Protest leaders told President Barack Obama on Monday that setting up a taskforce to study community policing and asking Congress to fund 50,000 body-worn cameras for police is a start to addressing police brutality in America – but it’s not the systemic change they are looking for.
On Monday, Obama invited into the Oval Office seven black and Latino organizers who have been on the frontlines of Ferguson protest actions nationwide for more than 115 days since Michael Brown Jr.’s shooting death.
Primarily led by young people of color, protestors have shut down highways, disrupted Black Friday weekend sales – which saw a $7-billion decline from last year’s sales – and walked out of schools and workplaces. The organizers – who lead actions in New York City; Columbus, Ohio; Miami and St. Louis – told the president that people are not just fighting against the St. Louis County grand jury’s failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death. They want a stronger accountability system for police at both the local and federal level.
“The president requested this meeting because this is a movement that cannot be ignored,” said Ashley Yates, a co-founder of the St. Louis-based organization, Millennial Activists United. “We have two sets of laws in America – one for young Black and Brown people, and one for the police. We are sick and tired of our lives not mattering, and our organized movement will not relent until we see justice.”
The young leaders told their personal accounts of St. Louis police “terrorizing” peaceful protesters with pointed guns, rubber bullets, chemical agents, bean bags and menacing threats. They also spoke of the routine harassment and violence that many police departments inflict on communities of color.
They presented a list of at least six demands, which includes the federal government using its power to prosecute police officers who kill or use excessive force. They also want to establish community review boards that can make recommendations for police misconduct.
And if police departments that use excessive force or racially profile don’t want to change their ways, the Department of Justice should withhold any federal funding, they said.
“If police departments are not committed to community input and oversight, and refuse to train officers appropriately, they should be completely defunded,” said St. Louis-based hip-hop artist T-Dubb-O.
They’ve also asked Obama to put an end to the federal 1033 program, which equips local police departments with military gear – including the armed vehicles and tear gas that civilians saw police use in the protests. However, on Monday, Obama announced that his administration would not scale back the federal programs that “militarize” the police but would develop new guidelines for them. He pledged to ask Congress for $263 million to help purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for police, expand training for law enforcement and fund community initiatives.
In a press conference call with organizers on Tuesday, T-Dubb-O spoke about Officer Darren Wilson’s description of Brown as a “demon” and how many officers view young African Americans the same way. During slavery, people used the term “demons” to justify killing slaves as well. Tef Poe, artist and co-founder of Hands Up United, said black people have been oppressed for 400 years, and that is at the root of the problem. Obama’s taskforce is supposed to meet for 90 days to study how to improve community policing.
“If you are looking for a 90-day answer for a 400-year problem, I don’t have anything for you,” Tef Poe said.
In a letter to the president, Tef Poe wrote that racism is very much alive in America, and many young people looked to him for moral support.
“But as president with so much melanin in his skin, you seem to address it very bashfully,” he wrote. “Police often kill us (every 28 hours in this country, in fact) and go unpunished. Who holds them accountable if even our president has no official commitment to do so? As a community of young, responsible and politically engaged black people, we have collectively decided that we will hold them accountable ourselves.”
Organizers told the president he has used language in his speeches that criminalizes the movement, “lumping in the vast majority of peaceful protesters with violence and bad actors,” said Brittany Packnett, a St. Louis educator and activist.
“In our meeting, we explained that most violence in our community is coming from the police department, and something needs to be done about it,” she said.
Phillip Agnew, a leader with the Dream Defenders youth activist group, said they appreciated the meeting and believe it could be historic if real changes are made. Until then, the protests will not stop, he said.
“We are going to continue to take to street, disrupt the daily order, disrupt business as usual – until we see meaningful reform, not only from the president’s office but also local government,” Agnew said. “We are going to continue to demand change.”