Barton Parks: "We are in a truly difficult situation"

These quotes are drawn from the third and final Public Hearings of the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Biographical information was contributed by the speakers, and is taken from the Hearings program. Speakers addressed this topic: "What does the past have to do with the present and the future?"

Dr. Barton Parks, a professor since 1980 for the Community and Justice Studies major at Guilford College. In the 1990s, Parks co-chaired one City Council appointed committee looking at ways to reduce crime and violence in Greensboro, and co-chaired another City Council committee that studied the possibility of an independent community review board for police accountability. He also served on the search committee that ultimately hired Police Chief Robert White.

"The disaster in New Orleans revealed with remarkable clarity how our systems, our institutional structures in America, impose a terrible injustice on impoverished people of color. Learning from New Orleans, I think we can look at our systems here in Greensboro, our institutional structures - in 1979, before then and after then – hopefully, we may be ready to recognize that our systems also impose a terrible injustice on many in our community."

"If the police experience problems with some communities, and put themselves into those communities to help solve the problems, it makes sense that in reverse, a community may experience problems with the police, and wish to respond to them. Just as the police establish a presence in a community, a community may feel it needs a presence within the police."

"The police after all, are a hierarchical system in which accountability moves upward to the chief, and from the chief to the city manager and city council. Legally and practically, police accountability is to a very small group. Theoretically, this small group is representative. But the white majority in it is actually far removed from the daily lives of those of people in impoverished communities of color."

"On the other hand, a community, especially an impoverished community of color in the American South, is a group of people trying to live together; to make it; to cope. It is not hard to see that many in such a community do not believe the police department is accountable to them as citizens. In a democratic society, surely the needs of communities should match those of hierarchical systems that in their organization are not democratic. In other words, communities should have as much right to establish presence in our hierarchical systems of government as our systems have to establish themselves in our communities."

"Police in our society are given firearms. They are given the right to arrest people, and under certain circumstances, to take their lives. Police, further, are mostly working class males who are assigned to patrol neighborhoods of largely impoverished African-Americans – people often of a different class and culture. This is a difficult assignment, especially in a city steeped in its own history of the racism of the American South. In the absence of understanding the history and culture of black people, officers patrolling impoverished communities of color can not help but often bring with them some characteristics of the larger white American culture. Because of what we all learn from our larger society, and without information to counter it, police in these communities too often have a mindset that misunderstands and devalues these communities."

"By learning about the history and culture of African-Americans, police officers should gain a sense of support for these communities. They will be able to more effectively help those with whom they come in contact. It also makes sense that they will be safer themselves, and able to move beyond the ‘us vs. them’ thinking, into which police training and their own experiences often push them."

"People who study African-American history and culture find that this history is one of courage and struggling for survival under three centuries of slavery, one century of apartheid, and forty recent years of what we hope is becoming increasingly visible prejudice and discrimination. The history of black people is filled with their helping and saving each other in the face of white violence and white riots. There are many heroes and sheroes."

"Katrina showed us that the institutional structures in New Orleans lacked effective evacuation plans for impoverished communities, not only from a hurricane, but also from the poverty and discrimination present there for decades… in Greensboro, we have had our chances to look seriously at ourselves. The 1979 massacre was one, and there have been others, including a committee to study a living wage. An example in which I was involved was a police review board."

"The board we proposed would have increased the accountability of the Greensboro Police Department to all communities, and especially communities of color. Without much fanfare, the City Council rejected the recommendations of the committee it had created."

"It would be interesting to study the pattern of voting for the Police Review Board, and other efforts such as the living wage, and to compare it with the recent vote regarding this Commission. It appears that our City Council, then, has a history of hearing about the difficulties of impoverished communities of color, sanctioning groups to look into them, and then rejecting their recommendations."

"While this raises questions about who the majority on the City Council represents, the deeper question is whose interests would it have hurt to have a Police Department more responsive to impoverished communities of color? Why should it have hurt anyone? These kinds of actions by our City Council breed cynicism and hopelessness on the part of many citizens. They convince people that change is not possible. People give up hope."

"Why then, you might ask me, should we propose another initiative such as training police in the history and culture of our communities of color, when our City Council has a clear record of turning down attempts to improve institutional responsiveness to these communities? Why try again, when the same institutional mentality is in place on the majority of the City Council today as a few years ago with the police review board, and as about 25 years ago responding to the Klan massacre?"

"Well that’s a good question. And regrettably I confess I do not know the answer. We are in a truly difficult situation. I believe I do know where to begin, and it is with our part of the problem, those of us who want to see some changes occur in the issue of justice in our communities."

"Those of us favoring initiatives such as a police review board, a living wage, training police officers in black history and culture, are not organized into groups that convey our views well. There are many reasons for this, including the structures of funding and the struggles it imposes, people’s need for income, the individualism inculcated in us, and others. We need somehow to get past these obstacles and create ways to organize a more effective political voice."

"We also need ways to coordinate specific initiatives. I recommend that one of these initiatives be teaching police about African-American history and culture. Let us be wary, however, if the City Council sanctions other committee to examine this possibility."

"I would like to see this Commission, and recommend to this Commission, that you study ways we can learn to bring many more of us together to form a more effective political voice."

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