Forty-nine years ago on this very day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, fighting for sanitation workers and preparing to lead the poor people’s campaign. It was exactly one year since Dr. King delivered his Beyond Vietnam sermon from the pulpit of Riverside Church in Harlem, New York. Yesterday, on the eve of this day of memory, it was made public that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called for a review of federal agreements with dozens of law enforcement departments, including a 90-day delay of an already agreed upon consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department. It is, in effect, suspending and attempting to eradicate concrete police reform that many of us in the civil rights and activist community fought for and got the Obama Administration to begin. It is the epitome of insult and a slap in the face of justice that the Attorney General would, on this day in particular, try to roll back the clock on police accountability and fairness.
Oftentimes, people like to gloss over the depth of Dr. King’s work or pick and choose the things that they are comfortable with. When I was 13-years-old, I became the youth director of the New York chapter of Dr. King’s SCLC Operation Breadbasket. We were required to read his last book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” In that very book, Dr. King challenged police brutality and police misconduct. As one who has kept in mind the principles of this great civil rights leader ever since that assignment until the present day, I am appalled that anyone –- let alone the Attorney General ― would be against looking at the pattern and practices of police agencies. Correcting these patterns so that departments can be held accountable and they can then better serve the community against crime, and also remove those who commit crime within their own ranks should be a top priority for the highest law enforcement official in the country.
Some of us in, the name of Dr. King, will not be turned around on the bridge that we built..."
According to data compiled by the Washington Post, over 250 people have been shot and killed by police just in 2017 alone. Not only do we need independent oversight of police killings, but we also need oversight of any areas of systemic racism and institutional bias in policing. The effort for reform is not anti-police, but rather anti-police brutality, which is a crime. In our meeting with Sessions last month, my colleagues and I raised this key fact to him. He did not at that time say that he was going to order a review of federal agreements, though it was clear that he was leaning in that direction. It should come as no surprise that Sessions is taking this troubling step just days before a hearing was scheduled for public comment on the consent decree with Baltimore. Its fate, along with the fate of agreements with police departments around the nation, now hang in the balance.
You simply cannot uphold the law by giving license to law enforcement that they can break the law with impunity. What gives cops a bad name in some areas is when good cops protect bad cops and prosecutors look the other way. Dr. King challenged us with his life and words that it is our job to make the comfortable uncomfortable, and bring comfort to the uncomfortable. I imagine Sessions may have known of that legacy since Dr. King began one of his greatest triumphant movements, the Voting Rights Act, in his hometown of Selma, Alabama. He should therefore know that some of us in, the name of Dr. King, will not be turned around on the bridge that we built toward police accountability and fairness.