Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled Wendy Pohlhaus’s name. This version has been corrected.
A youngster lies dead in the streets of D.C., body riddled with bullets. There are witnesses to the killing, but no one comes forward.
The scenario is all too familiar to Wendy Pohlhaus, executive assistant to the U.S. attorney in the District. “Folks will turn a blind eye,” she said.
And what about the children who gather to gawk at the body?
“I’ve seen them hamming it up for the TV cameras,” said Robert Bobb, a management consultant who has been a high-ranking public official in Oakland, Calif., Detroit, Richmond and the District. “They were becoming desensitized to violence.”
Pohlhaus’s and Bobb’s observations were made Saturday at a crime-prevention conference in the District. The event, sponsored by Black Women for Positive Change , dealt largely with violence in the black community — a most sensitive subject, especially when raised against a backdrop of complaints about white police officers who use fear to justify killing black people.
The fatal shooting of a black and unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., set off a two-week-long nationwide protest against the unjustified use of lethal force. At Brown’s funeral Sunday, the Rev. Al Sharpton told mourners that it was time to “turn our chants into change, our demonstration into legislation.”
Whatever good that might do, it is unlikely to make a difference in black communities demoralized by crime. And when black communities can’t organize to combat crime, there is not much they can do to stop police from riding roughshod over them.
Crime-ridden communities allow the worst cops to become judge, jury and executioner.
According to FBI statistics, a white police officer killed a black person twice a week, on average, in the United States during a seven-year period ending in 2012.
“I’m all for peaceful protests, but we need full participation in the justice system,” Pohlhaus said. It sounds counterintuitive — urging black people to take ownership of a system distrusted by so many of them — but she has a point.
“Elderly women are getting their purses snatched, and people just look on and won’t get involved,” Pohlhaus said. “When the elderly are victimized by youngsters and no one will stand up for justice, then the elderly will not stand up for justice when it happens to a youngster.”
And when the grandmother gives up on the grandson, you know it’s all downhill from there.
In Ferguson, during the first four months of this year, more than 80 percent of those suspects arrested for larceny — defined as theft of personal property — were black. And since two-thirds of the town’s residents are black, it stands to reason that the vast majority of victims of those thefts were also black.
Could that explain, in part, why none of the town’s 14,000 black residents had ever protested years of reported police mistreatment of young black men — until Brown was shot to death?
To ask if neighborhood crime had muted the public response is not to excuse police brutality, only to point out how such crimes can leave a huge gap in a community’s defense against a historic threat.
Brown’s bullet-riddled body lay in the street for more than four hours. Throughout American history, white lynch mobs kept their kill on display all day as a warning to uppity blacks.
“What is happening to our children, our elders and women in our communities requires that we change our culture,” said Stephanie Myers, co-chair of Black Women for Positive Change. “Everything we do must be reexamined. The way we talk, how we entertain ourselves, how we educate our children, how we treat each other.”
The organization was formed a year ago, in August, during the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. A month earlier, a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the unwarranted shooting death of an unarmed black 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin.
“After that, a collective of mommies and grandmothers agreed that we had to take matters into our own hands,” Myers said.
Saturday’s conference was hosted by historic Metropolitan AME Church, near 15th and M streets NW. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave his last speech from the church’s pulpit in 1894. He titled it, “Lessons of the Hour,” and it amounted to a national appeal for justice and respect.
One hundred and twenty years later, in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, the appeal is still being sounded. But Black Women for Positive Change had come to the church to with another lesson of the hour: that black people treat one another justly as well.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.