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Michael Brown death spurs discussion of injustice, police relations

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Panelists share their thoughts during a discussion about the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 28 at Pacific University in Forest Grove.Tears were shed. Connections were made. Tough topics were brought into the open.

“From Ferguson to Forest Grove: A Forum Exploring the Intersection of Racism and Law Enforcement” brought a variety of speakers to Pacific University Aug. 28 to address recent events in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer shot and killed an apparently unarmed black teenager, sparking riots in the streets.

The shooting and aftermath have dominated media coverage and called attention to bigger issues, including racial tensions, minorities’ mistrust of white law enforcement, and the militarization of police.

“It’s a reality we have to acknowledge — racism is a national issue,” said Rev. Chuck Currie, director of Pacific’s Center for Peace and Spirituality and mediator of the forum, which drew nearly 70 people. “It often goes un-talked about and unacknowledged.”

Rev. Dr. T. Allen Bethel, senior minister at Maranatha Church and representative of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, kicked off the forum with stories of growing up in Jim Crow South Carolina.

In Ferguson, Michael Brown’s shooting was “the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back” amidst tense race relations and citizen-police relations, claimed Bethel.

He stressed the importance of admitting racism exists and he also suggested different races are more apt to handle crises together if they have an ongoing relationship and open communication, rather than coming together only during a crisis.

Bethel also emphasized the importance of not “blaming the victim.”

Rev. Kate Lore, minister for social justice at Portland First Unitarian Church and a member of the Portland Human Rights Commission, shared stories of growing up with racist grandparents and coming to acknowledge her racial privilege as a white woman.FGPD chief Janie Schutz joined the panel last week.

Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz described her personal philosophies and policing experiences. “Law enforcement has its faults; it’s made of fallible human beings,” said Schutz, who faced prejudice as a white woman policing in a majority black North Carolina town before coming to Forest Grove.

Schutz has always kept her personal motto in the forefront of her policing, she said, which improves race relations and officer-citizen relations: “Everybody is somebody.”

Lauri Stewart of the Human Rights Council of Washington County has extensive experience in police-citizen mediation and claimed while all people have their faults, it’s not necessarily individuals who create these situations.

“Systems create these kind of injustices — they make them inevitable,” Stewart said. “We need to look at societal structures instead of pointing fingers.”

Stewart cited Missouri state law as a system flaw, which she summed up to mean “All you have to say is ‘I thought I needed to,’” referring to when police shoot citizens.

Yashica Island, director of student academic inclusion and success at Pacific, agreed the system is “messed up” but also thinks there are “bad apples” who don’t receive proper punishment for their actions.

“I don’t feel my life is valued anymore,” said Island, an African American woman living in Portland. “I’m scared. I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel my son is safe. I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do about it.”

Patrice Fuller, president of Pacific’s Black Student Union, expressed a similar sentiment through tears, talking about how hard it was coming to Pacific, where she felt like she didn’t have a support system at first and “felt alone.”

Dr. Daniel Eisen, a Pacific sociology professor, said it’s often the “little tiny things” that add up to someone feeling not accepted or heard.

Fuller also alluded to experiencing racism, saying she has never trusted police and worries about her black male cousins all the time.

Lore said she believes police are not trained properly to de-escalate situations, often using “shock and awe” tactics.

Jennifer Yocum, pastor of the Forest Grove United Church of Christ, spoke up from the crowd to respond. She’s seen Forest Grove officers do a lot to de-escalate local situations, she said, adding that “systematic change comes a lot from relationships.”

When Island raised the issue of finding more money for officer trainings, Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax — attending as an audience member —- acknowledged that could be beneficial.

While this forum centered on relations between black and white people, the topic of minorities mistrusting police has previously come up at town meetings in Cornelius, a majority-Latino city.

Currie said he hoped the forum would call attention to all racial issues — and to potential solutions.

“Casting stones is just rhetoric,” Schutz said. “I choose to do my part one step at a time.”

“I want to be a part of the change that needs to happen,” Island said. “Ferguson is local.”

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