A month after the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we Americans find ourselves asking troubling questions about racism in law enforcement and the increasing militarization of local police departments.
In the weeks following the shooting, concerned citizens organized demonstrations not only in Ferguson but in many cities around the country, including Washington, D.C., Oakland, California, St. Louis, Missouri, and New York City.
Protests and vigils have occurred in many smaller communities as well. People from all walks of life, from many faith traditions, of all ages and ethnicities, have come together to share their grief and to express their alarm at current trends in American law enforcement. Most of these gatherings have been peaceful, and have emphasized the need for solidarity with our fellow citizens – including the police themselves, who by the way are citizens sworn to protect and serve. Many, many dedicated and responsible police officers struggle to do their jobs honorably in the face of the creeping tendency to redefine law enforcement in terms of military “operations.”
Here in Wooster, on Aug. 24, over 100 people gathered around the gazebo at the center of downtown. The group was notable for its diversity, and united in its call for equality, tolerance, and justice for all. Unfortunately, this gathering was not reported in the pages of the Wooster Daily Record, even though the paper had been invited to cover it. A week later, a reader pointed out this glaring absence in a letter to the editor. The comments section which appeared in the online edition of the paper was extremely revealing. Some posts praised the demonstrators and agreed that we all need to become involved in seeking solutions. Other posters blamed the participants, and the letter writer, for “bringing this Ferguson mess to Wooster.” Sadly, at least one anonymous writer expressed his or her blatant racism toward African-Americans who are disproportionally likely to be incarcerated – or killed by police officers.
The Daily Record’s decision not to cover the Wooster gathering, and the reactions of some of the online readers, reflect a tragic “heads-in-the-sand” attitude among many in our community. Some believe that if we just close our eyes and tell ourselves that “this Ferguson mess” has nothing to do with us, we will never be touched by the problems and dangers posed by a broken criminal justice system and an overmilitarized approach to civil police work.
And yet we have only to read the pages of that same Daily Record on a regular basis to find glaring evidence of these problems in Wooster, in Wayne County, and throughout Ohio. Racial tensions, demonstrated for example by the harassment of college students of color along Beall Avenue. Incoherent sentencing procedures, through which minor drug offenders often wind up in overcrowded prisons while more dangerous criminals get probation. Disturbing allegations of police brutality, especially in larger cities like Akron, Canton, and Cleveland. The Orrville Police Department proudly announcing its acquisition of an armored personnel carrier to assist its SWAT teams. Orrville? Really? Does every police department in every city, town, and village need military-grade vehicles and equipment?
A month after the death of Michael Brown, thoughtful Americans cannot fail to recognize our shared concerns, our shared responsibilities, and our shared vulnerability. We need to express our solidarity with each other. We need to demand REAL civilian policing and REAL criminal justice. This forum is obviously one place where you can make your voice heard. Another is your local newspaper, in letters to the editor and online comments. Above all, of course, we all need to VOTE. This is an election year. Take a good, hard look at the candidates who are promising to make you safe and protect your rights. Take a good, long look at those candidates’ records and at their parties’ platforms. Who can you really trust to ensure justice, security, and your full civil rights?