Lessons from Ferguson: ‘An opportunity to be proactive as a community’

Wichitans say recent events illuminate the challenges of race relations and police approaches in our own community

08/23/2014 2:01 PM

08/23/2014 2:06 PM

A few days after protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., Joseph Shepard posted a split-screen photo on his Facebook page.

The left-side snapshot shows Shepard in a tank top and a ball cap turned backward, eyes squinted, an earring in each lobe.

On the right: Shepard wears a button-down shirt, jacket and bow tie, hands tucked casually into his dress-pant pockets, leaning against a porch railing.

“Which picture would the news, CNN, and police show?” wrote Shepard, 21, who is pursuing a degree in criminal justice at Wichita State University.

The hashtag: #iftheygunnedmedown.

“Just because my clothing may not be what you want it to be … does not mean that I am a delinquent,” Shepard said. “Before judging someone based on their outer appearance, get to know who they are on the inside. Get to know their dreams, their ambitions, their goals in life.

“If Ferguson teaches us anything, it should be to kill these stereotypes.”

Members of Wichita’s African-American community say there are many lessons to learn from Ferguson, where the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a police officer earlier this month sparked protests. Looters smashed up shops and police responded with a staggering display of force, rolling military-style armored cars onto the streets and shooting tear gas into crowds.

“Oftentimes, people will look at a situation like Ferguson and say, ‘That could never happen here.’ Well, it could,” said the Rev. Junius Dotson, pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita.

“So we don’t want to wait until an incident causes our community to erupt. We have an opportunity to be proactive as a community,” he said. “We have the opportunity to shape our own destiny, to engage in meaningful conversation before the frustration rises to such a level that people feel they have no other choice.”

Community discussion

Dotson will help moderate a community discussion Thursday aimed at channeling recent events in Ferguson into meaningful change in Wichita – a chance for residents to discuss what happened and make suggestions for improving community/police relations here at home.

The session comes just days after the retirement of Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams, who has faced pressure from local groups unhappy over deadly officer-involved shootings and what they say is persistent evidence of racial profiling by officers.

“I plan to be there, and I have a lot to say,” said Brandon Johnson, executive director of Community Operations Recovery Empowerment (CORE), a local group focused on addressing the root cause of such challenges as violence, poverty, gangs and substance abuse.

Johnson, 28, said events in Ferguson underscore much of what his group has lobbied for, including diversity training and body cameras for police officers and a police force that engages more regularly and positively with the community.

“When you talk to the young African-American kids, their officers on their blocks are looking for bad activities, looking for gang members, stopping people for random reasons,” he said. “If they would just walk the streets and talk to people, maybe help out if somebody was cutting their grass, ask, ‘What are you kids doing? Do you have a job? Want a job? I know somebody hiring.’

“If they became seen as a force of really helping people … and take that service to another level, I think things would be a lot different.”

He envisions a squad similar to the department’s new Homeless Outreach Team, “but bigger and for the whole community, connecting people with services,” Johnson said. “That would change a lot.”

Perceptions, assumptions

For many in Wichita, particularly parents of young black men and boys, scenes from Ferguson have been personal and heartbreaking.

Conversations have focused on the rights of police, protestors and journalists, but also on the burden of black parenting – the idea that Michael Brown could be anyone, that he could be your son, and that our children live in a world of systemic racism.

“It’s absolutely frightening,” said Kaye Monk-Morgan, director of WSU’s Upward Bound program and the mother of two teenage boys.

Her older son, Payton, recently began driving alone.

“And we had to have the conversation with him about driving, particularly driving in the (mostly white) neighborhood in which we live,” she said. “There may be assumptions about who you are and where you came from.”

Monk-Morgan often talks with her sons and the young people she works with about perceptions and assumptions, many of them unfair and steeped in prejudice, she said. It happened after the Trayvon Martin case in Florida and again in the wake of the shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson.

Her younger son, Cameron, likes to run down to the neighborhood park or pool to meet friends.

“One night he literally runs out of the house with a hoodie and swimsuit on, and I was like, ‘Oh no, no, no, no, no,” she said.

“And he was like, ‘Mom, really?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, really. I’m gonna need you to put on a bright-colored sweatshirt, and I need you to smile at every person you see so you don’t look intimidating.’

“You can’t just walk around at dusk as an African-American male in a neighborhood where people don’t expect to see you. You just don’t do that.

“So we pick our kids up,” she said. “My mom laughed and said, ‘Your kids don’t know how to walk anywhere.’ No. That’s right. I don’t let my kids walk. You never know what they’re going to be subject to.”

‘Are you prepared?’

Shepard, the WSU student, said he understands the frustration of protestors who feel disenfranchised. But he hopes recent events in Ferguson prompt people in Wichita and elsewhere to channel their anger in positive ways.

“My father told me society does have stereotypes and misconceptions of men of color, so you have to go one up. You have to do your very, very best plus some,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing my whole entire life.”

As president of the Multicultural Greek Council at WSU, Shepard urged the university community to talk openly and specifically about the lessons of Ferguson.

“My question to law enforcement and the administration here at Wichita State would be: Are you prepared to handle that, if it was to happen right here on our campus and in our community?” Shepard said. “This is something that affects all people of all demographics.”

David Gilkey, a gang prevention coordinator for the Urban League of Kansas, said recent events offer “an opportunity for people to come to the table.”

“Even if it hasn’t happened here, we still need to come to the table so we have some type of understanding of how to deal with it,” he said. “I think this is a learning experience for everyone.”

Dotson, the minister, said he hopes Thursday’s forum at East High School will draw a diverse crowd.

“We’re concerned about the economic well-being not just of one segment of the community, but for the whole city,” Dotson said. “Until everybody begins to understand that the problems we face belong to all of us, we’re not going to make very much progress.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

Community meeting to discuss police relations

Two local churches – Dellrose United Methodist and St. Mark United Methodist – are sponsoring a meeting for Wichitans to discuss recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and make suggestions for improving community/police relations.

The forum, called #NoFergusonHere, will begin at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at East High School, 2301 E. Douglas. It will be in the Performing Arts Center theater on the west side of the school. Everyone is invited to attend.

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