The November 24th grand jury decision to not file charges against Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown sent shockwaves across the nation and made me, like many others, angry, frustrated and heartbroken.
Although I was disappointed, I was not surprised. Historically, there has been no justice for unarmed black males killed by white police officers. There are numerous black men who have fallen victim to the "shoot first, ask questions later" practices of authorities who, after investigations, were not held accountable for their actions. Now we must add Michael Brown's name to that list.
Many people took to the streets in and around Ferguson and in cities across the country to protest the grand jury decision. Most were peaceful in their response. However, a small group chose to vandalize, loot and set buildings ablaze. While I fully support peaceful protests, the destruction of property and endangering the lives of others is unacceptable.
All of us who value life and seek justice have an obligation to honor Michael Brown's memory with peaceful demonstrations and community action. Anything less undercuts his memory in a way even harsher than last week's decision.
Like many of you, I had hoped that Brown's death would not be in vain and that it would lead to a national dialogue about how to reverse this trend of deadly police force that disproportionately impacts communities of color.
I wonder, will we look back on the Brown decision for years to come with regret over the missed opportunity to push for real changes in the way law enforcement officers engage in our communities, regard Black men and value life? Will we address the lack of economic opportunities, troubling public policies and lack of meaningful civic engagement that dominates life in Ferguson? Or will burnt-out properties and shuttered business corridors become landmarks for that community's tragic shortcomings?
Where do we go from here to make sure these things don't come to pass?
At the Chicago Urban League we believe that, out of every situation that seems hopeless, there is an opportunity to dig deeper and work harder to find solutions. In Ferguson and in Black communities everywhere, particularly those where the police force doesn't mirror the community, we must demand that police officers treat everyone they encounter with basic human dignity, and enforce consequences against those who do not. We must tell our own stories and not leave them to individuals with unrighteous agendas and media outlets that are narrow-minded and limited in their thinking.
It's time to set some ground rules for how we're going to proceed going forward. First, if you're at the table, you must come in peace, not simply in anger. We have to make room for young leaders. They deserve to be respected and to be heard. And finally, we must commit ourselves to turning our conversations into meaningful, strategic community action.
Here are some proposed outcomes that a solutions-driven conversation can be built around:
1) Establish a national network of organizations that stand for justice and equality to support communities in conflict. Let's discuss ways we can bring together all groups who fight for equality, including the Latino community, the LGBT movement and women's rights groups to create cross-sectional dialogue on how we can collectively respond to unfair treatment by those in power or anyone who dares to deny their human value.
2) Advocate for economic opportunities in underserved communities. Discontent in communities such as the one Brown lived in grows out of lack of access to a quality education and good-paying jobs. We can eliminate the societal 'other' by ensuring communities of mostly Black residents aren't wanting for jobs and support for business ownership.
3) Encourage full civic engagement. When people don't exercise their right to vote, they are more than likely to be disenfranchised and treated unfairly. The prosecutor in the Brown case ran unopposed, for instance. We must encourage African American voters to turn out for every election and support candidates that have their best interests at heart.
Where do we go from here? What has happened in Ferguson can either move us forward or push us back. Most of its residents are reasonable, peaceful people who want change. But right now, the fact is whatever happens in Ferguson affects black people everywhere as it relates to this singular issue of deadly police force. Police can either continue to act aggressively toward us, and the black community can remain distrustful and bitter toward law enforcement. Or we can use our collective voice, our vote and our right as citizens to peacefully assemble to make sure Michael Brown didn't die in vain.
Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League