by Molly McGinn
November was uncompromising. It opened with the board of directors at the International Civil Rights Museum firing the executive director, Lacy Ward, and ended with a grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Ward hasn’t said much publicly since the firing and neither has the museum. But under his leadership, I’d started to see the museum as something like a civil-rights think tank, where preachers, teachers, artists and politicians could get together and create model programs for cities across the US, a place where people could peacefully protest, express anger and, once their boots have cooled, come inside and start working on solutions.
And I wondered what a conversation about Ferguson could have looked like in the museum, if the doors weren’t closed to the protesters outside. Where do we go from here? Just because the conversation can’t happen at the museum right now doesn’t mean it can’t happen somewhere else.
So I sent Ward a message on Facebook.
We met at Scuppernong Books on Elm Street last week, the night before Thanksgiving. He asked for hot apple cider at the bookstore bar, but they only had hard cider.
As we sat down, I asked Ward: If you could create a handbook on how to have a conversation from here, post-Ferguson, to strengthen the relationship between the community and the police, what would it look like? Where do you start? Here’s what he said.
Choose a common language
“The first step is to find a common language. Race isn’t a common language for Americans. For us, it produces a multitude of languages that are ethnically based.
“In the case of Michael Brown, what’s the initial crime? It’s jaywalking. What’s the final outcome? It’s the use of deadly force, and effective use of deadly force. The suspect is dead. We need to ask ourselves: ‘Is that the way we want to police America?’
“If most people can agree on the answer that jaywalking should not result in death, then we have found a common area of discussion. That’s the language.
“We need to have a higher-level conversation than the one race gives us. Race is a very emotional conversation, but that’s where we’re stuck. We’re stuck in a race conversation that doesn’t give us an answer to the problems that confront us.”
Define public safety
“What does public safety mean to you? You need to have that conversation out in the open, absent from current events to influence that discussion. Public safety has different meanings based on race — we already know that, right? So you need to have an open discussion across the social construct of race to examine things like, “‘What is public safety?’”
Understand the monopoly of violence
“The state — and I don’t mean the state of North Carolina, I mean the government — the state has a monopoly on violence. What does that mean? It means we as citizens have surrendered violence to the state. We will give to the state the power to exercise violence. Why? To maintain peace. The state is allowed to legally use violence, because when we as citizens use violence, we create anarchy. So to keep peace we surrender that. But we don’t surrender the discussion of when the use of that violence is appropriate.”
Define deadly force
“When we do we all feel ready to surrender to the state the use of deadly force? Are we willing to surrender it for jaywalking? It’s a question we all need to answer because a police officer with body armor and a gun is authorized to exercise violence on our behalf — because we gave that monopoly to him or her. How far do we want to him or her to go in terms of keeping the peace?
“Look at the numbers: How much are you willing to spend to maintain peace?
“How much money will the state of Missouri spend due to the actions of one civil servant? The National Guard was called in, sales-tax revenue was not collected due to looting and rioting. That money’s going to come from healthcare, education, parks and rec, all services the state of Missouri is bound to provide, services which provide better results for people in the long term. Those dollars had to be diverted because of one officer’s actions. Isn’t that a crime?
“Do we want to give one civil servant the authority to cost the state that much money, for jaywalking? So before the answer, we need to predict, what’s going to be the ultimate cost of using this tactic to address this offense?
“In Greensboro, we need to have an open discussion on having body cameras. What does it mean to wear them? And what are the rules under which they are utilized? What’s the common purpose? Protect the officer? Or line the pockets of the company who makes the cameras?”
Get in the conversation about how police are trained
“Officer Wilson said he responded in the way he was trained. I was in the military; we train our police officers the same way we train our military: kill. As military members we kill in the name of national defense. Until we tell them differently through police academies, through training, this is what we should expect from them.”
Give the police ‘surety of purpose’
“A public discussion about training, which will influence the police chief, will influence the norms and the behaviors observed by beat cops. The police department, I believe, is open to citizen guidance. Do we have the right process in place? I don’t know. I think officers would love to have that surety of purpose.”
Have a public conversation with a diverse group of people
“Bring together a diversity of people — chosen not by race, but experience. Representatives of city council, a representative of police or public safety, a representative of the faith community, youth community and the business community. You need to know how to collectively accumulate your voice in such clarity that the sworn officers of the state, the paid officers of the state, can understand you. They work for you.
“We can only start where we are. I’m okay with that. We can decide where we go.”
Molly McGinn is a journalist and musician living in Greensboro Her latest work, Postcards from the Swamp, can be found at mollymcginn.com.