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After funeral, how does Ferguson begin repair?

August 25, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
While mourners lay Michael Brown to rest, the meaning and impact of the death of the unarmed African-American teenager continues to provoke discourse around the nation. For insight on the debate over criminal justice and race, Gwen Ifill talks to Rev. Starsky Wilson of St. John's United Church of Christ, Fredrick Harris of Columbia University and Tracie Keesee of the Center for Policing Equity.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: It’s been a little over two weeks since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, the area has seen daily protests, both peaceful and violent. Today, the teenager was laid to rest.

The line stretched well into the street outside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Saint Louis, where thousands turned out for the funeral of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. Mixed in the crowd were well-known faces, from the Reverend Jesse Jackson to filmmaker Spike Lee, to the parents of Trayvon Martin, whose own teenage son was killed in Florida two years ago.

Large photographs of Michael Brown flanked the closed casket before an overflow congregation. As she entered, Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, stood there for long minutes weeping. Other relatives offered remembrances.

His stepmother, Cal Brown, said the teenager nicknamed Mike-Mike became her best friend.

CAL BROWN: Mike-Mike is an awesome man. I have to say that because I met him three years ago and he was a boy, but he evolved into a man, a good man. And he just wanted so much. He wanted to go to college. He wanted to have a family. He wanted to be a good father. But God chose differently. And I’m at peace about that, because he’s not a lost soul. His death is not in vain.

(APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: A cousin, Ty Pruitt, reinforced the family’s call for calm in a community that was consumed by 10 days of unrest after the killing.

TY PRUITT, Cousin of Michael Brown: Then we’re going to hit the streets again and we’re going to yell out for our freedom and our equality and we’re going to yell out Mike-Mike’s name, and it’s going to shake the heavens from the thunder that we release, but not today. Today is for peace, peace and quiet.

GWEN IFILL: Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., delivered a similar plea at a rally yesterday.

MICHAEL BROWN SR.: Tomorrow, all I want is peace while my son is being laid to rest.

GWEN IFILL: In today’s eulogy, the Reverend Al Sharpton called for reforming the nation’s justice system.

AL SHARPTON: aggressive policing of low-level crimes and can’t deal with the higher level. Something strange that you get all these guns into the hood, but you run around chasing folks selling loosie cigarettes and walking in the middle of the street. There’s something crazy about that kind of policing.

GWEN IFILL: After the service, the funeral procession made its way to the cemetery, where many held their hands up in silent protest as it passed.

Ferguson regained some normalcy today, as more than 11,000 area students returned to school.

For more on where the debate over criminal justice and race goes from here, we turn to three people engaged in it.

Tracie Keesee, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, she’s a police veteran with 25 years of service. Political science professor Fredrick Harris of Columbia University, who is the director of the university’s Center on African-American Politics and Society. And the Reverend Starsky Wilson, pastor of Saint John’s United Church of Christ in Saint Louis. He is also president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation, a faith-based grant-making organization for children in the Saint Louis region.

Reverend Wilson, you were at Michael Brown’s funeral today. Did it seem to you that the community is taking a deep breath?

REV. STARSKY WILSON, Saint John’s United Church of Christ: The community is, indeed, taking a deep breath. But we are sure that it’s not for the sake of ultimate relief. It is not because we feel finally relieved.

It is for the sake of catching our breath to give appropriate time for mourning, lament and grief for Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown Sr., and the family, but committing with the family to work to do the long work toward building for justice, building God’s beloved community in this realm by seeking out and reforming the respective systems that really created this challenge, particularly as it relates to community policing among African-Americans in these kinds of communities like Ferguson, with great African-American populations, but disparate numbers of police, disparate numbers in city councils, and disparate reflections of that representation in government.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Tracie Keesee to pick up on that.

Is it top-down leadership or bottom-up, kind of an organic movement that is needed here to move us to the next step?

TRACIE KEESEE, Center for Policing Equity: You know, community policing was always about a bottom-up. And that is that partnership with the community.

And I think that is something that can never be lost. And that’s going to be the one thing that moves us forward. You always have a top-down when you talk about internal or inside the organization itself about how officers on the street get their mandates. But the original community policing is about that on-the-ground-up partnership.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Fredrick Harris.

We have been through a couple of weeks now of grief and shock and remorse and accusation, everything you can name. Has that in a strange way — has this tragedy yielded an opportunity for discourse?

FREDRICK HARRIS, Columbia University: Well, I think it’s a great opportunity. It’s a tragedy, but it’s an opportunity to transform a tragedy into, I think, what needs to be really broad-based social change, change in the way that policing is done in the United States.

You know, Gwen, since last fall, there’s been this spate of incidents that I think have really accommodate — accumulated, rather, the sort of discontent that you see not only in Ferguson, but across the country. There was a kid who — a college kid in Charlotte, North Carolina, who was shot while he was — after a car accident trying to get help from the police.

And we had just a few weeks ago the case of a man, a black man being choked to death with a choke hold by police in Staten Island. So I think think these cumulative effects have really pushed people to really see this not as a sort of local, isolated problem, but I think I would see as a crisis in the country.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Reverend Wilson this.

How different is this episode from the ones he named, but also from Rodney King or Emmett Till or even Matthew Shepard?

REV. STARSKY WILSON: Yes, I think this episode is more akin — and I’m really kind of connecting with Dr. Harris’ piece from The Washington Post, that this piece is much more akin to Emmett Till, in that we have the same issue of community trauma that is brought to us by the visual image of a young person in tragedy.

With Emmett Till, it was the open casket. With Michael Brown, it is rather the image of his body laying out for four hours on the ground in the midst of his neighborhood, which led to trauma for his neighbors and for the children and young people of that community.

But then for the millions of us who have seen it on social media, have seen that image, this is not something that is normal for the average American to see. And so when they see that image, and they juxtapose that image to the image of young people around Michael Brown’s age going out to make their voices heard through public protest and see them being responded to by a militarized police force coming upon them, then it does raise the question about whether this is the America that we desire.

And so I think those two traumatic images juxtaposed to one another call into question our greatest beliefs about what America is, and whether this is truly the land of the free and the home of the brave. So I think this is one of those things that really give us an opportunity, to Dr. Harris’ work, to build toward a movement based upon a personal connection with the images that we have seen.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Tracie Keesee about that.

We talk about community trauma. Part of it — and we see this in a new Pew poll today, that there is widespread distrust in that police will handle many of these cases fairly, not only among — this distrust is apparently not only among black America. It’s with white Americans and Hispanic Americans too. Where does the repair begin of this breach?

TRACIE KEESEE: Well, the repair begins not just with on the ground with the community, but it also begins internally.

And I think, as both guests have alluded to, policing is one piece of that. I mean, you have social inequality of educational issues as well. But for law enforcement itself, the leadership in law enforcement is going to definitely have to step up to the plate on this and begin to have those conversations about what it is that we can do better and then what type of service do we provide our communities of color, and have that conversation with the customers.

So it’s not about this isolated conversation about trust and transparency, but what do our communities expect of us?  And I think that’s where you begin. And that’s going to be a difficult conversation to have, and a lot of times a difficult conversation to listen to.

GWEN IFILL: Well, part of it — and I want to stay with you on this. Part of the conversation here is that the difficult conversation is also — it’s often about policy. You change a law, you make a law. This time, it’s about kind of a culture of distrust. That seems like it’s a little more amorphous to get its arms — get your arms around.

TRACIE KEESEE: Well, it’s always going to be a little bit more to get your arms around. It just depends on how dedicated you are to making the change.

One of the things we continue to hear is about the diversification of organizations. That is one step, but that is a small step. Once you get folks through the door and get them out of the academy, you have to get them, one, to stay. And if the organization itself is not welcoming of officers of color or women or transgendered or GBLT, then you are going to still have the same issue.

So there’s a lot of things to wrap your arm around. It’s just a matter of fact whether or not you are going to be dedicated to it after the cameras are gone.

GWEN IFILL: Fredrick Harris, Martin Luther King wrote, I believe there was a book and also a sermon, from chaos to community, where do we go from here?  What is your answer to that question today?

FREDRICK HARRIS: I think where we go from here is, is that we need political organizing.

And I say this because I worry that once the marching stops, you know, once the cameras leave Ferguson, that the American people will really forget this tragedy. And so one thing that we have to keep in mind is, is that for Dr. King and others during the civil rights movement, there were peaks, there were challenges.

And it’s going to take awhile for there to be substantive change, policy change. You know, from ’55, when Emmett Till was murdered, it took a decade before we got the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. So what I would say is organizing, building allies. As the poll numbers suggest, there are folk out there who are also concerned, beyond black communities, about policing.

So this is something I think affects the gay and lesbian community. I think it’s something that affects the pro-immigration community, issues around policing. And also I think we should think about the best of the civil rights movement, which is bringing these human rights abuses to an international stage.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Wilson, you appeared on a program on our local PBS station in which one of your fellow pastors said, what we need now is a new normal. You nodded your head. Tell me what you think that means?

REV. STARSKY WILSON: Yes, that was my good friend Reverend Traci Blackmon.

What she suggested was that the way we have been doing business, particularly — and I think she specified in the Saint Louis region — the way we have been doing business is not acceptable. The response of African-American leadership, that has not been unified because it is not networked or organized, is unacceptable.

The fact that young people were expressing their voice and felt disconnected from the African-American clerical leadership is unacceptable. And the fact that we continue to have police who do not respond even to the majority of their community in ways that are caring, that illustrate that they are there to serve and protect is not acceptable.

And so we have got to make some specific decisions and begin to make some moves from here. Our foundation has very specifically noted, we saw the youth energy out there and saw that it desired to express itself. So we have invested in youth organizing.

And so what — we want to put some funding, and we are, have already allocated some to organize some of those young people who are down there protesting to help them learn to map power and cut issues, to network African-American in our community, so that we have better responses and more coordinated responses in the future, and to invite through our philanthropic arm programs like My Brother’s Keeper, that this is a nice program, but it now needs to be brought into communities of need like ours, and leveraged for maximum benefit, so that we can really see those outcomes invested into young men like Mike Brown.

That must be our new normal.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Starsky Wilson of Saint John’s United Church of Christ, Fredrick Harris of the Columbia University Center on African-American Politics and Society, and Tracie Keesee of the Center for Policing Equity, thank you all very much.

TRACIE KEESEE: Thank you.

REV. STARSKY WILSON: Thank you.

FREDRICK HARRIS: Thank you.