By Guest Columnist NANCY FLAKE JOHNSON, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta
In the aftermath of the protest rallies and reactions here in Atlanta, across our nation, and indeed throughout the world, in response to the St. Louis County Grand Jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, we have to ask the question: “Where do we go from here?”
Wilson, the Ferguson, Mo. police officer who killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August, has become the lightning rod in the debate about use of force by law enforcement officials and the treatment of black men, and particularly young black men, in the criminal justice system.
Like the Trayvon Martin case, and all too many others, our communities looked to the Michael Brown case to be the catalyst for change; to inspire our nation to take action to protect and support young black men who are estimated to be about three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.
If the system is not ready for the change we need, we must be the catalyst for change of the system and change in our own communities.
We know that changing the dynamics between police and black communities is not our only challenge. If we are to help black youth gain a fair chance in life, we must continue to address the violence perpetrated too often within our communities by disaffected youth and address the root causes of this behavior.
We must do more to listen to and mentor our youth, curb the drop-out rate, support families to be strong, to address their needs and connect with opportunities and resources, make them understand how important they are to our communities and re-instill the value of education as the fundamental pathway to economic prosperity.
And, we must help young people connect their passions, innovative thought and talents with the new economy’s high demand career pathways and training that lead to gainful employment and self-employment. And we must find a way to support our youth and families to recognize the power of the vote in shaping the climate of our communities and become more civically-active citizens who understand why they must play an active role in their own governance.
As a community and as a state we must make ALL of our citizens feel valued, protected and view education as an investment in our citizens – develop our human capital – for the benefit of all.
In Georgia, the unemployment rate stands highest in the nation, we rank in the bottom five states in the nation for graduating our youth from high school and our state’s incarceration rate is fifth highest in the nation.
The Urban League of Greater Atlanta is calling for a comprehensive, non-violent and collaborative approach to change these conditions. The Urban League is committed to partner with youth, local, county and state leaders to implement an action plan that can alter the trajectory for those stuck in poverty, improve race relations and extend economic prosperity to all.
Pathways to Change
The Urban League of Greater Atlanta is committed to support the following steps to address the issues:
* Advocate for Use of Body Cameras – A recent study conducted by the Police Foundation in partnership with the Rialto (CA) Police Department concluded: “Wearing cameras was associated with dramatic reductions in use-of-force and complaints against officers.” The authors conclude: “The findings suggest more than a 50 percent reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control conditions and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12 months prior to the experiment.”
* Advocate for Training of All Law Enforcement Officials in the Use of Excessive Force – The laws that govern use of excessive force are heavily weighted toward the officer’s discretion in making that decision. The use of deadly force is primarily based on two Supreme Court rulings from the 1980s that some prosecutors say make it difficult to secure convictions. Critics of this wide discretion, state that it gives the benefit of the doubt to all-too-often poorly trained and rogue police officers. One of the major issues is that many do not receive any training on use of excessive force. Training of police officers in use of excessive force and tactics to maintain the peace and diffuse escalating situations must become mandatory.
* Educate Men and Boys of Color on the Criminal Justice System – – The Urban League was invited to partner with the National Black Prosecutors Association Atlanta Chapter and their Real Talk program through which we are visiting high schools throughout the metro Atlanta region teaching youth about the criminal justice system, what to do and not to do, and advocating for education, career pathways and crime prevention. The League is also incorporating such information along with Dr. King’s principles of non-violence via a partnership with The King Center, in the League’s education and workforce training programs to ensure that people know their rights, commit to non-violence and know how to protect themselves.
* Promote Community Policing – When I grew up, I was taught that the policeman was my friend and was there to protect me and my family. We must work to break down the walls between law enforcement and communities of color by fostering opportunities for the community to share their needs, concerns and experiences with police. Law enforcement officials throughout Atlanta have expressed their willingness to work more closely together with civil rights, community and faith-based partners and the League will help to foster their new level of engagement.
* Connect Youth and Adults to the Georgia Technical and Community College System of Georgia and other post-secondary options, careers and employment: The GTCCSG offers free programs for GED prep and adult literacy as well as COMPAS readiness for occupational skills training programs. These institutions also offer technical skills training for the high demand careers in our state. While the graduation rate for Georgia Technical Colleges is only 18 percent statewide, the placement rate for graduates is 80 percent or more statewide. Additional support resources must be made available to help students stay in school and complete their course work to access viable employment.
Urban League partners with a number of secondary and post-secondary institutions in delivering our education and workforce development programs. We stand committed to continue our Step Up to Work program for adults, our Urban Youth Empowerment Program (UYEP) and Neighborhood College platforms that support disconnected youth 14- 24 years of age to choose career pathways, earn credentials, secure employment, succeed and achieve their highest human potential.
Too many men and boys of color, who are vital to the stabilization and betterment of our communities, are dying at the hands of law enforcement – and at their own hands.
Both are unacceptable and together – black and white, community, churches, family, the business community, government and law enforcement – we must work to ensure that we redirect the climate that is pervasive in our nation that is sending the signal that black life is not valued.
We can and will do it – TOGETHER! Join us to do your part to facilitate change.
Note to readers: The Urban League of Greater Atlanta is a civil rights organization that supports youth, adults and families to move up the economic ladder through education, career development, training, employment, self-employment and wealth building. To volunteer, register for programs and to support the work of the League, please visit our website.
You are also cordially invited to support our upcoming 53rd Equal Opportunity Day Dinner on Saturday, December 6th at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel where we will “Celebrate Women of Empowerment” including Jocelyn Dorsey, Alicia Philipp, Patrise Perkins Hooker, Esq., Pat Lottier, auxiliary volunteers Adrienne Greene and Victoria Jenkins and special guest honoree Toni Braxton. Entertainment provided by saxophonist Mike Phillips. For ticket and table information please click on this link.