Where do we go from here?
That question was asked over and over again at the “Flagstaff and Ferguson” community and panel discussion Friday at the Murdoch Center.
It was hosted by Northern Arizona University’s Philosophy in the Public Interest to discuss what the Aug. 9 killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., means for Flagstaff residents.
“This sparked concern around the nation not only because of the event itself, but because the challenges that Ferguson faced that led up to this event are faced by communities around the nation, including Flagstaff,” said moderator Andrea Houchard of Philosophy in the Public Interest.
More than 100 people of all backgrounds packed into the Murdoch Center for the discussion, including community members, activists, NAU students and faculty, City Council members and members of the Flagstaff Police Department.
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Panelist Timothy Swanson, pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Flagstaff, talked about his experiences marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago in the 1960s. Racism, he said, was an obvious back then, with police violently oppressing those who opposed segregation, but times have changed.
“It’s not that way anymore,” Swanson said. “Now, it’s covert and I think it’s more dangerous than when it was overt.”
NAU criminology and criminal justice professor Luis Fernandez was also on the panel. He talked about the racial and socioeconomic disparities that boiled over into protests in Ferguson with the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
“As this class thing becomes stronger, the police are the ones who have the role to maintain the class line and the color line,” Fernandez said. “And they are put in a situation where people have had enough.”
He talked about Ferguson as a continuation of a long series of racially biased police practices and police shootings of young black men.
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Panelist Frederick Gooding Jr., a professor in NAU’s Department of Ethnic Studies said Ferguson was a public reminder of what people privately know goes on every day. He gave a brief history of racism in America dating back to the way the first European settlers used slaves to build their communities. He also talked about how they tried to justify slavery using fallacious philosophical, religious, scientific and legal arguments about the differences between races.
“The point is, ever since the early European settlers first came to start a civilization, there’s been this relationship with people of color — namely black or brown — whereby they had to be controlled, they had to be tamed in order for the dominant society to maintain power,” Gooding said. “We all know this.”
Even though slavery is no longer legal, he said, white Americans have been conditioned to fear black and Latino Americans.
Gooding shared a story about how he was called to the principal’s office after his son got in trouble for inappropriately placing his hands on other students — during a touch football game. People in the audience started laughing until Gooding cut them off with one blunt statement.
“It’s not funny,” he said. “It’s my life. It’s the daily indignities of the reality that people have to go through that remains invisible to many.”
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Gooding also talked about the gap between how the law is applied to white people and how it is applied to minorities. For instance, he mentioned being pulled over three times in the first month he lived in Flagstaff.
“I understand that black and brown do commit crimes,” Gooding said. “I’m not saying they’re above the law. But the question is, how do we apply the law? If you want to find drugs, all you have to do is simply go to Beverly Hills.”
Gooding said racial minorities experience a duality where they are excluded based on their race even though they are Americans. White people, on the other hand, experience duplicity, he said.
“You know exactly what the hell is going on,” Gooding told the white members of the audience.
He then challenged white people to have difficult conversations with their white friends about racism and white privilege.
“Hopefully, what this will do is repeat another cycle of what we’ve seen in the past as far as people coming together working for a common cause,” Gooding said.
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Although some of those who spoke in the panel and the audience expressed optimism that change was possible, there were also many expressions of fear and anger. Several people told stories alleging racial profiling by Flagstaff police.
“People have been murdered by the police in this community,” said panelist George Villas, a community leader who was born and raised in Flagstaff. “Racial profiling is a daily occurrence. Police brutality happens all the time. The police are going to tell you that doesn’t happen, but there are many people in this room who have experienced that.”
Villas said he had a strong feeling that nearly every black, Native American and Latino person in Flagstaff had experienced racial profiling by the police. He then shared a story about how he was arrested by Flagstaff police during a funeral procession on Easter Sunday in 2012.
“I was one of eight people doing traffic control because the police had left the funeral procession,” he said. “I was the only Chicano, so I was the only one arrested and I got beat up.”
Villas also talked about Kyle Garcia, 23, who was shot and killed by two anti-gang task force officers during a traffic stop in Sunnyside in 2006. Both officers were cleared of criminal charges after the Yavapai County authorities who investigated the shooting concluded the officers acted in self defense.
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After the panelists were done speaking, the moderator then invited FPD Chief Kevin Treadway up to address the crowd.
“We know this is a work in progress,” Treadway said.
He explained that his officers do not use the military gear FPD has received from the government in the same way the Ferguson Police Department did last month, and stressed his push for compassionate policing and more cultural sensitivity training.
But when he said the number of complaints filed against officers had dropped over the past two years, that only 20 to 25 percent are sustained on a given year and only two racial profiling complaints were filed last year, tempers started rising.
Villas said the small number of racial profiling complaints and the even smaller number that are found by FPD to be sustained did not reflect what Flagstaff residents actually experience.
“So, racial profiling (complaints) last year, there were two?” Villas asked. “We have a room with 150 people here and three, at least, have spoken to their experiences with racial profiling by Flag PD. So colored people must be liars?”
Treadway said he cannot do anything about racial profiling unless people file complaints.
One Navajo man in the audience talked about the larger problem of indigenous people being displaced from their homelands.
Several other people in the audience jumped in with questions about the militarization of Flagstaff’s police force and comments on racial profiling.
There were also comments about civil rights abuses, homeless people being harassed by officers and whether Flagstaff was turning into a police state.
One audience member said she had heard that FPD officers would put their hand on their guns when they were stopping black men during traffic stops, but would take their hands away from their guns when stopping white men.
The moderator finally had to step in when audience members started raising their voices and shouting questions out of turn.
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One question came from an audience member who wanted to know how Treadway expected to build community partnerships when there was such a large power disparity.
Treadway said he was looking into creating a citizen liaison committee for community members who may not be comfortable bringing their concerns about a police officer directly to FPD. He also got a round of applause when he said all patrol officers would be equipped with body cameras by the end of the month.
But several audience members and panelists said that was not good enough. Instead, they called for an independent citizens’ review board that would be able to review internal FPD records and hold the department accountable.
Swanson proposed more frequent meetings between whites and racial minorities, even if just to socialize.
“We just don’t get to know each other,” said Swanson, offering to host such events at his church.
Reach the reporter at MMcManimon@azdailysun.com or 556-2261.