Activist A.J. Bohannon had organized more than 1,000 Black Lives Matters protesters to march the streets of Wichita on Sunday. But then, days before, he received a call from the new police chief with a different idea.
Instead of having an event that drew a hard line between protester and police, why not bring them all together for an evening of summer revelry and open dialogue?
So instead of marching, they gathered in a wooded park where the police department cooked and served up burgers. The officers played basketball with kids. They took group selfies. One officer did the “whip and the nae nae” and the “Cha Cha Slide” in a crowd of dancing girls — a video that instantly became a viral sensation.
They called it the First Steps Community Cookout, a nod to what they see as the seeds of an ongoing effort to ease the tensions heightened by the recent shootings of and by police officers. Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, who has been on the job since January, started the event by taking questions from residents for 45 minutes.
The questions were wide-ranging. One person asked about the “gang files,” a database the police have of everyone who ever had any affiliation with a gang, Bohannon recalled. He said that Ramsay promised he would look into creating a process for people to get their names off the list through either a clean record or some kind of community service. It’s an example of something actionable the department can do to heal relations.
Aaron Moses, a 25-year-old officer who would go on to be Internet famous for his spirited dance moves, said he held several side conversations with people who wanted to know his thoughts about all the violence of the past month. They spoke openly about prejudices, and the need for people on both sides of the issue to address them.
He works predominately in African American neighborhoods, and he said relations have felt strained lately. When approaching young men on the street, he said they’ve said to him: “I’m going to leave so you don’t shoot me for no reason.”
“That’s why Sunday was great because there’s a lot of trust that happened out there,” Moses said. “I hope we were able to show the country you’re able to do a whole lot more coming together than tearing people apart and creating divisions.”
Only two days later, a woman wrote on Bohannon’s Facebook wall that she’d seen an officer playing with some neighbor kids at a basketball court across the street. That was a first, she said.
“These were kids who were afraid of the police, and now they see something beyond that badge, there’s a pulse and a heart,” Bohannon said. “To see the officers taking those steps, to see them integrate it into their jobs after two days is tremendous.”
When Bohannon first announced they were having the cookout instead of the march, some people pushed back. “We don’t want to eat pork with the pigs,” they told him. “Why are we shaking hands with the people tearing this neighborhood apart?”
But Bohannon said he urged them to consider that if they did not want to be judged by the color of their skin, then they could not judge the entire law enforcement profession by the bad actions of a few. If two men are standing in a burning house, it does no good for them to argue, he said.
“They’re going to both get engulfed by the flame,” he said. “We need to figure out how to put the fire out.”
This wasn’t always Bohannon’s attitude toward the police. In 2012, he watched his 23-year-old cousin die, shot five times in the back by police as they ran with a crowd away from gunfire that erupted near a nightclub.
The police believed his kin, Marquez Smart, was the shooter, and the two officers who killed him were cleared of any wrong doing. But Bohannon insists that his cousin didn’t even own a gun, and said there was never any physical evidence that he was the gunman. For a long time he harbored a lot of resentment at the police.
Those feelings intensified a year later, after Florida teen Trayvon Martin was killed, sparking protests around the country. Bohannon went to the mall wearing a hoodie and a sign that said: “If I don’t stand for something then I will fall for anything.” Mall security asked him to remove the hoodie and take off the sign. When he refused, he was arrested on trespassing charges.
But as the years passed, videos continued to surface of black men being shot by the police, and Bohannon watched communities tear themselves apart. He decided he wanted to channel all the grief into something positive.
This budding relationship with police is a first step, and Bohannon said he’s committed to maintaining it. They’ll have more meetings and social outings. There’s talk of a kickball game. But the channels of communication are now open.
“When you see people tearing down a community, it’s a temporary fix, a way to vent,” he said. “I didn’t want to burn the house down. We want to set a national precedent so this will catch on. I hope it sweeps the country and others begin to implement what we did in their own communities — to create the bond that’s been missing between the cops and the communities for so long.”
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