In the Heat of the Night, Part 2

Published: December 8, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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I never became aware of the racial tension that had existed for decades until the evening of August 11, 1965. The Watts Riots continued for six, agonizing days and resulted in 34 deaths and $40 million in property damage.


The last two weeks have seen protests spread from Ferguson, Missouri to New York, Seattle, Washington, and Los Angeles.

Last Thursday (Dec. 4), according to Reuters, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that an investigation found that “the Cleveland Police Department systematically engages in excessive use of force against civilians…

“The Cleveland investigation was launched after what Holder called a series of troubling high-profile police use-of-force incidents that brought appeals from city leaders for a federal investigation.

“In one incident, Cleveland police engaged in a 22-mile (35-km) high-speed chase in November 2012 that ended with officers firing nearly 140 rounds into a car, killing its two unarmed occupants. One officer was charged with voluntary manslaughter.

“ ‘Accountability and legitimacy are essential for communities to trust their police departments and for there to be genuine collaboration between police and the citizens they serve,’ Holder said.”

No matter where you stand on the guilt or innocence of the recent incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island, the one undeniable fact is that for much of the country there is a large disconnect between police and Americans of color. The question before all of us, is, where do we go from here? How can we insure that all citizens are treated fairly under the law and that the police will act in a way that builds trust among the people they serve?

Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio may just be the right person at the right time. In last Wednesday evening’s public address (Dec.3), Mayor de Blasio spoke not only about the Eric Garner verdict, but of actions for change.

“Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want. Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through non-violent protest. We trust that those unhappy with today’s grand jury decision will make their views known in the same peaceful, constructive way. We all agree that demonstrations and free speech are valuable contributions to debate, and that violence and disorder are not only wrong – but hurt the critically important goals we are trying to achieve together.

“These goals – of bringing police and community closer together and changing the culture of law enforcement — are why we have introduced so many reforms this year. It starts at the top with Commissioner Bratton – a strong, proven change agent. We have dramatically reduced the overuse and abuse of stop-and-frisk. We have initiated a comprehensive plan to retrain the entire NYPD to reduce the use of excessive force and to work with the community. We have changed our marijuana policy to reduce low-level arrests, and we have launched a new pilot program for body cameras for officers to improve transparency and accountability.

“These are the long term reforms we are making to ensure we don’t endure tragedies like this one again in the future. But we also know that this chapter is not yet complete. The grand jury is but one part of the process. There will still be an NYPD internal investigation. And we know the U.S. Attorney is continuing her investigation. Should the federal government choose to act, we stand ready to cooperate.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – one of our nation’s most profound thinkers on these issues – taught us something very simple: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’

“The problem of police-community relations and civil rights is not just an issue for people of color – or young people – or people who get stopped by police. This is a fundamental issue for every American who cares about justice.

“All of us must work together to make this right – to work for justice – and to build the kind of city – and nation – we need to be.”

Inspiring words, made all the more meaningful by the fact that de Blasio is the father of a bi-racial son. “This is profoundly personal for me. I couldn’t help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante. Life could never be the same thereafter.”

“It is not unusual for Mr. de Blasio,” The Times (Dec. 3), writes… to invoke his teenage son. But the mayor… volunteered on Wednesday that he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, had instructed Dante ‘on how to take special care’ in encounters with police officers, and described a private worry of whether his son was safe at night.”

Next steps are never easy. It’s going to take restraint, re-training, and a new openness on both sides, before tensions subside, trust can be re-established, and change takes place. Most of all, it’s going to take time.

We need to remember that during times of natural disasters, individual acts of cooperation, bravery, and compassion routinely take place regardless of race, religion, age or political ideology. We need to remember those qualities during times such as these.

Incidents like Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland will continue until all of us work together to promote a common humanity that strives to end all discrimination. Only then, can we truly live under that distinctly American principle: “with liberty and justice for all.”


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