Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Priests and Prophets in Ferguson

Harold Dean Trulear


By Harold Dean Trulear

September 8, 2014

On August 25, 2014, Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri was laid to rest. The controversy was not. On a local level, the citizens of the St. Louis area have seen historic tensions in their community exposed. On the national level, policy discussions on criminal justice abound. From policing to profiling, second chances to sentencing reform, racism to reentry, national, state, and local officials and citizens debate the state of criminal justice in America with passions revealing adversarial positions that reflect a fractured nation.

We do not know exactly what happened the night Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown. Conflicting reports of Brown having surrendered and Brown having charged the officer should be settled in the courts. But they also point to a sharp divide between law enforcement and community that we cannot ignore. People are taking sides based on perception and history, not facts.

Yet we must pay attention to perception and history, because they frame action. History, because we know the factual record of racial profiling, its impact on young black males, and its challenge in the courts and policy reform. Perception, because suspicion grows between a community and its law enforcement officials when neither engages in honest dialogue about the true nature of affairs.

In his book Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in America, David Kennedy repeatedly documents the failure of these constituents to understand the true nature of the other, while also demonstrating successful violence reduction strategies when communities and police work together. Rev. Jeffrey Brown of Boston has organized Operation RECAP (Rebuilding Every City Around Peace) to bring together law enforcement and community organizations to discuss and implement strategies that bring neighborhood safety. Both affirm that peace and justice can coexist in metropolitan neighborhoods.

I deliberately chose the term "metropolitan" because, as Ferguson demonstrates, the issue of history and perception transcends so-called inner cities. Ferguson is one of a number of inner ring suburbs nationally that have changed from working-class white to a mixture of black working-class and professional people. In watching my own town make this shift over the past thirty years, I have witnessed both the racist taunts of youth driving through the city and the closing of a local pool in response to attempts at its integration, and a deliberate strategy of police and residents working together to keep a level of peace, even after a rash of carjackings and shootings twenty-five years ago. Adversarial relationships do exist between law enforcement and citizenry in many communities, but so too does genuine partnership.

Even in Ferguson, journalist Jeffrey Chu documented levels of cooperation unseen in the nightly news. Talking with local United Church of Christ Pastor Traci Blackmon, Chu noted the cleric had "helped organize, with the Urban League and Ferguson PD food distribution; ‘nobody has written about how the Ferguson PD has donated trucks of food and pizza to the residents,’” during the time following the killing of Brown and ensuing tension. But Pastor Blackmon also acknowledges the fear and misunderstanding on both sides of the divide. Like other ministers on the ground in Ferguson, her role is to be both priest and prophet. The priest provides rides for those stranded by cessation of mass transit. The priest prays for resident and policeman who struggle with all that goes on. But the prophet proclaims that we have lived with a false peace, the type that Ezekiel decries in the text bearing his name. The prophet points to the blood spilled in Ferguson as a sign of fear. We need priests and prophets in our response to the divide.

We live in a time with many voices addressing the perceptions and history that frame our responses. Bipartisan efforts such as the REDEEM Act, introduced to the Senate by Rand Paul (R-KY) and Corey Booker (D-NJ) call for sentencing reforms for non-violent juvenile offenders, expanded access to expungement, and increased opportunities to receive federal entitlements designed to ease the transition back into society. Community-based strategies for implementing probation and parole, like those introduced by then-New York City Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi intentionally build relationships between probation officers and citizens, moving offices into the community, and creating citizens advisory committees. Law enforcement and communities do not have to live as adversaries. But we need a fresh look at history and perception; we need lenses of trust and accountability.   


-  Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice. 


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”