By David Cruz
A standing ovation, for cops, from an auditorium full of young men of color. And, one in return, from the cops. It was an auspicious beginning for what turned out to be a frank discussion about the chasm that exists between these two groups.
Under the auspices of My Brother’s Keeper, a presidential initiative to improve opportunities for young men of color, today’s forum at Central High School comes at a time of great crisis in this community.
“By the time you reach high school, you’re far more likely to have been suspended or expelled. There’s a higher chance you’ll end up in the criminal justice system and a far higher chance that you’re a victim of violent crime,” President Obama said.
Panelists included Mayor Ras Baraka, police, educators and students and what began as a somewhat academic exercise quickly evolved into a sometimes poignant, often lively discussion about how cops can better understand where kids are coming from and how kids can come to understand what a cop lives through, too.
“Like any cop, grocery store worker or even students, we all wanna come home to our families at the end of the day. We all have something that we wanna return to,” said Central High School Senior Taj Atkinson.
“I think that police need to understand that this is our community. It’s our community because we live here; we’re the citizens of this community and the citizens need to understand that they’re doing their jobs. Their job is to serve and protect,” said YouthBuild Executive Director Rob Clark.
“We’re parents; we’re sons; we’re nephews; we’re brothers. We breathe, we eat just like you and we’re here to help you. We’re not here to hurt you in any way and whatever we can do. We’re here to help you. The police is here to help you. We’re here to work with you,” said Detective David Ocasio of the Newark Police Department.
The conversation shifted to the so-called no snitching code of the street, where cooperation with police is seen as counter to community interests.
“How do we establish dialogue without being disloyal to our friends?” asked one student.
“It is also being loyal to help the police grab these folks that are doing the wrong thing, so it’s up to you to define what being loyal is and choose your loyalty, who you’re gonna be loyal to. So, when you keep quiet and don’t help anyone, you’re being loyal too. You can answer that question for yourself, who you’re being loyal to,” said Newark Police Captain Camilo Moss.
“If you are disrupting, destroying or wreaking havoc on the community, it’s my duty and my responsibility to make sure you stop. And in order to do that I’m gonna have to come forward and tell,” Baraka said.
There is no illusion that a morning of face-to-face conversation will fix relations between cops and young men of color, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The challenge now is to make sure that everyone is walking in the same direction.