Area leaders hope the calm in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo. riots will lead to a franklook on issues involving race, police and problems in impoverished communities.
As rioting and protests went into their second week in Ferguson, Mo., local leaders are watching the events unfold as closely as any other American.
A 19-year-old black man was shot ad milled by a police officer after an altercation earlier this month . The victim, Michael Brown, was a suspect in a strong-arm robbery involving cigars at a nearby store, and matched the description by a store clerk and on the surveillance video.
Brown was reportedly trying to surrender when he was shot six times by a Ferguson police officer whom Brown had fought with in a patrol car moments before. Brown and another alleged suspect were walking down the middle of a travel lane when they were stopped by the officer.
In the days that have followed, more than 30 businesses have been damaged or destroyed in Ferguson, with damages in excess of $4 million, according to the Chamber of Commerce. Ferguson Police were criticized for refusing to release the officer’s name, then for responding with riot police, tear gas and heavy crowd-control vehicles. The Missouri State Police and National Guard were called out, and U.S. Justice Department investigators have been dispatched to determine if the civil rights of Brown or the protestors have been violated.
The trademark for the incident has become upraised hands, signifying surrender. Brown was reportedly trying to surrender when he was killed, although investigators have yet to confirm that. Protestors have started raising their hands and chanting slogans such as “I surrender! Shoot me now!”
Although some young men have been seen raising their hands in the air along J.K. Powell Boulevard in Whiteville, shouting support for Brown and the crowds in Ferguson, prayers and pleas common sense have been a more common local reaction.
Rev. Andy Anderson took to Facebook this week with a request from a friend in the embattled Missouri city, which is a suburb of St. Louis and roughly three times to size of Whiteville. Anderson called on friends in the community, social media ands area churches to pray for an end to the violence, discussions on race and patience for investigators to properly do their jobs.
“I just called a pastor,” Anderson posted, “who is now my newest friend, in Ferguson, Missouri. I felt that I sat on the sidelines and talked about the tragic death of Michael Brown too long.
“I called the pastor to support his leadership and to let him know that my family and my church family would be praying for peace in his community.…I am asking that all my Facebook friends join me in praying for the leadership in the faith community of the entire St. Louis area. Pray that the spirit of our Most High God will cause peace and reason to prevail in entire region.”
Like many voices for calm, Anderson didn’t downplay the racial overtones of the shooting protests, but noted that people should use the tragedy as a chance to take a cold hard look at race relations.
“Let us pray that the people of this nation will honor the life of all people, without regard to, but with appreciation of all colors and creeds,” he wrote, “that we will value creation over status and humanity over possessions, power and property. Let us declare peace in Ferguson…not only there, but in every place where our differences have been manipulated into destructive friction rather than added value to the human experience.”
‘No way to know’
Whiteville Police Chief Jeff Rosier spent most of his career in Baltimore, Md. He has investigated office-involved shootings as well as incidents involving allegations of racial bias.
The most basic element, he said, is to determine if the officer acted properly, regardless of skin color.
“What we are seeing on television and in the media is usually cherry-picked,” he said. “The average person doesn’t have access to all the truly pertinent facts of a case, and while it’s being investigated, they shouldn’t.”
An officer must be able to prove there was a need for escalation of force in any incident, Rosier said.
“At its most basic, if you pull a knife, I can draw my sidearm,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I have to use deadly force—there are still other options available in a confrontation. If an officer feels his life or that of another is in serious jeopardy, he has the right to draw and use his firearm as he’s been trained, and no officer is trained to wound an assailant.
“You go as far as you can to prevent that without endangering yourself or others,” Rosier said. “Nobody wants to take a human life, especially not a police officer.”
Rosier emphasized that he couldn’t comment on the Ferguson case, but that procedures are fairly consistent with most agencies.
“If a suspect is walking away, you can use hand to hand to detain him. We have Tasers, batons, and training if there is a physical confrontation. Drawing a gun and discharging it is a serious act.”
Rosier said when an officer-involved shooting occurs, police usually call in investigators from other agencies, as well as their own officers, to “get the whole story.
“You need corroborating witnesses, forensics, video footage if possible,” he said. “You need medical examinations, or autopsies if the suspect or officer is killed. Then you have to put everything together for use in court, where the final determination is made regarding a crime. The police can determine if procedures were properly followed, but it’s the court—not the public, not the media—who determines if a person is guilty or innocent.
“You have to work through all these things before a determination can be made. You can’t use what someone told you they were told by someone else, which is what the media and some of those fanning the flames are doing. Hearsay isn’t evidence—it’s gossip, and is worthless in court. It looks good on television, though.”
Rosier said the most pressing need in Ferguson right now is “to de-escalate the violence.
“Nothing is accomplished by rioting and looting,” he said.
Bolton Police Chief Ed Gillim once hated cops.
As a young man growing up in Connecticut—a state with a high number of complaints of racial profiling by police—Gillim learned early on not to trust police officers.
“I despised and distrusted them,” he said. “We all did. The more I began to interact with them, I realized what a lot of folks were saying about police wasn’t true. The perception is different on both sides—when a police officer is surrounded by people hostile toward him all the time, he’s going to be hostile toward them, to some extent. It’s natural—it’s self-preservation, because if someone doesn’t like you, they might do you harm. The anger and hatred feed off each other.”
As he matured, Gillim said, he spent more time around police, and realized he’d found what he wanted to do for a career.
“The more I interacted with them, saw what they did, the way they helped people, the more I wanted to become one of them,” he said.
The Sampson County native has the smallest—and most diverse—department in the county.
Gillim is African-American, like most of his jurisdiction. He also has a white officer and a Native American.
“We have some interesting discussions,” Gillim said.
The chief also has a different perspective on the shooting incident in Ferguson. While the circumstances were entirely different, he was shot by an alleged gang member who attempted to steal Gillim’s car. The shooting occurred during a period of extensive gang activity in Whiteville, and the chief was off duty when he responded to back up two Whiteville officers. The suspect jumped into Gillim’s car near a road block, and pointed his own firearm at the chief. Gillim and the suspect struggled over both his firearm and the chief’s before managing to fire a single round, which struck Gillim. The suspect bailed out of the moving car and Gillim drove himself to Columbus Regional Medical Center.
Today he wears the slug from his leg on a necklace with a cross.
Although the suspect has never been caught, and Gillim was determined to have acted properly, he still remembers the hours upon hours spent answering questions.
“It is a big deal when an officer draws a weapon, much less discharges it,” he said. “You’re frightened, you’re in danger, and somebody’s going to get hurt. We are taught what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, but it comes down to judgment. That’s something you can’t teach perfectly, and you only have seconds to make a decision.”
Gillim, like other officers, refused to comment on the Ferguson shooting, since “I don’t have anything but what I’ve seen on television.
“I can tell you, from my own experience, that when you’re in a car with a big man, and he grabs for your gun—it isn’t going to go well. I have been there, done that, and have the T-shirt.”
“I know of no officer that wouldn’t have told two men walking down the middle of the travel lane to get off the road,” Gillim said. “If they were doing that, like has been reported, they were a traffic hazard, and needed to be stopped by police. What happened after that can only be worked out through the investigation, not in the media or by throwing rocks and breaking windows.”
Driving while black
Randolph Keaton has been stopped by law enforcement because, in his opinion, “I was the wrong color, driving the wrong car, in the wrong place.
“We should be past this in today’s society,” he said, “but sadly we’re not, and the responsibility rests with both sides.”
Keaton said that because he was respectful, the officer let him go.
“By the time we finished talking,” he said, “we could have been friends. I was raised to respect, not hate or fear law enforcement officers or anyone else. Young people today, however, have a general distrust for law enforcement. We have to change that.”
Keaton is director of the Men and Women United for Youth and Families (MWUYF) in Delco. Through a community-service agency he founded, Keaton focuses on helping youth break the cycle of unemployment, poverty and crime.
“Many of our problems stem from the breakdown of the family,” Keaton said. “I was blessed with a strong, extended family, and I knew if I did wrong, there would be consequences.”
Keaton constantly fights the “thug chic” idea that criminals are cool, and cops are corrupt. A big part of that mindset, Keaton said, encourages the idea that all police officers are bigots.
“There are bad cops out there—everywhere, just like in any other part of society,” Keaton said. “But the vast majority of them are professionals, and will treat you with the respect and maturity you treat them. Our problem is we have a lack of respect for ourselves in society as a whole, and we have passed this on to our children. They in turn learn from television and video games that all cops are to be distrusted, and when a single cop is shown to be racist, that proves the point in their minds.”
Among his cooperating agencies is the Columbus County Sheriff’s Department. Through the Good Shepherd program, kids get to meet deputies, in hopes of developing appositive image of law enforcement.
“They have a thankless job, and they are there to protect everyone,” Keaton said. “We give them the opportunity to become known in the community, and the kids learn that law enforcement is a friend. That way, we have kids who grow up not to be afraid of police, but to respect them and be willing to help when called upon. That helps the entire community as well as keeping a kid out of jail and out where he can be productive.”
Keaton also pointed out that the suspects in the strongarm robbery were stealing either “blunts” or “wraps,” cigar covers used to roll marijuana cigarettes.
“We see them in every store, everywhere,” Keaton said. “If we as a community are willing to tolerate drug paraphernalia in our local stores, it’s partly our own fault that these things happen. I’ve seen people buy a blunt at a store, and shred to tobacco out in the parking lot. You know what they’re doing—they’re rolling a joint. In the car. On the road, where they’ll get high and endanger everyone’s lives. And we as a society tolerate this behavior.
“The small businessman has the right to sell what he wants, as long as it’s legal, but we shouldn’t put up with things like this. If it’s there in your community store, it’ll be on your roads. If people won’t let the police know who’s committing crimes, how can they stop them?”
Not enough diversity
Darrell Trivett is chief of Fair Bluff’s nine-man police force. All the officers are white.
“It’s hard to find black officers and attract them to alittletown like Fair Bluff,” he said. “We’re a training groundfor other agencies—it doesn’t matter what color the officer is. They can make much more money and have better benefits at a larger department, and I can’t blame anyone for wanting to take better care of his family. I came here from Carolina Beach, and I make much less as a chief than I did as a corporal there. You have to make your choices based on what you want for yourself and your family.”
The revolving door at many small departments leads to communication problems in communities, Trivett said.
“You have to be able to get to know the people in your town before they’ll trust you,” he said. “Again, it doesn’t matter what color the officer is, or which neighborhood he’s in. The people have to get to know the officer to trust him, and if he’s only here for a short time, there’s little incentive on either side for them to develop relationships.”
The higher crime rate among African Americans makes it even harder to find qualified officers, Trivett said.
“The standards commission checks everyone who wants to be a police officer,” he said, ”and they go through with a fine toothed comb. You have to—these people are being hired to protect the community and enforce the law. We’ve had people apply that we thought would be good officers, but the training and standards commission found problems we didn’t know existed. And they’re colorblind. A criminal conviction is a criminal conviction, regardless.”
Right way, wrong way
An issue that has threatened to influence the investigation into Brown’s death—and possibly cause additional fatalities—has been the ongoing rioting and looting in Ferguson, and the police response.
“What in the world makes anyone think this is the right thing to do?” Keaton said angrily. “You destroy private property, you hurt no one but yourself and your community. It won’t speed the wheels of justice.”
“There’s never an excuse for criminal behavior,” he said, “and that rioting, looting, burning stores–that’s criminal behavior. What does it do? How does it help the police find out if a crime was committed? How does it help the black community? Does it honor the man who was killed?”
Gillim said his father, the late Maccie Gillim, attended college with Jesse Jackson, and participated in sit-ins and civil rights marches.
“My father showed me the way to get your point across, to seek social justice,” Gillim said. “Some of the people involved in this stuff in Missouri are just in it for the limelight, or as an excuse to break the law. Those types don’t do anything but make matters worse for everyone, black or white.
“As a black man, it embarrasses me,” Gillim said. “The true protestors, the ones wanting to draw attention to the problems, and find a solution—they aren’t afraid to march in daylight.”
Keaton said that even without the benefit of a strong family, “you know the difference between right and wrong, and stealing and burning is wrong.
“Even now, as a grown man, if I think about doing something wrong, I hear my mother’s voice in my head,” he said.
Honest mistakes are often blown out of proportion when media gets involved, and “celebrities” go to places like Ferguson, Keaton said.
“These people have enough problems in that town,” he said. “Look at the athlete who was killed in Charlotte—he was in a car wreck, and was asking for help. The lady who called the police was frightened, the victim was hurt and frightened, the cops were on edge when they got there. Everybody made mistakes.
“Cops have to be allowed to make errors—they are humans, too. Still, apparent has enough to worry about with gang violence and the ways things are everywhere—Mom and Dad shouldn’t have to worry about their child being killed by a policeman, either intentionally or by accident.
“I spend a lot of time trying to teach young people how to de-escalate situations. We want to stop these problems on the front end. I want people to be in peace with each other, as God’s word would have us to be. It doesn’t help anyone when the media finds the worst possible person to interview, and the leaders use that person’s words as gospel, when they have no idea what they’re talking about—but it’s what people want to hear.
“If that young man was killed without cause—it’s not right. The way people are attacking and threatening the police officer—that’s not right. Destroying property and fighting with police—that’s not right. The way people are making a living off of this tragedy—that’s not right. All these factors make things worse, and they’re no closer to the truth.
“Until that type of behavior is stopped, it’s going to be hard to have any meaningful dialogue between the races, and without dialogue, nothing will be fixed. And it’s got to start with bringing our kids up to be good citizens.”
In his church last Sunday, Keaton said a deacon prayed for “peace and protection.”
“It’s not about race or the police or society,” he said. “It’s about love, peace and protecting our children. That’s what we were praying for as they get ready to go back to school, but we all need those things. We need to pray every day for peaceful resolution.”
Anderson followed the same vein in his message on Facebook.
“We are, can be and shall be better than this,” he wrote. “We are wiser than this. We are stronger than this. In the words of my late grandmother, Sadie Henderson Jones, ‘we should know better than this’.”
Chadbourn Town Manager Stevie Cox said he was troubled deeply by the incidents in Ferguson.
“I used to live in the Saint Louis for about seven years,” he said. “I still have a lot of friends and family who live there. I am praying for all of them. This is a tough time for the people of Ferguson.
“Time and cooler heads are the only thing that will bring some resolution to what is going on there.”