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Narrowing our era’s Great Gulf

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

“And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.”
— New Testament Book of Luke
The Scripture above plots out the impassable, eternity-wide distance between heaven and hell. We believe it’s a depressingly apt metaphor for the precarious perch where America now stands as case after case of questionable police use of deadly force leads to unrest in the streets and – increasingly — in quiet hearts.
Unlike the biblical gulf, we each have the power to narrow the vexing gap of racial discord in our society.
It’s up to us whether we choose more uproar and bickering. Or whether we push toward greater unanimity.
Bluntly, blacks and whites differ vastly in their attitudes toward law enforcement and the criminal justice system. This holds true even when both races are otherwise similar in income, education or other demographic factors.
This counterproductive reality deeply undermines an American justice system that requires citizen trust in order to work. All Americans should believe that justice is fairly administered. That’s far from the case now, with trust seeming to erode more with events of each passing week.
Even if you think society is now color-blind and things are just fine, you should be concerned about the increasing numbers of people — of all ethnic backgrounds — who believe the opposite. That’s not healthy for our democracy.
And it makes for a standoff that is unsustainable. We have to find ways to listen respectfully to each other. To offer up ideas and argue vigorously about them. That is distinctly different behavior than one side shouting at the closed ears of the other.
Atlanta can lead the way on this arduous trek. We’ve done it before in finding solutions to difficult questions of race.
A starting point is at the granite-hard core of our current national discord. It is a situation born of minds stubbornly resistant to ideas and beliefs that clash against the cocoons of our life experiences. All of us usually see only what we wish to see. We surround ourselves with like minds, drawing blinds even more tightly against uncomfortably different ideas and opinions. We reject the notion that others may have encountered a different reality.
Often influencing our thinking, sadly, is what shade of skin hue we see in a mirror.
That is a great gulf to span. But do so we must. And that requires climbing a steep road toward that elusive, more-perfect union envisioned by America’s Founders.
Doing so begins with each of us. And it won’t happen if we continue to be distracted by blathering opportunists of all colors who stoke biases that keep us firmly imprisoned in our narrow comfort zones.
No one can  legislate or demand that we each better understand today’s clashing factions and worldviews. We have to demand that of ourselves and believe in our hearts that there has to be a more productive way forward .
If you get that, it’s worth giving additional thought and even prayer to the topic of civil rights and police force that now bedevils our society.
It’s worthwhile to consider with an open mind Eric Garner, who apparently violated a Nanny State edict against selling loose cigarettes. He ended up dead on a New York City street from a police chokehold after his pleas of “I can’t breathe” fell on deaf, uniformed ears. A grand jury last week declined to indict the officer involved.
Even New York City’s mayor, who has biracial children, seemed shaken while speaking about the case . From rattled hearts such as his, change can come – wrought slowly but inexorably, person by person.
We’d be remiss  in not mentioning Ferguson. A grand jury there  ruled that  Darren Wilson did not criminally err in killing Michael Brown, 18.
Support or disdain for the decision, with some diverse exceptions, landed often along racial lines, with each side claiming a simplistic, convenient and comfortable narrative. The fullness of what is right and just seems to have eluded both sides.
It’s perfectly proper, yes, to condemn an assault on a cop. Yet it should not be unreasonable either to wonder why  Wilson’s first choice of defense was a .40-caliber pistol.
Wilson stood the same height as Brown and weighed north of 200 pounds. Combine that with police training and it should be understandable why many believe that Wilson’s actions reflected poorly on those law enforcement officers who daily subdue large, violent, unarmed people in a non-lethal manner. Wilson consciously bypassed alternative weapons — including a baton, flashlight and even the 5,000-pound SUV he was driving. Had he chosen differently, Brown might be in jail today awaiting trial and Wilson might still be a Ferguson cop.
Both the Brown and Garner cases raise unsettling questions that demand cool, reflective thought. Asking them does not disrespect the vast majority of honorable first responders who risk it all each day on our behalf.
Yet, open minds and deep thinking don’t automatically result in action, or change. It’s no coincidence that the Attorney General of the United States chose Atlanta last week to begin a conversation on police-community relations.
We wrote the book on moving from discomfort to doing. During an epic era, Atlanta’s leaders who mattered did not walk away from tense discussion tables. We persevered.
Eventually, barriers fell and differing minds reached places of common agreement. That is a lesson that the rainbow of protesters now fanning out across this great nation could benefit from knowing. It is our job to tell them.

Bring on body cams and a real race discussion

By The Augusta Chronicle Editorial Board
The Obama administration’s efforts to “build trust” between police departments and minority communities give the impression Darren Wilson did something wrong in  Ferguson.
The White House seems to conduct itself as if the grand jury had indicted Wilson.
Posturing aside, we like the Obama proposal to help departments nationwide equip officers with body cameras – the type of lapel-mounted device that Wilson wasn’t wearing during the Brown incident.
More likely, a body cam  would have provided  more convincing proof that the 6-foot-4, 300-pound teen was the aggressor and did not have his hands up in the “don’t shoot” posture that has come to mythologize the incident.
Street violence after the controversial shooting might have been avoided if video and audio had jibed with physical evidence and credible eyewitness testimony.
Many departments use body cams to record officers on the job. They have been shown to increase civility and transparency because citizens and police tend to be on their best behavior when they know cameras are present.
A 12-month study in Rialto, Calif., showed the complaint rate against officers fell from 24 percent to 3 percent, while use-of-force incidents  declined from 61 to 25.
If things get heated — as they did in Ferguson — audio and video footage can allow viewers to more objectively discern what happened.
Obama’s proposed Body Worn Camera Partnership Program would give a 50 percent match to state and local police who purchase them. The $263 million initiative is expected to help acquire 50,000 body cameras.
Honestly, in today’s culture, body cams should be as much standard police equipment as guns and handcuffs.
The overwhelming majority of peace officers are respectful to communities they serve, and they respond appropriately in deadly-force situations. We  think those officers wouldn’t mind having their public interactions documented. They work for the public.
An officer who would balk at wearing a body cam rightfully would raise suspicion among his superiors. And because citizens are increasingly using smartphones and other mobile devices to film police encounters — a First Amendment-protected activity — any officer uncomfortable being on camera while on duty is facing an uphill battle.
Obama’s $263-million program probably won’t do much to build trust between police and minorities. Bridging that gap requires an honest national conversation about how police deal with criminality and antisocial behavior among minority populations — the very ingredients in the Ferguson shooting. This president — like many Americans, unfortunately — appears unready to have that conversation.
Until then, we should at least have the interactions between police and minorities more honestly documented on body cams.


Grand jury’s decision is beyond belief

By The Newsday Editorial Board
What happened Wednesday is incomprehensible.
A Staten Island grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who threw his arm around Eric Garner’s neck last summer in what looked much like a departmentally prohibited chokehold.
Garner cried again and again, “I can’t breathe.” Then he was dead.
The disturbing viral video shot by a bystander was an emotional gut punch. It was, and still is, difficult to watch. Video can mislead, of course. But what we thought we saw was bluntly buttressed by New York City’s medical examiner, who said Garner’s death was a homicide resulting from the chokehold and the compression of his chest by police officers.
And now we’re back where we were last week in Ferguson, Mo., back where we never really left, with a grand jury’s inaction reverberating profoundly and volatilely across the country. And with questions we have been unable to answer — about our nation’s troubled racial history, about the distrust that exists between minorities and police departments, and about why some of us are not treated equally under the law.
Garner was black. Pantaleo is white. Ferguson victim Michael Brown was black; then-police Officer Darren Wilson, who was not indicted by a St. Louis County grand jury, is white.
But the two cases are different. In Ferguson, conflicting testimony and evidence made it impossible to decipher what transpired, and whether Wilson should have felt threatened by Brown.
Garner, on the other hand, did not pose a lethal threat to anyone — not to the police officers who surrounded him, not to bystanders. He was resisting arrest on suspicion of selling “loosies” — individual cigarettes — a very minor allegation.
We wish Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan could step forward to explain why the grand jury declined to bring charges. If there’s a sound legal basis for that decision, we’d like to know it. But state law doesn’t permit him to discuss the salient details. And that lack of clarity leaves us with another crisis of boiling racial anger that must be addressed. Why are people of color treated differently by the police?
“This is an American problem, and not just a black problem,” President Barack Obama said. “It’s my job as president to help solve it.” He should, and assertively.
The Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation into the Garner killing. But we need more. Obama has said he’ll set up a task force to bring more transparency to law enforcement and mend a fractured relationship between police and the communities they protect. That’s a start.
We’ve made great progress over the years, but the past has a long and haunting reach. America’s race problem has taken a serious turn for the worse.
It’s time that we honestly confront it.

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