Glenn Loury exhorts civil rights leaders to avoid making Ferguson the site for “a national debate over issues of race, order, and social justice.” Calling the surge of protests catalyzed by these events “an unfortunate and unproductive state of affairs,” Loury suggests the resulting dialogue is defined and constrained by the particular facts of the Wilson case and generates a polarized choice between order and trust.
The tension between public order and individual protections, experienced most profoundly by residents of disadvantaged and marginal communities of color, is not inevitable. It stems in part from Loury’s focus on order rather than community safety, which invites an adherence to what the legal scholar James Forman calls a “warrior” model of policing. This model breeds distrust between police and communities and has been shown to limit the effectiveness of law enforcement. Instead, we need police to engage with those most directly affected by the current conditions. Community problem-solving provides a vehicle for changing how police interact with those most directly affected by their conduct, especially young black men.
Our focus should be on community safety, not order.
Seen through the lens of community and justice reinvestment, I read the overall narrative emerging from the Ferguson-related protests differently than Loury does. I see the protests—occurring in conjunction with other forms of community mobilization—as elevating an alchemy of voices with transformative possibility. What makes me think that we may be at a transformational point in history, and that the protests stemming from Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere should be seen as part of that history?
First, I reach a different conclusion about the way the facts are being framed in both public protest and the media. The facts undergirding much public discourse surrounding Ferguson and Staten Island have been much deeper and broader than the particulars of a single case. I have been struck by the sophistication and systems thinking demonstrated by community leaders and in the mainstream press. Many of the public protests have linked the Ferguson case to a nationwide, systemic pattern of overly aggressive policing in communities of color, particularly with respect to the black men. Many have linked the individual cases to repeated failures of the grand jury system to hold police accountable. Even the largest and most conventional media outlets have covered deep distrust between police and communities of color across the nation, patterns of structural bias that police department cultures have failed to interrupt, and the overarching role of poverty and disinvestment in education and communities.
Second, people from many different races and social positions have been involved in the protests. Some of these protesters are equally concerned about violence affecting communities of color and the challenges police face in high-crime communities.
Third, although protests are unlikely to produce a legislative fix, they have been effective in establishing new venues for public engagement and problem solving, including commissions, public dialogues, and research collaborations that bring together diverse stakeholders to address underlying structural issues.
Finally, and crucially, the protests are occurring at a time when productive leadership from affected communities has taken root. A variety of organizations are working with youth, faith communities, and formerly incarcerated people to reduce violence and incarceration and invest in the neighborhoods where they live. For instance, the New York Reentry Education Network provides education to people caught in the criminal justice system. JustLeadershipUSA trains formerly incarcerated people to participate in local and national policy efforts aimed at reducing rates of imprisonment. The ministers and laypeople forming Boston’s Ten Point Coalition bring youth, community members, and police together to address simultaneously the problems of high crime rates and police harassment. As Forman has pointed out, when community members, including youth, have the opportunity to shape the agenda, they can address both crime and police behavior. These approaches bridge the tension between order and respect that frames Loury’s commentary.
Community leaders can take on the many different kinds of advocacy and participation that catalyze and maintain systemic change. But they won’t get far without protest, which seems to be a prerequisite for attracting attention to issues facing communities of color. In the absence of sustained public concern, change will never be a priority.