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Rev. Heber Brown III discusses the history of police brutality in the black community and how communities need to begin to police the police to hold them more accountable

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Tensions continued to mount in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fourth night of organized actions by locals protesting the police killing of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets Wednesday night, and police fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at the crowd. Journalists covering the protests were swept into the fray, and stringers for The Washington Post and Huffington Post were arrested by the police. This came just before President Obama gave a brief comment on the mayhem in Ferguson. Here’s what he had to say today.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: There is never an excuse for violence against police, or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests, or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground. Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard.


DESVARIEUX: Now joining us in the studio to deconstruct these events is our guest, Rev. Heber Brown III. He is a clergy activist and pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore.

Thanks for being with us, Heber.


DESVARIEUX: So, Heber, our audience, most of their news is coming from the mainstream press when it concerns this story. I mean, I’m sure people are getting updates from social media and things of the like, but what context is really missing in this story?

BROWN: Well, I think in situations like this that it’s important to start with the very human element of this, that number one, there is a black teenager who is dead, who would have been in college, but now who is dead because of the actions of a police officer. And so starting with the fact that Michael Brown is dead is very important for me, that more than a cause, he’s somebody’s child. And I think starting with that piece is important, because humanizing the situation and connecting it to other very human situations as well, for example, the killing of Eric Garner, the killing of Jonathan Crawford, of Jonathan Farrell, of Rekia Boyd, it helps to string together a narrative of human beings–daughters, grandfathers, mothers, grandmothers–who were caught up in very–in a very real way the target of police brutality in this country.

DESVARIEUX: And can you elaborate a little bit more about that history of police brutality and the African-American community?

BROWN: Yeah, I think it’s important. That’s a great question, ’cause I think it’s important for us to remember that this is just the latest episode in a long string and a long chapter of incidents where the police departments of this nation or those who are charged with law enforcement have long had a contentious relationship with black and brown and poor people in this country, no matter if you’re a preacher like me or a professor or a politician. We’re all susceptible to the fangs of police brutality. And that has–dating back pre-civil rights movement. We remember those very graphic photos of dogs being turned on black children in the ’50s and the ’60s. And even if you go internationally, we remember photos of youth in Soweto and dogs and the police beating children in Soweto as they protested apartheid in South Africa. So there’s a long and storied history. And even in the music realm, interestingly enough, people like KRS-One, one of my favorite hip-hop artists, has a song about the police, where he talks about–he makes a connection between the overseers of the plantations here in this country and the overseers in law enforcement today. And so that history is there. It makes some people uncomfortable, but it’s there and it’s real.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And this contentious relationship, the way the media seems to be covering it is that they’re really focused on the excessive use of force, that police brutality that you spoke to earlier. But should the focus really be about the police in this story? And I ask this because a lot of folks say, you know, maybe just sensitivity training. Those are some of the resolutions, better practices, that type of thing. What do you think at the end of the day will solve these types of issues?

BROWN: Yeah, I think those things about sensitivity training or workshops or those type of things are the ready responses to situations like this. And they’re also the socially acceptable responses to situations like this. I think we’ve got to go a little bit deeper and broader. So number one for me on this particular issue in Ferguson, I start with what the people there are saying, what they want. I think it’s important that we do not, even with good intentions, dehumanize those who are on the ground speaking for themselves and the ones who are on the front lines of facing these tear gas canisters that you talked about and facing this very militarized police department. What are they saying? And so they’re saying they need the name of the police officer released, the one who murdered Michael Brown. They’re saying that they need more in the way of transparency with this investigation. They’re saying that they need more black police officers. And Ferguson is a majority black town, and they have a majority white police department. And that’s an issue that they’re saying that they need addressed. And there are so many others. And so I think it’s important for people like me and you and many others to first listen to what those in Ferguson–what are they saying? They are speaking for themselves loud and clear and are very brave and courageous souls. And so that’s where I start.

On the broader issue, though, I say that if we consider Ferguson and Dayton Ohio and New York and Florida and Baltimore, that there are some things that we can do, and for me it amounts to policing the police. I think those who are entrusted to enforce the law need to be held accountable as well. And it seems like across the board that the levels of accountability don’t have integrity when it comes to the police department. So even if you have the internal affairs, even if you have civilian review boards, these structures have not proven to be effective in holding police officers accountable when they engage in these types of very horrific acts against black, brown, and poor people.

DESVARIEUX: How could community members actually hold their police force accountable, their police accountable?

BROWN: Yeah, I think there’s many layers to that. Yes, it involves getting involved in local politics and perhaps running for office, joining your community association, and all those types of things that we hear about. Voting–we hear about that stuff regularly.

Another step I would propose, though, is we need to police the police and use the technology we already have in our hands. So for me I’m talking about cell phones, I’m talking about our camcorders, that we can record the police. And every time they’re in our neighborhoods, we need to record them for our protection and for theirs as well, because if something goes down in the community and there is a video or audio record of what transpired, that helps all parties to make sure that we have a fair and balanced–anybody uses that phrase, but we have a more even balance in how we address the situation. So I know there are some municipalities that have officers who have cameras on–front-facing cameras on their uniforms right now. I’m sure that more cities are going to consider doing stuff like that. But we don’t have the luxury as black, brown, and poor people to wait for elected officials to get to that idea. We can use what we already have. We have the latest technology that we need; in many of our communities we do. And I would say, let’s coordinate efforts, let’s record the police, let’s record every interaction, get names, get tag numbers of police cars, and thus create systems whereby we can hold them accountable. And it’s been done before. This is not some radical idea.

DESVARIEUX: But, Heber, as I’m listening to you, I can’t help but also think of what the critics are going to say to that. They’re going to say, if you’re going to try to improve relations between the people and the police, policing the police is not the way to go, because that just increases tensions.

BROWN: Yeah. I would say to those people, number one, what are their ideas for greater accountability? And for number two, I would say that sometimes those critics are speaking from a place of such luxury–they’re sitting in privileged spaces and have the luxury to make such detached comments. But for those of us who are on the front lines of seeing police brutality up close and personal, we should be the–our voices and ideas should be the ones that lead the conversation.

So I would say for people who have critique about the idea, I would say that when it comes to other communities, we don’t hear those same critiques. We don’t hear the same critiques from when white, privileged societies, communities with gated communities, and they have their own private patrols, we don’t hear anybody saying that that’s going to cause a contentious relationship with the police. When it comes to Jewish communities, we have one here. We have a major section in Baltimore that’s largely a Jewish community, and they have their own private patrol and they have their own phone number to call when you’re in danger or you need help. We don’t hear anybody saying to them that they should not be taking more responsibility for their own communities. I would say it’s highly ironic that when black people, when Brown people, when poor people start talking about taking up the reins of responsibility for protecting themselves and decreasing our dependence, at least decreasing the dependence on the police department, for those who say that’s going to cause problems, I say I’m not listening to that, unless you have the same thing to say about the white communities and the Jewish communities as well.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about poverty, poverty’s role in all this, ’cause I feel like it’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss. Can you just elaborate a little bit more? What is the role of poverty in creating situations like we’re seeing now in Ferguson, Missouri?

BROWN: Well, and in many of these situations, I think that poverty helps to create the perfect storm for these types of tragedies to occur, that when you have communities where they’ve been divested from–there’s a Baltimore activist who says ghettos are created. He said they don’t just happen; they’re created. How are they created? Well, you have poor schools in the community, you pull out the banks of the community, and you put in these payday loan places. You take out the grocery stores and you put in corner stores. You don’t have jobs in the community. You shutdown rec centers, and so the young people don’t have places where they can safely play. And this creates a perfect storm for these types of tragedies to occur, the ones that we know about and the ones that we don’t know about. And so poverty has a very central role in this, as well as race. And I think somewhere in that intersection is where we need to sit in that tension and come up with new and creative ideas to engage in. And I think that people in those communities need to be the ones that are leading the conversation.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Heber Brown, joining us in-studio, it’s always a pleasure having you here.

BROWN: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Reverend Dr. Heber Brown, III is a clergy-activist and pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.