The Rev. Dumas Harshaw is 64 years old and a respected pastor, shepherding First Baptist Church in Raleigh for the past 18 years.
He wasn’t always a pastor, nor was he always 64. He was, however, always black.
“Yes, I’ve been stopped by the police,” he said. “As a teen in Southern California, in Los Angeles, they were always pulling you over” for vague or no reasons.
“Since I’ve been here, there’ve been no encounters that were questionable” or unpleasant with police, he said.
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Hallelujah! The Rev. Harshaw wants to ensure that others don’t have questionable or unpleasant experiences, either. That’s why he eagerly allowed his church to host an observance Sunday to honor the memory of the two police officers slain in New York City this month and to encourage a dialogue between police and the communities they serve.
In addition to paying tribute to the officers, Harshaw said the observance was intended to “take a stand against violence and affirm that black life matters, that all life matters.”
Bruce Lightner, one of the organizers of the event, said Monday, “Everybody said meaningful things about the tragedy in New York and that it’s a double tragedy to blame the protesters for the killings of the officers.”
‘They were murdered’
The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, also spoke at the observance. There and when I spoke with him by phone Monday, he said, “Blacks have always supported police and been against killing police. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said of the protesters, ‘They’re not protesting police. They’re protesting institutional racism.’ ”
Lightner said, “It’s difficult to defend the cops in certain situations, but in this situation, they were just shot down cold-bloodedly while doing their jobs. That is the gist of what we wanted to call attention to – that they were murdered.
“On the other hand, we drew attention to police brutality in places around the country,” he said. There weren’t a lot of people at the meeting – there may have been more police officers than civilians – but that, Lightner said, wasn’t a result of a lack of interest in creating and sustaining dialogue.
“Enough people came to make it worthwhile,” he said. “One problem we had is that it was hastily put together. We had three or four days, right here at Christmas. We didn’t have time or resources to beat the drums.”
I hope that next time they’ll have time, because only good can come from citizens seeing police officers as people – grieving the loss of two of their group, listening to the grievances of the community – and from police seeing citizens as people with legitimate complaints, not as suspects.
Who are you gonna call?
Police officers are like lawyers: Few people like them until they’re needed. Forty-five years ago, a friend in Rockingham named Rodney was talking about his intention to run away to Oakland, Calif., to join the Black Panther Party. We were both 12, so there was no social awareness or outrage spurring his intention; he just thought the Panthers looked cool on the evening news in their black berets and leather jackets.
He decided against joining, he said, when he realized that it wouldn’t be the Panthers – despite the literacy and breakfast programs they were promoting – who would show up if someone broke into his mama’s house and he had to call for help.
Of course, being in 1960s Rockingham at the time also meant that we had about as much chance of reaching California as we did of reaching the moon.
That conversation and the pubescent profundity displayed therein describes the relationship many of us have with coppers. We respect and need them, but we fear them, as well.
Observances that bring the two sides together, such as the one held Sunday at First Baptist Church, will help erase the fear.