Community Gathers for a Summit on Peace

By Ann Bassette

Miracle Temple Apostolic Church on the south side of Richmond was the site of the “Get the Hell Outta Richmond and Put More Love Into It,” peace summit on Feb. 7. The gathering, organized by community advocates Rodney “Alamo” Brown and Steven Parker, brought concerned residents together to talk about remedies to violence, due to spate of violence (or “hell”) in this New Year.

The summit featured a number of speakers including Landrin Kelly of the Terrance Kelly Youth Foundation; Khalid Elahi, a youth advocate; and Pastor Patrick Weaver of Greater Abundant Life Ministries.

Information about social service providers, mentors for youth and the criminal judicial system was handed out to attendees.

richmond_brown_2At the start of the event, Brown greeted every single person in the church with a smile and a handshake as the pews filled up. “We wanted to bring out the community to talk about the issues that are concerning our community,” he said.

“We want to make sure we can show them that we have their back,” he said of the need to support youth in the community, “to make sure that they get all the fortified information they need to uphold this legacy we call Richmond, California.”

IMG_7302Around the room, a grandfather captivated his grandson by teaching him new Spanish words as they waited for the session to begin. A mother watched her son suck on his pacifier and practice standing while holding onto her fingers.

Co-moderator Redge Dwayne Green, who acted in the movie “Boyz in the Hood,” commanded the room with a bold smile, strong voice and friendly nature as he introduced each speaker.

“I’m participating in this event as a community member to project more hope and healing,” said speaker Dameion King. King was formerly incarcerated and said he understands how he was once a part of what helped to keep the community down. Now, working with local non-profit Rubicon, he has spent the last 15 years being a part of the solution and actively promotes violence-prevention.

“Liking is for Facebook, respect is for community,” said Pastor Weaver, to applause from the packed house. “We are not going to change the world until we change our world, from the inside out,” he added. “If we do not start instilling what we want our children to become, we find our children not at home, but in the pen. If we keep placating, pacifying, and pretending as if this thing is going to cure itself, as if the politician is going to come in because we cry about it versus vote about it, we’re only recreating the problem.”

The crowd clapped and shouted in agreement.

“The dream is delayed because we haven’t been responsible for the vision, “ he concluded.

IMG_7372One of the days’ most powerful speakers, Elahi, shared his life story to serve as a solution. “This is where I come from,” he said, “I was a part of the problem once before.”

Elahi said he empowered over 150 young people as a football coach in Richmond, which helped them succeed on the field as well as in the classroom.

“Violence is a disease,” he added. “It’s a public health risk. It’s not these young peoples’ fault.”

Other featured speakers included Elaine Brown, a former chairwoman for the Black Panther Party, Minster Andre Bean and members of the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety.

Ervin Roquemore, a Probation Counselor at Contra Costa County Juvenile Detention Center, said that he’s spent a lot of time in the community trying to ensure kids never end up needing his services.

By the time they reach the level of detention, the minors and their families are in crisis,” Roquemore said. “We’re not teaching respect, we’re not teaching love. A kid who doesn’t feel love doesn’t feel worthy and it’s hard to reach them. We have to let them know that they’re valuable to us, that they mean something to us.”

Coalition to Tackle Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

By Chanelle Ignant

With community-law enforcement relations still making headlines around the country, a group of attorneys from the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s office are organizing to see changes made on the judicial level here in Richmond.

Together with community members and organizers, the group aims to address the racial bias they believe exists in Contra Costa County’s criminal justice system.

The group first met in late January in response to District Attorney Mark A. Peterson’s public rebuke of Public Defender Robin Lipetzky for her remarks at a Black Lives Matter demonstration, where she noted instances of racial disparities witnessed every day in her work place.

“We here in the Public Defender’s office walk through these halls of justice day in and day out and we see the immediate effects of the disparate treatment on our clients,” Lipetzky said at the Dec. 18 rally.

“We see it in the fact that people of color are underrepresented on our juries and they are overrepresented in our jails,” she added.

In response, Peterson issued a four page long public statement refuting Lipetzky’s claims and adding, “We train, we teach, and practice the notion of colorblind justice, because all lives matter.”

Echoing Lipetzky’s statement, the group of attorneys formed, according to member and defense attorney Kaylie Simon, with the mission to “first and foremost educate folks and make sure that everyone is on the same page in recognizing that racism does in fact exist.”

“Community organizations have started to meet to talk about how we can work towards ending racism in the criminal system,” Simon said.

The group met again in February at RYSE Youth Center in Richmond to discuss strategies and next steps for their campaign. With about 30 members in attendance, the meeting was split into four action teams centered on: data collection, community outreach and education, local campaigns and media relations/communication.

While the exchanges between Patterson and Lipetzky were mentioned to provide context for the group’s work, meeting attendees were focused on bigger issues — awareness and change.

Eli Moore, a Richmond resident, said it was “opportunity to look at transformation in the county.”

“If it’s all about shaming the D.A., we’re shooting too short,” Moore said.

The mission to work toward systematic changes resonated with everyone present and carried over into the various task groups where, participants discussed practical solutions for getting their message to the public.

One idea on how to raise awareness while educating people, was creating a graph to illuminate the decision points that lead to the arrest and conviction of minorities but lead to less harsh penalties for non-minorities, even when the same crime is committed.

Doria Robinson, executive director of the Richmond based organization Urban Tilth, participated in the media relations/communications task group that developed the concept.

“There are a number of points before you even get charged,” she explained. “The police officer can decide to give you a ticket or a warning or to arrest you… Once in the system there’s another set of decision making points that determine how long your term is, what you’re charged with, if you’re charged as an adult or a minor.”

Robinson said highlighting patterns, such as this, supported by statistics, could foster accountability.

The group plans to develop a steering committee that will determine the next steps in making the movement sustainable, and the attorneys have already met with a coalition of public defenders from San Francisco and Alameda counties to coordinate regional efforts.

Rabbi Lynne Gottlieb, who has a background in campaigning and whose son is a public defender, says she sees a lot of enthusiasm and possibility in the group.

“I see this as an opportunity for coalition building and networking, and that’s really important,” Gottlieb said.

Historic Ties: As Chicago’s Pullman Neighborhood Seeks National Park Status, Richmond’s Own Pullman Story Remains Unpreserved

By April Suwalsky

For over a century following the Civil War, African American men employed as “Pullman Porters” — railway employees who assisted passengers on Pullman company trains — were the eyes and ears of the nation.

The porters founded the first black labor union and distributed black newspapers, reaching rural communities and igniting social change. They led national movements that gave rise to improved conditions for the working class, civil rights and formal recognitions such as the creation of the Labor Day holiday.

The porters’ stories and legacies are preserved most notably in the historic Pullman neighborhood built in the 1880s in Southside Chicago. The neighborhood, which was already a city landmark, National Trust for Historic Preservation “National Treasure” and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, became the country’s newest national park when President Barack Obama officially declared Chicago’s Pullman Historic District a national monument on February 19.

While Chicago’s neighborhood gains recognition, Richmond’s rich Pullman story remains less known and in danger of crumbling away.

Beginning in 1867, industrialist and Pullman Palace Car Company founder George Pullman began hiring African Americans – many who were former slaves – as porters and train personnel in Chicago. Despite low wages, the porters delivered impeccable service, and were the primary reason long-distance rail travel was considered luxurious.

By the 1920s, more than 20,000 African Americans were employed across the country as Pullman Porters, the largest category of black labor in the U.S. and Canada at the time. Passengers called the men “George” after George Pullman — regardless of the porters’ own names — a practice that harkened back to slavery.

In 1926, Pullman company leadership was persuaded — primarily by white men named George who did not want to be associated with the porters — to display the porters’ given names on placards in the train cars. (Of 12,000 employees surveyed, only 362 were actually named George.)

In Richmond, as in the rest of the country, railroads shaped how the city was divided, socially as well as physically. Part of this division is still felt in neighborhoods like the Iron Triangle, which is defined by the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks to the east and west and by the Richmond Greenway to the south, which grows along abandoned Santa Fe tracks.

Passenger rail cars were serviced at the Richmond Pullman Shops, a large plant at Carlson Boulevard and South Street that was the line’s western end.

Black porters and workers were not allowed to stay at the “layover” Pullman Hotel nearby, on the corner of Carlson — that was intended for white-only workers. Instead they stayed at the small 20-room International Hotel at 396 South Street, built circa 1900 and located about a block away from the Pullman Hotel.

In addition to being a respite for the Pullman porters, offering live music and warm, affordable meals, the hotel was a place of social mobilization and empowerment.

The Pullman Shops in Richmond closed in 1959, and subsequently the Pullman Hotel and several other on-site buildings were demolished. However, two main buildings and the International Hotel remain.

karithiThe late environmentalist and preservationist Ethel Dotson purchased the hotel with hopes of restoring it. Dotson, a tenacious community advocate, succeeded in a collaborative effort to have the Pullman Historic District and the hotel named as city historical landmarks, but restoration efforts stalled due to lack of funding.

Since Dotson’s death in 2007, residents and stakeholders have endeavored to honor her wishes to restore the hotel, and raise awareness about its importance to Richmond and U.S. history. However, there is disagreement about the best path forward, and the needs of funding and public partnerships have proved sticking points.

“There must be some way to establish the historic value of Ethel’s building so that its worth to black history will bring the help we’ll need to get it purchased toward the goal of restoration,” wrote Richmond’s well-known historian, and national park ranger, Betty Soskin in 2007. “The Pullman Company figured powerfully in that era and (surely) in the life of the International Hotel. That history will be important now to the justification for national landmarking and eventual restoration. The International Hotel must first be saved.”

Mayor Tom Butt, a community champion and advocate for historic preservation projects for many years, said that to make the restoration a reality would require up to a million dollars, and cooperation from the Dotsons to convey it to a non-profit organization.

“This is a very important part of Richmond history, and I would like to see the building saved and made accessible to the public,” he said.

Dotson’s son, Karithi Hartman, inherited the hotel after her death and says he is not interested in giving up ownership of the property. He does, however, agree that it’s important to preserve the Pullman porter legacy in Richmond.

“It will definitely be a part up in there that will be dedicated to the Pullmans,” said Hartman. “But selling, that’s not going to happen.”

Marching in Solidarity: Bay Area Comes out to Show Support for 43 Missing Mexican Students

By Yaquelin Valencia

About two-dozen people marched from UC Berkeley’s campus to the Oakland federal building on Fri., January 30 to show solidarity with the community in Mexico that is demanding answers about the case of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico who disappeared last September.

On Sept. 26, 2014, 43 university students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, traveling from Ayotzinapa to Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, disappeared after a confrontation with Mexican police in Iguala. Six people died in the ensuing altercation. It’s not year clear what happened to the rest, some believe they were handed over to a local drug gang on orders from the mayor of Iguala and others think they were all killed.

The Huffington Post reported that Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said the mayor of Iguala ordered police to confront the students to keep them from disrupting a political event for the mayor’s wife. The ousted mayor, Jose Luis Abarca, has since been charged with kidnapping.

In a recent CNN report Karam said there is “legal certainty” that the 43 University students were killed. But with only one student’s remains identified in the last four months, many parents hope their children are still alive.

The disappearance of the students has gone beyond outrage in the streets of Mexico and led to a global call to action with people around the world standing in solidarity, hosting actions, vigils, marches and gatherings. In the Berkeley demonstration pictures of the missing students were displayed along with banners that read “Berkeley esta con ustedes” (Berkeley is with you all).

10958855_1537228723205424_601923869855280182_nIn homage to Mexican culture the Berekley rally started with a performance by Aztec dancers and small children. Afterward organizer Ismael Chamu, a UC Berkeley student, announced that a group would be marching to the Oakland Federal Building.

“It’s been four months, and me and the other organizers, Carla Garcia and Valeska Castañeda, want to bring awareness to the community about this,” said Chamu. “I personally don’t believe that the reports are true. We’re still fighting for justice. The movement will continue.”

Holding banners and pictures of the missing students aloft, two-dozen participants marched through the streets chanting, “They took them alive and alive we want them.”

Some in the group waved their signs to cars that honked and showed support. After 4.8 miles the march ended at the Oakland Federal building.

San Pablo resident and Contra Costa College student Alejandra Arzate, 22, said she heard about the event through Facebook. She said that she came out “to support the community as a whole and to show solidarity to my home country.”

“I was born in Mexico,” said Florentine Becerra, 31,from Santa Rosa. “I am here to show solidarity to the missing 43 students. I don’t want this to happen again.”

Nataly Sanchez, 22, said that unlike here in the U.S., in Mexico you don’t see a bulletin with names of people who go missing, it’s rare to hear or see the names in writing. But in Mexico, with the 43 missing students the parents are exposing the names of their children who are missing because they took all they had.

“In Mexico all you really have is family and this is why many others are saying this is enough and taking the streets. All of this is creating consciousness in many comminutes in Mexico and other countries,” Sanchez said.

Local Happenings – Feb 2015

By Nancy DeVille

Art Exhibition

This year’s Richmond Art Center exhibit, The Art of Living Black, showcases over 50 local emerging and established African American artists in a wide variety of media- sculpture, photography, painting, jewelry and ceramics.

“We are proud to be hosting the 19th annual exhibition for The Art of Living Black,” Richard Ambrose, executive director for the Richmond Art Center, said.  “There’s no other exhibition, like this one, in the Bay Area that celebrates the work of regional artists of African descent.”

The Art of Living Black was founded 19 years ago by the late sculptor Jan Hart-Schuyers and late painter Rae Louise Hayward after their realization that black artists were underrepresented at area galleries.

The Richmond Art Center is located at 2540 Barrett Ave. and the free exhibit will run through Feb. 27. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday- Saturday and noon- 5 p.m. Sunday.

Artist’s talks are scheduled from noon- 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 7 and 14.

For more information, call 510-620-6772 or visit www.richmondartcenter.org.

Scholarship Opportunity

The Ed Fund is accepting scholarship applications from high school seniors in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Students who have completed their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or California Dream Act Application and have a 2.5 GPA or higher are eligible to apply for an Ed Fund college scholarship.

This year the Ed Fund will award up to 80 scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. The application deadline is March 5.

To apply, visit: www.edfundwest.org/Our-scholarships.

Breakfast with Willie Brown

Richmond residents ages 19-30 can apply to attend an invitation only breakfast with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

The February 25 event is sponsored by For Richmond. The Chevron backed nonprofit is extending the invitation to 100 Richmond youth that aspire to develop into future community leaders.

To apply, visit http://4richmond.org/leadership-nomination-2015/.

 

Black History Month Events at Easter Hill United Methodist Church

Easter Hill United Methodist Church is hosting Sunday workshop services at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. in February to highlight the historical contributions of African Americans.

The church will also sponsor a children’s black history celebration at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22 and a gospel jazz and blues musical at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 28.

The church is located at 3911 Cutting Blvd. For more information, call 510-235-4226.

 

Pre-Valentine’s Day Crafts

Kids and families are invited to join the National Park Service rangers for Valentine-themed arts and crafts on Saturday, February 7 from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center.

The rangers will have on hand recycled and everyday household items, similar to what children used to make crafts during the World War II years.

For more information, call 510-232-5050.

What We Can Learn From a Transgender Teen’s Suicide

Commentary, Adrienne Chainey

Leelah Alcorn was born on November 15, 1997 as Joshua Ryan Alcorn. According to her suicide note she knew as early as age four that she wasn’t a “boy.” Ten years later, she learned what she had been trying to define about herself nearly her entire life: She was transgendered, a girl stuck in a boy’s body.

At 14-years old she told her parents. And, in Leelah’s words recorded in her suicide note, her parents didn’t take it well.

“You’ll never be a real girl,” she says they told her. “What are you going to do, f*** boys?” At 16, Leelah tried again to gain her parents’ acceptance that she was a “she,” and told them she was attracted to boys. She’d later ask them to assist her in her physical transition (referring to hormones or surgery, if not both), something they refused to for financial and religious reasons, Leelah wrote.

By the time Leelah was 17, she’d been through more heartbreak than any teenager should. Leelah wrote that her parents took “their son” out of school, restricted communication to friends and social media and sent her to a Christian therapist who she said treated her with an extremist, controversial gender-conversion therapy that combined Prozac with a return to religion, and focused on getting Leelah to see the “error” of her ways and accept God’s teachings.

In the early morning of December 28, 2014, Leelah snuck out of her house, walked almost four miles to Interstate 71, outside of Cincinnati Ohio, and stepped into the road. She was hit by a large vehicle and died in the street around 2:15 a.m. according to a report from CNN.

About 17 hours later a Tumblr post she had set up to publish at 5:30 p.m. went live. It contained the suicide note I’ve been quoting and explained why she did it, chronicling her journey from a confused four year old to a girl on the verge of ending her life. In a post released after the suicide note, she apologized to a select number of people—her siblings and a few friends. She concluded the note by telling her parents she did not forgive them, and that it was their fault, their actions, that lead to her death.

We don’t know for certain if Leelah’s recounting of her life is embellished, colored by the rejection she felt, or fully accurate in its lambasting of her parents. But, we do know that what she said she experienced, and the extreme measures she took to escape her life, are all too common among people who, like her, struggle with identity and acceptance.

It wasn’t until high school, when I decided to participate in my school’s version of a gay straight alliance, that I realized how difficult it was to actually discuss the issues that are always present for the LGBTQA* (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning/queer, ally) community and anyone else who strays from “normal.”

In college I’ve lived intimately with those problems, spending my entire freshman year living in a dorm setting that catered to people questioning their gender, personal or sexual identity. I’ve lived in a home that had no pronoun assumptions, gender-neutral bathrooms and showers, and open minds.

Through these experiences, I’ve encountered individuals who struggle daily and I know for certain that the internet horror “stories” we here are more than stories. They are lives. Lives I now have personalities and faces to associate with.

For many Leelah’s personality, her face, her life and her death are that personal connection.

Following her suicide, the LGBTQA* community responded strongly and swiftly at the loss of another teen to suicide. Candlelight vigils were held in her hometown and in cities and college campuses across the nation. Her story made national and international news.

The Transgender Human Rights Institute responded by launching a campaign to enact a federal law, which they proposed be called Leelah’s Law, which would ban gender-conversion therapy in the United States, a practice many, not only the LGBTQA* community, view to be inhumane.

On my college campus, at the University of Oregon, a meeting was held following Leelah’s death, calling on students to help make a difference in the world for those who feel unwanted by family or society.

The response seems large, but I have many friends, colleagues, and classmates that have no clue who Leelah Alcorn was, or why her death is significant.

I worry that there will never truly be social change for those who feel victimized, but when I see articles about Leelah’s story written in England, or hear about vigils held in Canada for her, I know there is hope.

Leelah ended her suicide note by saying: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgendered people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgendered people who commit suicide this year…Fix society. Please.”

The pattern of youth suicides committed by those feeling insecure about their body, identity, or future is shocking and needs to be addressed. I fear the path ahead for those wanting change, is a hard one, full of people whose only goal will be to demolish the desire for change.

I believe it is the adolescents who will need to take charge and change society. Young adults can do something now. But first, we need to know that there are resources, and that those resources can help.

There are ways to take how you feel, any hate, revulsion or fear that you may have toward yourself, toward others, toward society, and turn that into the power it will take to change society.

We need to fix society, as Leelah pleaded. We need to, as a generation, rise up and make a difference in lives, help those who cannot help themselves — no matter who they are or how we may feel about their decisions in life.

Because, a life is a life. No one, for any reason, should get to the point where they say, as Leelah did on her Reddit account, “Please help me, I don’t know what I should do and I can’t take much more of this.”

We need to help.

* is for any other representation of personal, sexual or gender identity not listed

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Khalid’s Corner: Two-parts

Wisdom from Community Leader, Khalid Elahi

 

Staying alive is a two-part thing; it’s GOD and it’s you.

We all have a choice and that’s part of why we pray, so that GOD would add protection to us while we are living out our choices.

I used to risk my life in the same fashion as many did before me, and will do after me, and I did it with pride.

But along the way, the many obituaries that my name graced the back of as pallbearer and the mamas and grandmamas who sobbed—not cried—but sobbed in my arms, did a number on me.

I learned that I wasn’t so evil I’d hurt a grandmama or a mama in that way, even if I was at odds with a brother.

I learned that I was man enough to face a man and draw out an agreement with the guarantee that bullets wouldn’t fly.

The agreement that many of us hashed out in 1992 still stands today, so it can be done. But who is willing to continue the incredible work?

It is truly a sad day when somebody I coached loses his or her life to the barrel of a gun.

Staying alive is a two part thing, it’s GOD and it’s you.

Rethinking Why We Opposed the TV Show “Sorority Sisters”

Commentary, Asani Shakur

“Sorority Sisters” was a recent reality show on VH1 that showcased different African American women’s Greek life in Atlanta, Ga. The concept of the show was to see if bringing together sisters from different sororities would lead to unity or animosity. The program quickly created controversy over its negative portrayal of African American women sorority members. It even garnered a protest, before it official aired, when a promotional video was released online.

In standard reality show fashion, the show’s promotional video depicted African American women handing out insults, crying and generally acting ratchet towards one another. The NBA announced that it was pulling “all advertising” from the controversial show in December. And an online protest drew more than 40,000 supporters demanding that other advertisers pull support too. In the end, dozens of companies pulled advertising from “Sorority Sisters.” After the backlash, VH1 took the show off the air last month.

While I applaud the successful effort to get the show dismissed from the air, I am concerned that the protest centered on the negative portrayal of sororities instead of the negative portrayal of the women. To me this implies that organizations come before our African heritage.

Lawrence Ross, a lecturer and author whose most recent book chronicles the history of African American fraternities and sororities, was quoted as saying “the show reduces the worthy legacy of African American sororities to a perverse caricature.” But what about how reality TV shows reduce the worthy legacy of African American people?

I would like to see us channel that same energy and effort into protecting who we are and not just what we are a part of.

Not all of us have gone to college, and not all of us are going to go to college, so a good portion of us won’t ever become a sorority or fraternity member. However, those of us that are born Black will always be Black, no matter what journey we may take in life. So in this regard, I urge us to band together and speak up not just for organizations or clubs we belong to but for the preservation of our essence of being black.

This can be a new trend; to strongly petition against other shows that overly show us in a negative light and add to the stigma of African American people.

Ashe!

The Desolate Streets of Ferguson

New America Media, Commentary, Andres Tapia, Posted: Jan 13, 2015

The Desolate Streets of Ferguson

FERGUSON, Mo. – The protesting crowds have thinned. The 24-7 news army has packed up its equipment and moved on to the next hot spot. But Ferguson is still simmering.

It’s breathtaking enough walking through the business district along Florissant Ave. to see one storefront after another still boarded up either because of broken glass or as a prevention against vandalism or looting. But that scene does not ready my companion and me for the devastation a few streets over on West Florissant Ave., the epicenter of the worst violence in the wake of the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson for the deadly shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

tapia2.jpg 

The destruction stretches for nearly a mile on both sides of the wide avenue. I see for the first time the extent of the spillover rage that the TV cameras somehow did not fully capture. There’s the Walgreens, the McDonald’s, the Little Caesars, the Phillips 66, the Toys R Us, the local beauty salon, the local auto shop, the local diners — all torched, with smashed windows and dumpsters in the parking lots used to throw away the burnt, wet, broken debris of those chaotic nights in August and then again in November.

A National Guard armored vehicle rumbles down the avenue. Another is parked near an underpass. Police cars are tucked in business driveways throughout. A large lit up construction sign declares that a key intersection in the area will be closed after 5 pm that day. It’s the intersection where protestors gather nightly.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Ferguson try to go about their daily lives. They walk the streets to the boarded up grocery store for the day’s ingredients or to the deli for the day’s coffee. An artist advertises his upcoming CD release party.

Flashbacks to my growing up in a military dictatorship in Lima, Peru pop up for me. This is what a State of Emergency looked liked. The surreality of the mundane of day-to-day life against a backdrop of militarization, physical destruction, deep distrust, and a feeling that further conflagrations lie just below the surface.

tapia3.jpg 

At the same time, just as Mother Nature revels in the green shoots that suddenly emerge here and there in a vast expanse of forest decimated by a massive wildfire, there are signs of resilient hope surrounding the armored vehicles, cop cars, and burnt out and boarded up stores.

Nearly every single plank of protective plywood nailed to storefront windows were tagged by peaceful protestors with messages of affirmation. Ferguson Strong. Keep Calm and Pray On. Peace in Ferguson. Natalie’s Cakes and More [Is] Open. Love More. Love is Blk + Wht.

Hundreds of ribbons with more messages of hope and affirmation are tied to wrought iron fences along the avenue. They flutter in front of desolate burnt out buildings as well as a neighborhood school where the students are back at their desks.

I’m in town to meet the Chief Diversity Officer for a national corporation with headquarters on the edge of Ferguson. She tells me about various inclusive events her organization is proud of having conducted inside corporate walls. But just down the street, the still-shuttered restaurants, shops, and bars speak to a tense reality facing the citizens of metropolitan St. Louis who walk through her company’s doors every day. She sees an opportunity for healing dialogue that she has been testing in one-on-one conversations, though she has yet to figure out the best way to go about it organizationally.

She understands the fragility of it all; but also the need to keep pressing on in bringing a torn community together. The task feels enormous since it’s not just about Ferguson but about the still very unfinished work of racial reconciliation and inclusion in America.

tapia4.jpg 

But as the positive graffiti and ribbons testify, it can also be brought down to a simple message:
“Peace and Justice are two sides of the same coin.”

And these require a people and a nation who care. Do we and can we?

Andrés Tapia is Senior Partner at Korn Ferry, a global leadership and talent consultancy. He is the author of “The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity.”

 

A Model for Police Reform

Officer Brandon Ruffin chats with a group of locals barbecuing in the Veteran’s Memorial Hall parking lot.  (Photo by Martin Totland, courtesy of Richmond Confidential)

Officer Brandon Ruffin chats with a group of locals barbecuing in the Veteran’s Memorial Hall parking lot. (Photo by Martin Totland, courtesy of Richmond Confidential)

News Report, Brett Murphy

Ed. Note: In the past decade, the police department in Richmond, Calif. has undergone a dramatic transformation. Spearheaded by an openly-gay and white chief in charge of policing this largely African American and Latino city, the changes are now bearing fruit, with crime down and trust between officers and the residents they are meant to protect on the rise. As departments nationwide look for ways to improve community ties in the wake of police killings in Ferguson and New York, Richmond stands as a promising template.

Richmond’s police department is undergoing something of a renaissance these days, thanks in part to decades of reform that have moved the department from its longstanding enforcement-driven model to one that focuses more on building trust with the public.

That transformation was thrust into the spotlight in December when an image of Chris Magnus, Richmond’s white, openly gay police chief, went viral, stirring a national response. In the image, Magnus is seen holding a “#BlackLivesMatter” sign while in full uniform at a demonstration against police brutality. The demonstration followed the acquittal of a white police officer in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Magnus’ nine-year tenure is marked with like gestures: an extended hand to residents, viewed as enlightened by some and controversial by others.

“But the biggest challenge,” Magnus says, “has been changing the perception black community members [have toward police], those who had experienced a legacy of mistrust.”

That fraught legacy goes back decades, to the rough and tumble 1980s when “the cowboys” – a notorious, roving squad of undercover narcotics agents – were regularly accused of brutality, and more recently to the early part of the 1990s, when the city saw record homicides.

More than two decades, and a handful of police chiefs later, crime still racked Richmond when Magnus came on board. In 2005, a year before Magnus took over, there were 40 homicides.

“When I got here we were dealing with an extraordinarily high murder rate, off the charts,” Magnus says. “Officers were just crisis managers, moving from one hot call to the next.”

Department shake-ups

Along with the high crime rate, inner-department crisis and dissent greeted the new chief. He took the reins after a series of stagnant interim chiefs, save the progressive, but short-lived tenure of Chief William Lansdowne in the 90s. Other people wanted change in the past, Magnus says, but the culture of distrust and aggressive policing was too divisive.

Early on, seven African-American officers accused him of racial harassment and discrimination in a civil lawsuit. Part of the allegation was that Magnus had blocked the promotions of black officers. The chief argued that he was dissolving the departmental “buddy system” that rewarded officers’ connections and seniority, instead of merit and performance. A Contra Costa County Superior Court jury rejected the accusations and cleared Magnus in 2012.

Richmond Police Capt. Mark Gagan says these early shake-ups and “unflinching discipline” were not merely a show of force. Since he took over, Magnus has demoted and fired more officers than two decades of previous chiefs combined, while increasing the size of the force from 155 to more than 195 officers.

One of Magnus’ first steps was to decentralize the chain of command. Captains and other middle management positions were given more responsibility. For example, if a robbery occurs in the middle of the night, that sector’s captain will hear about it first, then coordinate officers and call community members in the area—often driving to the scene, too. Prior to Magnus, the sector captain might not have found out about the crime until the next afternoon.

Magnus says even if just one officer can break through and form a bond with a neighborhood, it’s a victory for the department.

“Cops are pragmatic,” Magnus notes. “They want to be viewed as partners in the community, not adversaries.” An ever-present fixture at city meetings, neighborhood events and volunteer opportunities—jeans dirty, shovel in hand—the chief has led the movement by example.

That work appears to be paying off. In the past few years, following a crime, or suspicious activity, tips and witnesses come forward more so than ever, Magnus explains. There’s also been a significant drop in overall crime.

According to Richmond crime data, total crime has fallen from 8,168 in 2004 to 5,961 in 2013. While total arrests (adult and juvenile) have gone down from 3,532 in 2005 to 2,705 in 2014.

Richmond also saw a record-low of 11 homicides last year.

 
A new approach

Community policing, formerly a specialized tactic taught to a handful of officers, has become the mandated status quo in Richmond. Gagan says Richmond is one a few departments in the Bay Area to implement a “true geographic deployment.” Meaning, officers are assigned permanent beats and can’t choose new ones each year, as was the case in the past.

Beat cops attend neighborhood council meetings in their coverage areas. They get out of their cruisers to walk around and meet people, building two-way rapport. Sometimes they’ll even give out their cellphone numbers.

Sergio Rios, Vice President of the 23rd Street Merchants Association, says prostitution along 23rd street’s busy business corridor dropped significantly when Officer Yesenia Rogers made herself regularly present and available to business owners two years ago. “I can just call her whenever I see something,” he said.

To gain trust in neighborhoods, RPD has also shifted from old-school force to preventative policing. “Verbal de-escalating” has made handcuffs, batons, and guns less and less necessary.

This isn’t just the “technique and tactics” you learn in the police academy, Magnus says. “[My officers] need to learn how to talk to people and be problem solvers.”

Gagan and Magnus say citizen-led, anti-crime organizations, like Ceasefire and the Office of Neighborhood Safety, contribute significantly to the improved situation.

Bennie Lois Singleton, a volunteer with Ceasefire, says years ago she was afraid to even drive down Macdonald Avenue after witnessing shootouts in Nevin Park. Nowadays, she regularly walks the route without trepidation.

“This is all because the community started interacting with police, and vice versa,” says Singleton, a longtime Richmond resident.

“I’ve never been so comfortable with police,” she adds. “It’s like everything else, when you get to know a person, you look at them differently.”

Bobbie Amos, a construction business owner who grew up in Richmond, recently walked into the RPD building on Regatta Boulevard and had a 30-minute sit-down with Magnus and Gagan—resident to badge. “I just wanted to meet them and say that we appreciate what can be a pretty thankless job,” Amos says. “We need to have relationships with the police.”

The chief also introduced new technology to help with accountability. Body cameras, vehicle monitoring, and the “blue team” personal monitoring system have been key in holding officers accountable. These new, real-time strategies help watch commanders maintain everything, save a direct eye on beat officers. Interactions with residents, complaint histories, and even the cruiser speeds are closely monitored and digitally documented.

“Now there are real consequences for bad behavior, bad police,” Magnus says. Consequences can come in the form of special training, missed promotions, demotions and even terminations. More often though, the chief says he chooses positive reinforcement to “get people to do their jobs in a new and better way.”

Along with new technology, the department has implemented new rules for dealing with missteps. In-house investigations, like the one around last year’s officer-involved-shooting, a corruption-related firing, and a marijuana cache found in another officer’s house, are made public.

“We’re transparent and proactive in dealing with bad behavior,” the chief says. “People [in the department] don’t want to stand by and let the one percent break the public trust.”

Though Richmond has come a long way since its days on the FBI’s most dangerous cities list, Magnus knows there’s still work to be done.

“We can’t drag people into a relationship,” he says. “But as long as they’re willing to meet us half way, we’ll be there waiting.”

 
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Chief Magnus was acquitted when in fact he was cleared.