By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 20, 2016
DECATUR—At a community gathering at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, African-American parents and grandparents voiced fears and frustrations about the shootings of unarmed black men by police officers.
Michael Arceneaux, of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, was distressed about what to say to youngsters about the violence that has dominated headlines.
“I see all this going on in the country and it worries me. I’m always thinking when will it hit me directly,” he said.
Almost pleading, he asked a panel of religious leaders and an Atlanta Police Department representative, “Explain this to me so I can explain it to my sons, my brothers and even my nieces,” he said.
Joy Jordan, who also worships at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, said, “I’m hurting. I want to direct my passion to something that can help. I don’t want to sit in my home.”
The Summit on Violence on Saturday, Oct. 1, attracted hundreds of people to the Decatur parish. People shared prayer, asked questions and committed to sharing ideas. They could also register to vote there. Organizers estimated some 200 people attended.
Catholic bishops are also trying to contribute to the discussion about stemming violence after the killing of unarmed black men and then sniper attacks on police. Appointed in July, a task force of bishops led by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory is putting together a document highlighting the racial strain and how church leaders and members can contribute to easing the tension.
“Our Catholic faith and our love for our country must compel us to resolve to address the issues that lie beneath these acts of violence,” Archbishop Gregory wrote in the Georgia Bulletin Aug. 4.
“We have witnessed the slaughter of people who were singled out because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or their profession. We’ve seen the loss of people whose hands may have been raised in surrender or who were fleeing and not posing any immediate threat, and others who have been targeted simply because of their profound professional commitment to serve and to protect and the uniform that they wore,” he wrote.
“That room was full of hope”
According to a database of officer-involved deaths maintained by The Guardian, a British news organization, 203 black women and men have been killed by police nationally this year as of Oct. 11. The Washington Post has documented 188 officer-involved deaths of black people in 2016, out of a total of 762 deaths across all groups. There is no official data from the federal government, so news organizations have begun their own recordkeeping. The number of blacks killed is disproportionate as the African-American community makes up about 13 percent of the total U.S. population.
Organized by Father Roy Lee, the interfaith gathering drew leaders from the Buddhist community, the Anglican Church and the Nation of Islam to share perspectives on healing and reconciliation in a time of division.
Father Lee said a highlight was hearing the diversity of voices looking at the problem since that is how progress will be made.
“It’s these types of diverse discussions that allow different perspectives to enlighten others and ultimately we become aware that we are mostly working toward the same end, just at times in different ways,” he said.
Father Lee said he found hope in the room even with the challenges facing the country.
“My hope was in the over 200-plus people that came looking for solutions, open to hear what they can possibly do themselves. To me, that room was full of hope and I am beyond excited to continue this journey and help others get involved in our faith-based community and beyond. This was our start, much more to come.”
“The nation is on fire”
Giving the keynote address, Atlanta Police Maj. Adam Lee III, commander of the city’s major crimes unit, told the group a crime-fighting strategy built on locking people up won’t solve street crime. He said police officers working along with the community helps to take criminals off the streets and reduces the risk of a confrontation between officers and the community.
“We have to earn the community’s trust back. I don’t know if we ever had it in the African-American community, probably not,” said Lee, who is African-American.
“Policing should be 99.9 percent about helping people,” the police major said.
A view that sees the community and police as “us vs. them” adversaries does not help, he said.
“We are guardians, not warriors. In Atlanta, we have something special. Historically, we have always embraced community policing. We started it when it wasn’t known,” Lee said.
A police department initiative to reduce gun violence during the summer revealed for investigators a disturbing trend: many teens and young adults shooting themselves. Victims claimed they were shot by others, but they were doing it to themselves, he said.
“Having been shot is considered a badge of honor in some of the neighborhoods,” he said.
However, one panelist said the city of Atlanta has far to go to reduce excessive force by police officers. He mentioned former Atlanta police officer James Burns, who was indicted for felony murder in August after shooting and killing Deravis Caine Rogers, 22, an unarmed African-American man.
“Let’s just be honest. The nation is on fire. With smartphones, we now see ourselves, unarmed black, brown, and low-income individuals getting shot,” said Marcus Coleman, the founder of Save Ourselves.
He said protests and the outcry in the black community will continue until the disparity faced by black Americans in officer-involved shootings and in the severity of sentences imposed by the court system is corrected. He said the Atlanta police representative echoed critics who blame the victims for getting shot and criticize a street code of “no snitching” to the police when officers themselves also have a history of closing ranks and protecting each other when one is accused of wrongdoing.
The gathering’s organizers created a Facebook page as a resource to continue the conversation.
To follow the Facebook discussion of the Summit on Violence visit: http://bit.ly/2dmcVwW or www.facebook.com/Atlanta-Interfaith-Community-for-Peace-and-Justice-914752205335884/.