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What the Kerner Commission Said About Ferguson: Nostradamus

I was having a relatively ineffectual day, the kind where your efforts come to naught, so I did what a reasonable person would do in such a situation- I went home and re-read the Kerner Commission Report.

One of the scholars interviewed in the study reported, “I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot.

I must again in candor say to you members of this commission- it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland- with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”

When Dr. Kenneth B. Clark wrote this, there had been no O.J. riot, no Ferguson, no police body cams, and no Facebook streaming, no Charlottesville- and yet his statement and words ring true today. This man was frustrated by the persistence and repetition of race violence and the associated causes, and 50 years and a black president later, things are still-the-same.

And we don’t need to wonder why.

And we don’t really need another commission to explore the issue.

Because the causes and problems are eerily, creepily, frustratingly- the same.

The problem is that we have never actually taken the actions the study proposed, compounded with a glaring gap where the report made no proposal at all.

The report gives plenty of advice, mostly in re-training the police and National Guard. It also suggested an investment in supporting poor black communities on a scale never before seen- proportionate to the centuries of devastation imposed on the American black population.

What it did not do was prescribe anything to change the cause of the disparity and grief in the first place- white racism and the pervasive and profound lack of white understanding. It pointed a stern finger of blame in one direction (white America), then pointed the finger in the opposite direction moving forward.

Why should any of us be surprised that things have not changed?

The report has this big blind spot, ironically in line with the report’s own conclusions, in that it warns of an impending fracture between black and white- as if the two were ever together. When were we one? The report urges integration, but when it describes what integration is, it lays out abandoning the city and inserting black people into the white suburban community with its associated opportunities. It does so as if those white communities will magically accept these black interlopers, an action they had never done collectively. Why would they-we- change now?

The answer is pretty easy. In large part we haven’t.

We haven’t because, as the report clearly stated in 1967, we white people still don’t understand what it was all about in the first place. I was once taught, and I have seen hundreds of kids taught since, that the original problem was treating people differently because of skin color. That the problem was calling people that N-word. That the problem was the indignity of making people sit in the back of the bus. That the problem was a drinking fountain or entering a business through a separate door.

We were and are taught that the solution, as proposed by the undisputed leader and solution provider Dr. Martin Luther King, was to simply stop judging individuals by their skin, despite Dr. King having never taught that as a solution but rather a goal, but our lessons skipped the work in between. And I will say with confidence, despite the critics, that so many in my generation took the bait. We did it. We listened to our teachers, we followed the king, and we worked to not judge black people.  We idolized Michael Jordan, we listened to Snoop Dog, and we voted for Obama. We did what our teachers and our parents and our churches told us we needed to do to make the world better, we cheered for, and were nice to, black people.

And still Ferguson. We shouldn’t be surprised. The Moynihan Report (196-) and the Kerner Commission (1967) both, explained exactly how and why Ferguson and Baltimore would happen. It stated plain as day that racial violence breaks out in cities because the environment created by white policy makers and power brokers stifles black pursuit of happiness- that jobs were too scarce, that housing was too expensive and run down, that education was underutilized and underfunded, that life was too hard, and that unchecked police brutality in this environment touches off the powder keg- and that the general white population, the ones making major policy decisions and holding the collective purse strings, has absolutely no understanding of how hard life really is in what the report calls the ghetto.

It does not suggest that the solution is to stop saying the N-word out loud. It does not suggest that the problem was interpersonal rudeness and insensitivity. Yet that is where we white folks worked he hardest.

The report suggested monumental increased welfare support of poor black communities. Our investment was not monumental- but our resistance has been. I have been told by many people, in many instances, that this report warns of, and blames, the disintegration of the traditional black family as a cause of welfare dependence and community degeneration. Yet none of these people also explained to me that what this report really claims is that black men, black father’s, were and are being driven from their families by lack of opportunity and a system that prevents them from being able to both stay home and provide. No one told me that the problems with the welfare system were that it didn’t go far enough or last long enough to support any family from doing what they all wanted to do, which was to progress and become self-sufficient. Never once did the report state that government assistance generated laziness or lack of will to move on. What it did say is that the meager scraps provided through assistance were the best options available and were meted out in a manner that trapped individuals into dependence- and it stated outright that the only way out was a major tax funded increase on a majestic scale.

Yet I have heard so many cite the report as a justification for decreasing public assistance. I doubt those who told me this ever actually read the report.

The commission stated that violent and militaristic overreaction of law enforcement sparked the race riots of the 60’s and suggested substantial retraining and accountability of police. The current administration has stated outright it wants to reverse any efforts to do so. I have been told today that saying “black lives matter” is racist against white people and antagonistic to police. I am told that after watching videos of a handcuffed black kid in Oakland being shot by a cop on a subway platform, or a 12 year old black child being shot by officers when the 911 call suggested he had a toy gun, or when I watch a police officer shoot a mental health worker who was lying on his back with his hands in the air, or when I question how a handcuffed black kid gets his neck broken while in the back of a police van, that I should withhold judgement or emotion because the cop was afraid. I think of this argument and read it plastered across my Facebook feed, and then I read the report of Newark 50 years ago.

I read about how the National Guard had taken cover on corners and behind cars, lying flat for safety, because they were under sniper fire from a housing project. The local Director of Police arrived on the scene and walked boldly upright through the middle of this scene and no shots were fired. Eventually, as the officer finished surveying the scene, a gunshot finally came, sending the already hunkered Guardsmen scrambling. The officer, who knew this place, didn’t scramble but walked over to one of the soldiers and asked him if he was the one that fired. He said that he had. He had seen someone near a window and shot at them. The local officer stayed on the scene for several hours with no incident. Upon his departure two additional columns of Guardsmen were called to these scene and directed mass fire into the projects in response to reported snipers. And then I watch footage from Ferguson.

Or Charlottesville. And I wonder when we will follow the advice and recommendations we have been giving ourselves since before violence in Baltimore, L.A., Charlottesville, or anywhere going all the way back through reconstruction? When will WE, the white people who explicitly or implicitly control so much of what happens with our taxes, our public policy, our society, change? Change in a way that will help. Change in a way that will work. Get better in the big way, not just the one-on-one easy way.

Maybe more of us should start by simply reading, not reading about, the Kerner Commission report. Or the Ferguson Report Maybe even that one from Moynihan too.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/8073NCJRS.pdf

https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

https://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/moynchapter5.htm

 

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I Can’t Breathe and Orange Light Bulbs

When you are a witness in a criminal case they don’t let you sit in the courtroom during the entire proceedings. I’m not sure if it is to keep your testimony pure from the taint of other people’s stories or to simply add some dramatic flair with a dramatic reveal. “Your honor, the state calls Dalyn Montgomery”, the doors swing open and there I am cape fluttering in the wind. Whatever the reason, I once found myself in a sort of holding lobby outside a Philadelphia courtroom.shoes (7)

I wasn’t alone. With me were two police officers, the ones who caught the guy stealing the radio out of my car. There wasn’t any doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, they caught him in the act and the thief left his phone in my car when he tried to run. We were the prosecution’s bull pen and we were sitting around, waiting for our numbers to be called. We were there more than an hour, plenty of time to get to know each other.

I already knew the one with the shaved head. He used to be my FedEx delivery guy. I once had this job where the company would send me packages every week, sometimes more often, and the guy would call me on my cell phone to see if I was going to be home. My street was really narrow and he didn’t want to drive his truck down that little alley if I wasn’t going to be there. It was odd seeing him in this different uniform but I knew it was him right away; he had a scar in the shape of an x almost right between his eyes. He told me it was from his brother stabbing him with a Phillips screwdriver when they were young and ever since people have mistaken him for a Charles Manson follower. “I’ve been doing this (serving as a police officer) for almost a year now. You still get giant boxes in the mail every day? Your street sucks for big trucks.”

I told him the deliveries had stopped once he was no longer the driver.

The other guy had blonde hair and a bad disposition. “Quit f- – – -g around and let’s get this together,” he instructed his partner. “Now read me what you got.” My FedEx guy pulled a queue card from inside his hat and read off an account of the night in question.

“We received a call from the owner saying his car was in the process of being robbed. We stopped our car at the end of the block and proceeded on foot toward the car in question. The driver’s door was open and as we approached, the accused jumped out of the car and started running toward the other end of the block. I pursued while my partner cut through the alley off to the right. At the top of the block I saw the accused hop on a bike and turn down the street to the right. When I got to the top of the block I saw my partner had caught the accused and was in the process of handcuffing him on the sidewalk.”

The blonde guy looked over at me and said, “That’s what happened right?”  I replied I had no idea since I was asleep during that whole scene. “My neighbor had been having a beer on his stoop at three in the morning and the guy didn’t notice him there when he broke into my car. My neighbor is the one who called you guys. By the time I got pants on and answered the door you already had the dude in the back of your car.”DV IMAGE

“Mother f- – – –  ,” the blonde one said to the other. “This is the type of s- – – –  I can’t stand.” The officer looked to be in his late 20’s, maybe thirty, close to my age. “Sorry about that. I just get frustrated about these little things because this is how lawyers ruin the work we do. We arrest the bad guy and then these mother f- – – – – put ‘em right back out there again because your neighbor is the one who made the call.” I admitted that I could see how that would be frustrating. “This happens regularly, lawyers getting the person off the hook?” “All, the f- – – – – -, time.”

“Dude, your mouth. This guy doesn’t curse like that.” The bald guy told his partner. “F- – – – you, he doesn’t care. Now re-write your card so you don’t screw it up.” While the junior officer scribbled on the card inside his hat I talked to his partner.

He said he had been on the force long enough to remember when things were better. He told me he liked his job when Rizzo was the police chief. He said that down at the station there is a huge poster with a picture of Frank Rizzo holding a Billy club with the words “There aint no courtroom that can dispense justice better than the end of my night stick.” Frank Rizzo was no longer the police chief, and by the time we had this conversation he was also no longer the mayor. The blonde officer explained that it had gotten so bad in the court rooms that he does everything he can to be the first one to catch a perp, hoping that he can have a couple seconds to himself before the other officers show up. He wanted just a little time to dispense some justice before the crowds arrive.

“Really? You want to beat somebody? What if the guy you catch is the wrong guy?”

He looked at me blankly as if he didn’t understand the question.

“Haven’t you ever caught the wrong person?”

“No.”

He answered me flatly and with no sense of irony. He meant it.

“In all the years you’ve been a cop you have never once caught the wrong person? Never brought in an innocent suspect?”

He looked up in the air as if trying to recall something, looked back down at me and with a shrug replied that, no, he had never arrested an innocent person. I could not hide my surprise and must have chuckled just a little bit. My chuckle opened up a barrage of stories from these two about incidents where police officers have injured each other while attempting to injure a captured suspect. I was told of a plain clothes officer who while in pursuit of a bad guy was caught by an officer in uniform and given three broken ribs before he was able to produce his badge. The bald guy showed me a scar on his calf that he said he received from one of his comrades who beat the wrong leg with a baton in a multi officer melee.IMG_9353

After listening to this for a while I told them the story about my friend Terrell. I told them about how he was ID’d by the victim despite his eyes being swollen shut at the time of the ID. I told them how the victim testified he never saw who hit him and had never met Terrell before. I told them about how the cop testified it was easy to catch Terrell because “the accused is fat and slow.” Both of these officers sat silently listening to the details. When I finished they sat there silently for just a moment.

Then the blonde one spoke up, “F- – – – that. Your friend did it.”

Eventually a bailiff opened the door and told me it was my turn. Sadly there was no theme music as I made my way up to the witness stand. Once seated I was able to settle in and take a good look into the eyes of the thief. I had never seen him before. He was a scrawny little white guy in a suit three sizes too big. His hair was cropped short and he had the sort of beard a person grows when they haven’t hit puberty yet. I told my story to the lawyers while the judge looked at me intently. There was no jury. After my ten minutes was up they all thanked me for my time, by all I mean those employed to be there, the accused just sat there hunched over uncomfortably, and I went back to the bull pen.

I got to go back out for the decision, guilty, and the sentencing. The judge listed off a series of other convictions, then noted the defendant was an expecting father and an addict. He ordered that I be paid restitution equal to the amount of the damage of my property and that the accused, now the convicted, enroll in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. It sounded fair to me till the prosecutor leaned over and whispered to me that there was no mechanism in place to make sure I was actually paid what the judge had ordered, blood from a turnip and all that. He told me I should just be happy with the moral victory.

Six months later I was summoned to the court to hear the appeal. The conviction was overturned on account of the officer’s inability to recall what color hat the defendant was or was not wearing at three o’clock in the morning of the night in question.

My neighbor was upset but not surprised that the guy got off. “I bet that was the same little pissant that stole Paulie’s radio. How much you get for a stolen car radio, five bucks? Ten maybe. Stupid Kenzo.” A Kenzo is someone who lives in Kensington, the bad neighborhood that started 1oo yards west of my good neighborhood. It was always the Kenzos that caused trouble, and by Kenzos they meant the new Kenzos as everyone in our neighborhood grew up over there before the black folk moved in and ruined it. My neighborhood was filled with retired school teachers, guys in the carpenters union, and the parents of police officers. Philadelphia is a tough town in which to be a police officer.

Police get killed in Philadelphia. It was surprisingly normal for I-95 to be shut down to let a motorcade escorting a fallen hero travel unobstructed. Whenever an officer was killed in the line of duty my neighbors would replace their porch lights with blue light bulbs to show support. On one such occasion there was a frantic search for the killer who had evaded capture. Having spotted an individual matching the description the authorities gave chase and we all watched it on television. The news helicopter got a great shot of a huddle of blue clad men beating something or someone for a good five minutes. It turned out the man they caught was the wrong guy. While in the hospital he was charged with resisting arrest.

I sat on my stoop talking to my neighbor the next day and she didn’t see it the same way I did. “I can’t blame ‘em. That mother f- – – – – killed a cop.”

“No. someone killed a cop but that was the wrong guy. They beat an innocent guy.”

“Innocent my a- -. They know what they are doing.”

“Wait, what? I get that the guys were a little charged up and its dangerous but they put the guy in the hospital and it was the wrong guy.”

“Yeah. You say that because it isn’t you. They kill cops out here and you have to watch out. I’ll listen to the cops and not some reporter on channel 9. They know what they’re doin.”DV IMAGE

We had lots of conversations sitting on the stoop. She never doubted the officers. Not when they were caught on camera shaking down the corner store, not when the five guys were caught running a steroids ring out of the precinct, especially not when they pulled over the black guy, patted him down and never gave him his wallet back. Turned out the black guy was retired officer himself but my neighbor took the side of the current duty boys. She kept the faith all the way up until that one party around Thanksgiving.

Some folks a few blocks over threw a birthday party for their adult son. One of the guests was a cop. He knocked back a few, because it was a party, but then he got in an argument with the home owner. They sent the cop home. Ten minutes later he came back with is service weapon and shot the birthday boy to death. The whole neighborhood was up in arms and mobilized when it looked like there weren’t going to be any charges filed. The same people who normally went around distributing blue light bulbs, came around again, but this time they were giving out orange. The whole block, as well as the next one over, lit up their porches with orange light to show their support of the victim’s family.

I sat on the stoop and asked my neighbor if this made her doubt all those incidents from the previous year. “You can’t hold everyone responsible for one bad cop. This guy is a disgrace. They need to charge him with murder.”

“Oh I agree. You can’t blame everyone for the mistakes of the bad ones… But what about those guys from last year? The ones who shook down the corner store over in the black neighborhood?”

“See, you don’t get it. The news is out to get these boys and its war on Cops on the streets. Naw, these boys know what they are doing. That’s a whole different thing.”

The officer was eventually tried and convicted of murder and all the bulbs are back to blue. I’m not there anymore but I’ll bet my neighbor thinks all this “I can’t breathe” stuff is bull. I would wager that she thinks those cops in Brooklyn knew what they were doing and that the guy deserved it.  It is indeed war on the streets. A war on truth, a war on reason.

I think being a cop must be the hardest job in the world. I respect that. They should get paid more. We need not just cops, but good cops. We need great cops. How hard it must be to pin on a badge that feels like  target for $50K a year? How hard to clean puke out of the back of a squad car, argue with people who claim they didn’t just punch that woman while you just watched them do it. Hard to keep catching the bad guy because a lawyer insisted the perp was wearing a hat you never saw. A hard job.

I also know Terrell never beat that guy.

I also know you can’t shoot someone because you got in an argument at a party. I know that no matter how flawed the courtroom is, the answer isn’t a nightstick. I know too many black folk who know too much about both courtrooms and nightsticks.

At the end of the day I know that bad guys are going to be bad guys. Because of this, the good guys need to be even better than good, they need to be great. Part of being great includes recognizing when you aren’t acting as such.

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