Monday, September 15, 2014


Here’s a tough question for you: What do the late Michael Brown, a young black man of Ferguson, MO and I, an older white man living in New Orleans have in common? Give up? The answer is simple: We went to the same high school and we grew up about 10 minutes from each other’s neighborhoods. Michael and I both attended Normandy Senior High School, albeit more than 40 years apart. I graduated in 1971 and Michael was a recent graduate. So what, you might ask.

 I started Normandy in 1968, at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, which is generally held to have taken place from 1954 to 1968. 1968 was the year both Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were killed. It was also the year that 10 white highway patrol officers opened fire on black protestors in Orangeburg, South Carolina, killing three teenagers who were about Michael Brown’s age, and injuring 28 others. In Orangeburg, authorities tried to justify their use of excessive force by claiming the protestors were armed. When the dust settled, no evidence was ever presented that they were armed. As “they” say, the more things change…

 When I was a senior at Normandy in 1971, the majority of the student population was white. But the black student population was increasing year by year, and there was an emerging undercurrent of racial tension on the multi-building campus. It played out this way: One morning in the cavernous cafeteria a chair went flying across the room and hit a young white girl in the head. From there the conflict escalated into a black vs. white uprising.
It was violent and somewhat prolonged. Another day when my school bus pulled into the massive parking lot behind several other busses, a school administrator approached the bus and would not allow us to disembark. We found out that a large group of black students had staged a “sit-in” in East Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Fearing violence, the school administrators decided to send us all back home. Another day a standoff between white and black students began early in the morning in the parking lot, and rapidly became an out-of-control situation that required St. Louis County police officers to surround the parking lot – again we were sent home. These incidents kept happening that year.

Normandy High, once a relatively calm institution became a racial battlefield with armed security guards in each building. Much like Ferguson in 2014, the underlying racial tension in the school community would inevitably surface and permeate the culture. But unlike Michael Brown in 2014, those of us in 1960s St. Louis County (home to Ferguson and Normandy) never expected to fall victim to a street war with law enforcement. Here is the major difference between my moment of youth and Michael Brown’s: When I was 18 years old, young black men were not being shot dead on pavements coast to coast.

 Does that sound like an exaggeration to you? Well, I could mention the obvious – Trayvon Martin – but let’s focus on those who have actually been shot by over zealous cops:
 • Inexplicably lesser reported is the case of Kimani Gray, 16, shot four times last year by New York cops after he left a friend’s birthday party. He was unarmed.
• Just a few weeks ago Eric Garner (right)
was choked to death by a white police officer in broad daylight on a New York sidewalk, after being suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner was unarmed.
• While riding his bicycle earlier this month, Dante Parker, 36, was tasered to death by police who were on the trail of a robber who was reportedly riding a bicycle. Parker was not that man. He was unarmed.
• After an investigative traffic stop in South L.A., Ezell Ford, 25, was shot by police when he was reportedly face down on the ground. He later died during surgery. He was unarmed.

 And then came Michael Brown. And then came late nights of demonstrations in steamy Ferguson, MO. Ferguson Police Department somehow became armed with equipment from the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which runs a program called 1033 that has provided law enforcement agencies around the country with military style weapons.
What the hell are police officers doing with armored vehicles, grenade launchers and M-14s? By arming urban police officers with the same equipment that might be used in a military operation, there is an assumption made that all police officers are mentally, physically and psychologically prepared to use the weapons properly. Do we citizens honestly believe that the same cops who shot Erica Garner, Kimani Gray, Dante Parker, Ezell Ford, Michael Brown and scores of other young black men are to be trusted with the most high-powered weapons available in war efforts? I think not, and evidently I am joined in this skepticism by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder who told USA today, "It makes sense to take a look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it.”

Only about 20,000 people live in the six-square-mile municipality of Ferguson. The unemployment rate is considerably higher than the national average and the average income is substantially lower. The population is more than 60 percent black, but of the 53 police officers in the town, only three are black. That perfect storm of stats makes Ferguson ground zero for the renewed national debate about race relations. It is a sticky debate, because most of the participants have already made up their minds about how they view race in America. It is often difficult to persuade people to change their attitudes about race, but the debate that has been raging for hundreds of years has resulted in moderate societal change, albeit at a snail’s pace.

 For several nights after Brown was shot six times and mercilessly left face down on the August-hot street for four solid hours before being moved, I watched reports of police in full riot gear patrolling Ferguson. It was as if media [read: “CNN”] were waiting for an inevitable outbreak of violence. That violence never came. There were some tense moments, but overall it was peaceful. The only thing not peaceful about it was the sight of those cops and their tank-like vehicles and high powered weapons. The resounding mantra of the protestors, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”
will haunt all of us for a long time to come. At this point, I say, put your hands down, bow your heads and think hard about where we are in our cultural racial division, and about where we came from. Ask yourself why no one is requiring greater diversity among the police forces in places like Ferguson? Why is there no-training in multi-cultural communication happening in those same forces? Why are we trusting officers with two to three years of policing experience with M-14s? How deeply are we really vetting individuals who decide to craft a career in law enforcement? And where will the inevitable next Michael Brown meet his untimely death? Perhaps in your town?

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