In cities around the United States, groups have gathered in response to racially charged encounters with police. Last week, Raleigh had its turn when more than 200 people turned out for what was billed as a Town Hall Meeting on Race and Racial Attitudes at the Martin Street Baptist Church.
But this gathering had an important difference from those in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York and North Charleston. This time the crowd of mostly African-Americans gathered before there was a police incident. That is what Raleigh and all cities need, to talk about race, black communities and police actions before frustration and anger are ignited by a violent arrest or police shooting.
The meeting organized by Bruce Lightner brought out a cross-section of the Southeast Raleigh community, media, various ministers and government officials, including city council members, county commissioners and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. A panel that took questions from the audience included formeWake County Superior Court Judge Abe Jones, Raleigh Deputy Police Chief Joseph Perry and Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison. Horace McCormick, program director of executive development at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, served as moderator.
When an audience member asked Harrison how to prevent “another Ferguson,” the sheriff said, “Just do what we’re doing tonight. Build that relationship.” He said communication is the best way to solve problems “because all of us are as smart as all of us.”
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Both Harrison and Perry said training is the key to keeping law enforcement officers from overreacting to situations. Both said their departments are attentive to keeping their ranks racially diverse and reflective of the community they serve.
The questions and responses moved beyond law enforcement issues. One strong theme was the uneasiness felt in predominantly African-American Southeast Raleigh over growth and gentrification. They are concerned about the loss of affordable housing and a lack of information from city government about what is planned for Southeast Raleigh.
The town hall meeting was an impressive show of people eager to listen, learn and be heard on race, policing and housing and how to share in economic opportunities presented by a fast-growing city. Lightner, a lifelong Raleigh resident, performed a service by organizing the event. Now the challenge and the need are to keep this important conversation going.