The hope at the time was that the moderate recommendations of the Kerner Report would be enacted and the nation would begin to undo the chains of racism that bind us. Sadly, no objective observer could conclude that has been done. Instead, we witnessed the almost complete abandonment of our cities by the corporations that helped raise and sustain a middle class, the deterioration of an already old and substandard housing stock, the militarization of local police departments and the continued absence of educational and job opportunities for many communities of color. The Kerner Commission identified problems that persist today; the report reads more like an autopsy than the blueprint it was intended to be.
And now we have the recent horrific death of George Floyd. For black people, the relentless injustice is frightening, depressing and enraging.
Are we on the brink of what happened in 1967? I sure hope not, but we shouldn’t fail to grasp the depth of despair that grips the black community. As was the case then, incomes and education levels for black Americans sit well below those of their white peers. Police brutality is terrorizing people. The “school to prison pipeline” is criminalizing black youth. It is a national and local problem.
The killings committed by members of the police force are truly horrible, without justification, often explained away and seldom punished appropriately. We know that the vast majority of police officers don’t commit these acts, but they work within institutional systems that don’t sufficiently address the underlying problems.
When this happens over and over again, it’s no wonder that people in the community question the institution as a whole.
Montgomery County is not above this. In the past year or so, there were recorded incidents showing police officers persisting in wrong behavior while other officers stood by. And, most tragically, we have had two deaths — Robert White and Finan Berhe — in which, after watching the body camera footage, one must ask whether there was anything that could have prevented the sequence of events that led to the fatal conclusions. I do not believe that in either of those cases the officer intended this outcome, but one wonders what might have been done to de-escalate the situations.
My conversations with other police officers have highlighted a lack of training in strategies that could have defused what ended up as fatal confrontations. In each case, we have to ask whether there was an opportunity to mitigate the situation before the officers were put in life-or-death situations. I would not want to be in that moment myself; and I do not think they wanted to be there. But if one doesn’t have the tools to find another solution, then what happened takes on a certain inevitability.
We need to change that.
There is no way for mental health professionals to go out with every officer, but we need more teams available, and they need to be placed around the county so that response times can put them on the scene before things go horribly wrong.
To that end, we will initiate an evaluation of our programs, as well as programs that have been implemented elsewhere, regarding both de-escalation and the availability of mental health support. We will engage community representatives to be part of the discussions that will guide our plans going forward.
We have issues that we need to address.
But the problem is much bigger than policing. Even if I could change policing tomorrow, no one lacking an adequate education would have one, no one living in a slum would be living someplace better, no one spending 50 percent of his or her income on housing would see that change, and no one struggling to afford health care would be able to afford it.
The novel coronavirus is worsening the situation. It is infecting and killing black and brown people at much higher rates than whites, and its economic impact disproportionately affects minority communities, which have the most vulnerable jobs, least savings and lowest education levels, leading to reduced employment opportunities as the workplace changes. We are facing a tsunami of evictions affecting people without incomes and jobs. Minority-owned businesses are poised to be disproportionately and negatively affected by evictions, mortgage and loan defaults and bankruptcies.
The “best case” scenario for minority families is the pre-coronavirus scenario where they continue to pay half their income for rent, struggle to get health care and still won’t have the same education for their children as everyone else. The “best” outcome is the continuation of existing bad outcomes.
The challenge now is whether we punt on these problems again, as we did in 1968, or start to address them. At the county level, we have limited tools, but we need to use them.
The historical unaddressed effects of slavery, racism and systems designed to create racially disparate outcomes will remain with us, continuing to perpetuate a divided society to the detriment of all. To this day, the failure of these struggles to achieve justice saps our humanity and has created a situation in which a large part of our population has been prevented from developing to their full potential. And that has robbed us of sources of knowledge and skill from which all would benefit.
We must use a racial equity lens to examine our public health, public safety, housing, education and other issues, understanding that the root of many of our disparities and much of the suffering here and across the country is institutional racism. Together we must work toward a more just community. These deep-seated problems were not created by the black community but are rooted in 400 years of suppression. And these problems will be solved only when the communities that imposed the suppression understand that it’s time for it to end.