The road ahead for our country, our state and our community is a difficult one — a steep and rocky climb from protest to change. But it is a journey we must begin to end racism in the criminal justice system.
Attitudes are beginning to change, in large part because of cell phone videos of attacks on unarmed blacks by police officers. The scene of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes has shocked the nation.
The Washington Post reported this week that its poll showed 69 percent of all Americans say the killing of Floyd represents a broader problem within law enforcement, compared with just 29 percent who say it is an isolated incident. An amazing 74 percent of all Americans say they support the protests which have been staged under the banner of Black Lives Matter across the country and even here in Frederick.
“That finding marks a significant shift when compared with the reactions in 2014 to police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York,” the Post reported. “Six years ago, 43 percent described those deaths as indicative of broader problems in policing while 51 percent saw them as isolated incidents.”
The protests have convinced a large majority of Americans that the criminal justice system must be changed. Now, leaders of the protests and elected leaders at every level must come together to start the hard work of reforming policing in this country.
In an interview with the radio program “On Point” that was broadcast Tuesday on our local public radio station, WYPR 88.1, Yale history professor David Blight made the point that change may begin with rage but it takes political action to transform institutions.
Blight, who won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” said that Douglass started as a protester but found that he had to work within in the political system to end slavery.
The process of converting changing attitudes into political reality is already underway in Congress. House Democrats have unveiled a proposal to impose new restrictions on police behavior. It would ban chokeholds, mandate body cameras and curtail the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments.
The legislation is not likely to pass during a divisive presidential campaign, but it sets out goals for future action.
At the state level, Maryland lawmakers have formed a workgroup to address issues concerning police accountability and make recommendations for next year’s legislative session.
At the local level, Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor and acting police chief Pat Grossman condemned the killing of Floyd and promised to reassess local standards.
Grossman said the officers in the video showed a “callous disregard for human life” and said he and the other leaders of his department have discussed the video with their officers as an example of improper arrest techniques.
At the county level, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins is facing calls for changes in his department as well, and protesters confronted him Monday night outside his office. They made their point with signs, shouted questions and chants at him, including criticism over specific cases handled by the department. Jenkins has been a target of activists for several years because of his department’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws.
We have criticized the sheriff in the past, but it is to his credit that he did not barricade himself in his office but went out to see the protesters. He stayed calm in the face of the verbal abuse and in fact offered to meet with leaders.
The protesters were not in the mood to talk Monday, but the time is coming when they should. Jenkins is the elected sheriff, and he is likely not going anywhere for at least the next two years.
Having raised public awareness and solidified public support, protest leaders need to start pushing elected officials at every level to make meaningful change. And that begins by talking to those elected officials, even if you do not agree with them.
As Professor Blight said in his interview, no change ever came about just because it was the moral thing to do. And Douglass said: “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”