Wichita attendees hear that civil rights is ongoing battle

08/13/2014 7:55 PM

08/14/2014 9:03 AM

In a year when the nation is recognizing the 50th anniversary of the passage of major civil rights legislation, dozens of officials and community members gathered at a civil rights symposium in Wichita on Wednesday.

If they agreed on anything, it is that civil rights is an ongoing issue in Wichita and in Kansas, with continuing struggles and misunderstandings. The daylong symposium took place at Wichita State University’s Hughes Metropolitan Complex.

One illustration of the ongoing strains came during a brief exchange between the host – U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom – and a woman in the audience who complained that she didn’t see men of color standing before her as representatives of the government.

Grissom said he “takes umbrage” that because of the color of his skin – white – he isn’t in a position to deal with race relations or uphold civil rights. That’s why he has hosted a civil rights symposium for four years in a row, Grissom said.

He noted that he works for two men of color: Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama.

In mentioning his attention to alleged or perceived racial profiling, Grissom referred to a recently released WSU study that found that black men were being stopped disproportionately by Wichita police.

“This is an issue that I am personally talking to the Department of Justice about,” he said. During a break, Grissom said what he meant by the comment is that he sent a copy of an Eagle article about the study to the department’s civil rights division for review. Grissom said he wanted the division to be aware of the numbers if it needed to take a closer look.

Although African-Americans made up only 11 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 22 percent of the people given traffic citations in the six months from November 2012 through April 2013, the article said of the study’s main finding. Whites were underrepresented, accounting for 75 percent of the population but only 60 percent of the tickets, the study found. The study report emphasized that the results don’t prove racial profiling exists.

One audience member, Steve Gradert, a federal public defender, said he would like more police officers to be outfitted with cameras. “Frankly, I think it protects the police officers as well,” he said

Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams said the department now has about 48 body cameras, with 12 more about to be put in use, but that it would cost nearly $1 million to buy 355 other cameras to equip all officers. And that doesn’t include more staffing to process the equipment.

Grissom suggested that the community join in demanding funding for the cameras, saying that the cost of one excessive-force case against the city would probably pay for the equipment.

A panel of minority representatives voiced concerns including perceived bias by some legislators toward the LGBT population, lack of trust between races and ethnic groups, lack of trust between residents and authorities, and alleged profiling of Muslims.

One of the civil rights panel members, Bishop Wade Moore, hit on the recurrent theme when he said, “Civil rights is an ongoing thing.”

One of symposium’s purposes was to provide a platform for understanding. Audience members heard, for example, that Islam does not stand in the way of rights and protections under the U.S. Constitution and that the religion’s followers are a diverse people.

Holly Weatherford, advocacy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said too many people are behind bars in the United States and that black men have an especially high rate of imprisonment.

Moore, who is African-American, bemoaned what he called a lack of respect for the highest office in the nation, currently held by the nation’s first black president. “We did not call President Bush ‘George,’” Moore said.

From a black man’s perspective, if there is no respect for the president, he said, then there’s “no respect for me.”

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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