringing them up can create discomfort or confrontation, especially across racial and cultural lines.

The fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson last August brought months of unrest, including protests, looting and arson. Laid bare anew are longstanding societal issues, including a gap in how people of various ethnicities and backgrounds view others different from them.

The events of Ferguson and police-related killings elsewhere in the country have affixed new attention on issues such as policing, the criminal justice system, political engagement, public education and economic opportunity.

No topic is more volatile and elusive than addressing race relations in the St. Louis region. For our region to rebuild and heal after the Ferguson unrest, how can people talk honestly and productively about race relations?

Last Tuesday, the nonpartisan Aspen Institute invited about 100 local civic, business and community leaders to a downtown St. Louis hotel for a “Community Dialogue on Healing the Racial Divide,” the first in a series of meetings around the country.

The Aspen Institute initiated the dialogues here because events stemming from Ferguson have elevated race relations onto the national and international stage.

“St. Louis has an opportunity now to be a model for communities throughout the nation in reconciliation of an issue that has plagued our country for 250 years,” said Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy study organization based in Washington, D.C.

“But it will take honest commitment to racial equality, dialogue among the diverse interests, including youth, alignment around solutions, and dedicated leadership to move this forward,” he said. “We were gratified that the leaders and audience at the dialogue were moving in the right direction.”

At a luncheon after the community dialogue, some prominent local leaders, including the co-chairs and some members of the Ferguson Commission, brainstormed ideas about potential solutions to heal the racial divide.

Among the actions suggested were a new board in which black youths and police would interact and create conversations in area high schools; mentorship programs, more funding for the Parents as Teachers program and early childhood education, and taking inventory of the many local organizations that offer an array of human and social services to better align and scale their impact.

The panel discussions focused on Black Youth and the Police; Media and Reporting of Ferguson and Education. I spoke on the media panel moderated by Suzanne Malveaux of CNN with speakers Don Marsh of St. Louis Public Radio and protest leader DeRay McKesson.

The panel on Black Youth and the Police exposed a heartfelt dialogue about race, policing and divergent perspectives that can exist when police encounter African-American young men.

Clifton Kinnie, a senior at Lutheran High School North who was reared in north St. Louis County, described being ordered onto the ground by police when he was 8 years old while walking to play basketball with his younger brother and friends.

Such encounters engender long-lasting fears among African-American teenagers and young men. Kinnie, who became a leader in the Ferguson Movement and speaks to younger students in schools, said he had not envisioned becoming a student activist until he saw photos of Michael Brown’s body on Instagram.

“Enough was enough,” said Kinnie, who has been accepted to Morehouse College and Howard University. He still was mourning the death of his mother from breast cancer when the shooting occurred in Ferguson.

“We all feel unsafe,” he said. “But how can we bridge the gap?”

Dan Isom, a former chief of the St. Louis Police Department and a former Missouri public safety director, responded, “There is fear on both sides.”

Isom, now a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said many of the difficult interactions take place when police stop African-American pedestrians or drivers.

“How do we bring officers into the organization? How do we give them information about the community they police?” he said.

Better training and interaction with the community through community-based policing helps to build bridges and lessens the chance for violent incidents, he said.

Kevin Ahlbrand, a St. Louis police detective sergeant and president of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, said officers on the street also have fears and that their mental well-being often is overlooked.

Ahlbrand, a member of the Ferguson Commission, said police endured violent threats, racial epithets, cursing and urine being hurled at them during the protests. Nonetheless, the police showed great restraint. African-American officers were targets of the most vicious verbal attacks, he said.

He said police went from being heroes after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City to being vilified. Ahlbrand said police have thousands of constructive contacts with the public every day and that people in neighborhoods facing crime problems want police protection.

All three panelists agreed that bridging the gaps involves better communication, more familiarity and understanding, and establishing mutual respect in every community.

Video of the discussions at the Aspen Institute dialogue can be viewed at bit.ly/1Ozt6j9.