On the Trail: In providing insight to St. Louis, Cincinnati pastor comes full circle
Damon Lynch III spent a portion of his Sept. 9 last year sitting inconspicuously in the Greater Grace Church’s hallway. He was one of hundreds of people who attended the first Ferguson City Council meeting following Michael Brown’s death, a gathering that became a flashpoint for anger and demands for transformation.
After sitting next to Lynch to transcribe some audio, I found out that he was hardly a passive observer. Lynch was one of the many people who pushed for improvements in Cincinnati after a rash of police shootings in the early 2000s — culminating with a court-ordered agreement that sparked major changes within the police department.
In addition to providing a warning about the weaknesses of police review boards with no subpoena power (which, by the way, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved earlier this year), Lynch mused on what his city and Ferguson shared. After Timothy Thomas’ shooting in 2001, Cincinnati had “three nights of civil unrest, rebellion and riots.”
“We came to Ferguson because when we went through it in Cincinnati, we had people come in and give us help,” Lynch said. “So we figured we owed to the people of Ferguson and St. Louis County to show them a way forward.”
In a downright eerie bit of timing, Lynch and other Cincinnati officials were back in Ferguson exactly a year after that fateful city council meeting. They gave the Ferguson Commission an in-depth look at how Cincinnati’s reconciliation process took definitive legal action — and a lot of community buy-in.
With the commission set to release its report next week, Lynch and others provided insight on what to expect. Cincinnati's struggle, he says, hasn’t been easy. And tensions haven't been erased. But, there's been progress.
“We just have to have the courage to believe in ourselves,” Lynch said. “And so we come from Cincinnati not because we’re experts, but because we share the same problem. We come from Cincinnati because we have sat where you sit. We have been through what you’re going through. And so what I think is important for us to understand tonight is why we go through this in communities around this country.”
It was that second part that Lynch hammered home in an at-times-mesmerizing address to commissioners. He noted that African Americans’ distrust of law enforcement stretched back centuries, especially since police were often dispatched to capture runaway slaves. (St. Louis Alderman Terry Kennedy made a similar point to me earlier this summer after Mansur Ball-Bey was killed in his ward.)
The hostility extended past emancipation and into Jim Crow segregation.
“And so, if you decide you want to cross the Edmond Pettis Bridge, who’s on the other side to stop you? It’s not the governor. It’s not the legislature. Who do they put out there to stop you? Law enforcement,” Lynch said. “When they turn the dogs on you and the water hoses, it’s not Gov. (George) Wallace or Gov. (Orval) Faubus or the legislature. And then these might be nice cops. But you’ve got people making laws saying ‘stop them.’ And who’s the face of that? The guy with the badge. The guy with the gun. The guy with nightstick. The guy with the German Shepard.”
Looking through 'lenses'
Lynch noted that the St. Louis region is not necessarily different from other places that experienced civil unrest — like Baltimore. And because of that, Lynch predicts there will be some sort of consent decree in Ferguson that forces major changes in its police department. (That, of course, hasn’t happened yet.)
“We’re all going to get the same product. Because none of us are that smart that we’re going to do that much different than what anybody else has done,” Lynch said. “Same problem. Same product. But what we wanted to do differently was process.”
The process, he said, included getting “people in Cincinnati to see this problem through the same lenses.” And that meant finding common ground between African Americans and law enforcement.
Soon after becoming president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police, Kathy Harrell began building relationships with some of the police’s traditional adversaries — such as attorney Al Gerhardstein and Cincinnati Black United Front President Iris Roley.
“We all have a lot in common,” Harrell said. “We all have the same goals for the community. And the one thing that I will say that was very surprising I think to those who took part in the process and that attended meetings like this … was the fact that the officers also wanted change. They had been asking for change, and they weren’t being listened to.”
Besides the citizens’ review board, Gerhardstein said “change” brought about by the court order includes shifts in how police officers respond to crime.
“The biggest change the Cincinnati collaborative implemented was a core commitment to problem solving,” Gerhardstein said. “And that means data-driven policing. It means identifying problems that are small enough to actually solve. And it means engaging police with lots of other stakeholders. Landlords. Local tenants. Nearby business owners.
“That kind of problem solving changes policing dramatically, because it tells the black community ‘we are not going to do stop and frisk. We’re not going to do zero tolerance. We’re not going to sweep through your neighborhood,’” he added. “Rather we’re going to come to solve a problem.”
Change systems — and people
The Ferguson Commission supports major changes to officer training in its “signature” priorities, which means that type of policy change will be heavily emphasized in its report released next week. It remains to be seen whether those types of changes can pass out of the legislature — or be embraced by St. Louis police groups that are less receptive to change.
Yet perhaps the bigger question that often gets brought up when discussing post-Michael Brown policymaking is whether St. Louisans can change their attitudes about race.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, students from Koch Elementary School in Ferguson sang the song "That's What Friends Are For" in honor of their classmate Jamyla Bolden. Lynch noted that all of the students were black — which showcased how quickly “re-segregation” occurred after Jim Crow fell away.
“... every city I travel to now vies for being the most segregated,” Lynch said. “I went to Cleveland. ‘We’re the most segregated city!’ Cincinnati. ‘We’re the eighth most segregated city.’ America has so [quickly] re-segregated itself, it’s funny. So I watched all these beautiful little kids and I’m like ‘where’s the integration?’”
He then put forward the example of how white and black Americans had profoundly different reactions when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder. Even when people were in the “same room at the same time watching the same thing,” Lynch contended that the majority of white people declared “this is crazy” and the majority of black people said “we finally won one.”
“And we’re looking at the same thing at the same time, but not looking through each other’s lenses,” Lynch said. “And so because I have a dual stream of consciousness, I can see what my white friends see. Sure O.J. did it! Who else did it? I can see that. I can see what they see. But too often, others can’t see what we see.”
So what does this mean for St. Louis? Ferguson Commission managing director Bethany Johnson-Javois provided a key point this year that speaks to the "systems versus people" paradox: “I think what we’re trying to do is to use the agency we do have to advance this as far as we possibly can go — because we trust people.
“The number of calls that I’m getting saying ‘Let’s start thinking proactively before the report release about how we can engage in what way.’ And not just the funding, but the infrastructure,” she said. “No one organization can be tasked to this work forever. It’s going to take individuals and communities and systems working together collectively to do this. And that’s a paradigm shift.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.