President, National Action Network
Over the weekend, National Action Network (NAN) and I renewed our commitment towards seeking justice for Eric Garner, the father of six who died after NYPD officers placed him in an illegal chokehold according to videotape capturing the horrific incident. On August 23, justice caravans of cars and buses will be crossing the Verrazano-Narrows bridge into Staten Island and to the site where he was killed. We will march tot he office of the Staten Island District Attorney and demand that those responsible for Garner’s death be held accountable without delay. As I was touring churches and mobilizing people for this “We Won’t Go Back” march, I received a distressing call from Leslie McSpadden, grandfather of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Through his pain and grief, he told me the story of how his unarmed grandchild was shot multiple times by police in Ferguson, MO (as is widely reported now in several outlets). He knew of my work in this area, and asked for my assistance. I assured him that NAN will stand with the family, as we have done numerous times for families around the country, and assist in any way that we can through the peaceful tradition of this nation’s greatest civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For those distracting from the family’s wishes, I have a message: Don’t become what you are fighting.
As I have often stated, not all police officers are bad. In fact, I believe most of them truly are doing their best to protect people and reduce crime. But it is blatantly clear that there are some bad ones who have violated their own policing protocol, and it is those that must be dealt with immediately. Just like police officers don’t think everyone in our community is bad, we don’t believe all of them are bad, but we want to catch the bad ones just like they want to catch the bad ones. If we do not prosecute and discipline officers who break the law and who abuse their positions, then what sort of message does that send to the others? What kind of police culture does that create? And what does that say to the people they were hired to serve and protect? Whether it’s Staten Island or Ferguson, one incident is one too many.
After my call with Michael Brown’s grandfather, I read reports of alleged looting and violence (mostly property damage) in Ferguson. Like many, including the family of Brown, I was saddened by these images and stories. Instead of keeping the focus on justice for the deceased teenager, the behavior of some attempted to take attention away from the fact that another unarmed child was reportedly shot and killed by police. While there is understandable frustration and outrage in the community, we cannot push back against the disregard for human life by threatening it ourselves. We cannot fight a police officer’s inability to control his/her anger and emotions by demonstrating our own inability to control ours. The moment we lose our pledge to a non-violent movement, we become part of what we claim to be fighting. Do not allow this to happen; we must remain dedicated to a higher moral commitment.
Now there are some who simply may not believe in the ethical principles of Dr. King and Gandhi like I do, but they should at least have the strategic intelligence to know that they are playing into the hands of their adversaries. When you loot or behave violently, you give grounds to those that try to justify illegal police abuse. You become the poster child for them to say, see, we have no choice but to shoot and kill, or use a chokehold, because just look at the way they behave. When negative images and stereotypes are already etched in their minds from popular culture, do not validate their preconceived ideas.