During a summer defined by simmering tensions fueled by the recent killings of black civilians and law enforcement officers, America’s eyes have turned to a cookout last weekend in Wichita.
Sunday night’s First Steps Community Cookout brought together nearly 2,000 people, including law enforcement, leaders of the local Black Lives Matter movement and other Wichita residents.
More than 700 stories about the event have been published or posted around the country as of Wednesday afternoon, city spokesman Ken Evans said. Videos of police officers dancing with people at the cookout have been viewed tens of thousands of times.
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That attention also likely landed Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay an invitation to go to the White House on Friday to discuss community policing, Evans said.
But Ramsay had to turn it down: He’s serving as the justice of the peace at a wedding this weekend.
Ramsay will look to reschedule the White House visit, Evans said.
“It’s an ongoing discussion, and he’s very interested in participation later,” Evans said.
It’s likely that Ramsay came to the attention of White House officials because of the national interest in Sunday’s cookout at McAdams Park, Evans said.
National Public Radio, the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, Ebony and “many more” national media outlets have done stories on the cookout, Evans said.
The event was the brainchild of Ramsay and local community organizers. They wanted to build on momentum generated by a large, peaceful Black Lives Matter protest march last week and came up with the community cookout as a way to build connections.
Word of the cookout struck a chord around the country, Ramsay said.
“People are so tired of the public discord and unrest on seemingly every issue,” Ramsay said. “Our country is really polarized. To see groups and police coming together in a positive event … it gives people hope.
“They want everyone to get along and work for the common good.”
Obscuring the point?
Local community organizers gave mixed reviews to all the national attention.
“The attention is nice, but we have to stay focused on the issues that we are addressing,” A.J. Bohannon, who was a lead organizer of the Black Lives Matter march on July 12, said in response to questions asked on Facebook. “We can’t rejoice in the victory of one battle when we are still in a war.”
Community organizer Djuan Wash admitted to some frustrations about the focus of the national stories about the cookout at McAdams Park, which “was to provide an opportunity for the chief to address the reforms he intends to make,” he said in a conversation on Facebook.
Indeed, Ramsay spent nearly an hour answering questions posed by a somewhat skeptical audience.
“I think people are questioning the motivation for this,” Ramsay said on Thursday. “Was it trustworthy? Or was this just an effort to placate” protesters?
But most of the national stories seemed to focus on the food and festivities, including a video of Officer Aaron Moses dancing that has gone viral.
“While overall it’s positive,” Wash said of the attention, “it missed the point of the barbecue.”
The point, Ramsay said, was to have face-to-face conversations with concerned residents about steps being taken to improve relationships between African-Americans and the police.
Those steps include the formation of a civilian review board, supporting the use of an outside prosecutor to review officer-involved shootings and a commitment to increase the amount of cultural competency training for officers.
‘Power of face-to-face discussion’
Beyond the national attention, Ramsay said he noticed something else in days following the cookout.
“You look at the (online) posts, you see a lot of, ‘I’m proud of my city,’” he said.
Moving forward beyond the cookout, Ramsay said, it will become clearer “what an important event it was for our city.”
“It shows you the power of face-to-face discussion and getting to know each other when there’s not a crisis,” he said.
“People don’t really have a lot of police contact. When they do, it’s when something bad’s going on: a ticket or an arrest.”
Ramsay recorded a Facebook Live post urging police departments around the country to hold similar events, but “no one else is doing it.”
Other police chiefs have voiced concerns about hosting a cookout because of the current environment of “us against them,” he said.