Lessons from Ferguson

Watching the news over Ferguson has been haunting and familiar. The circumstance of a young male of colour being gunned down by police has been a recurring theme in headlines across Canada and the US this year. Here in Winnipeg, a 17 hour stand off ended in a death just last week and while the circumstances were very different, the common denominator is the excessive force regularly employed by police and an attitude that makes us civilians wonder ‘who is actually being protected here?’. People ask that question and then they react – see Ferguson. The aftermath was quick and the last few days of protests and riots have reminded people of other tense times in race relations. But Thursday afternoon, something changed. The person put in charge of crowd control was of the community and immediately began taking a ‘we’re in this together’ approach saying “I understand the anger and fear that the citizens of Ferguson are feeling, and our officers will respect both of those”.

More protests in Ferguson

This man, Ronald S. Johnson, ordered the police to help protesters instead of detaining them. The SWAT teams removed their gas masks, and as the head of the police force, this man marched with the protesters at the head of their parade – calling for justice and agreeing that he would do all in his power to help that community, his community, to achieve it. His willingness to physically engage with the people that were previously being pelleted with tear gas and arrested, revealed to those protesters that he was truly committed to finding an end to the riots and bringing as much justice to the situation as could possibly be mustered. The following interaction taken from a Washington Post article really hit home for me about how its the HUMAN element that often brings peace to violent situations

One man stopped, telling Capt. Johnson that his niece had been tear gassed earlier this week – “What would you say to her?”

Johnson reached out his hand and replied: “Tell her Capt. Johnson is sorry and he apologizes.”

It is this approach that has been spoken about by the police chief Devon Clunis here in Winnpeg and it is something that community members from Meet Me @ the Bell Tower and the other many peace groups in our city have been calling for and attempting to demonstrate. The police Chief is of the community, he graduated, like me, from St John’s High School. Speaking these words and acting them out are very different and change in a system is slow – old attitudes are hard to break. We must improve the culture of fear that is being permeated currently in Winnipeg amongst citizens and the police; where the urban Aboriginal youth community often feels threatened at the mere sight of a cop car. We have to continue working together, highlighting partnerships and celebrating loudly the moments when police help and do good things for us, as loudly as we would when we feel injustices have occurred. Let’s engage in a human way with one another when we have hurts so we can together work towards healing.

police-shooting-missouri-1

Never forget the justice that you seek; as those who are following the Ferguson case will remember Mike Brown and the situations that caused his unnecessary and controversial death will not forget their mission. We can be human with those we disagree with, without compromising our integrity or swaying from our goals. Remember that every institution we are fighting is made up of many individuals – individuals with heart beats, sons, daughters, cousins and (hopefully) empathy. If you want to organize an action, bring your ideas and solutions with you so you don’t just destroy something, you also help to build up a solution or alternative. Let’s continue to bring the human element to the front lines of activism; so when we are fighting for peace we really can lead with love.

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