Rev. Al Sharpton's Weekly Blog

They May Dismiss Us, But Maybe They Will Listen to FBI Director Comey, Or Justice Ginsburg

Feb 16, 2015

About a month and a half ago, some in law enforcement and those looking to hinder progress demonized activists of all stripes from civil rights organizations like National Action Network, NAACP and National Urban League to young groups doing good work and raising legitimate issues of concern including the Black Lives Matter campaign. We were wrongly accused of being anti-police and some even had the audacity to try and say that we somehow created a climate for cops to be shot. Even President Obama and New York City Mayor de Blasio were blamed because they, like us, understood the very real urgency of speaking out in favor of improving relations between the police and the communities they serve. Last week, FBI Director James Comey said virtually the same thing in an unprecedented speech. While I don't agree with everything he said, now that a White Republican leading law enforcement official has called for reform, maybe, just maybe, the message might get through. And today, in an exclusive MSNBC interview just released, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says the following about race: "People who think you could wave a magic wand and the legacy of the past will be over are blind." Now that the FBI Director and a sitting Supreme Court judge have spoken, maybe people will stop name-calling and let us deal with the gravity of the issue.

A few days ago, officer Peter Liang was indicted in the November shooting death of unarmed Akai Gurley in a dark stairwell of a housing complex in Brooklyn. While we applaud this indictment, it doesn't negate the larger issue: you cannot play Russian roulette to get the right prosecutor. A prosecutor can get an indictment for a police officer that shoots in the dark, but another prosecutor fails to get one for an officer that chokes a person in broad daylight on videotape while that civilian yells "I can't breathe" 11 times? The politics of prosecution must be taken out so that we have objectivity and fairness. Our message, like Director Comey's, has always been that not all police are bad -- in fact, most are good. But if we do not hold the bad ones accountable, then we are telling them that they are somehow above the law and that justice exists only for some.

"First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups," said Comey during his speech. While he made this and other salient points, Comey made some statements about young men of color, crime and cynicism of police officers that I do not agree with, nor endorse. But his overall message of reforming policing methods in this country, improving relations between communities and law enforcement, and speaking to each other honestly about all of these hard truths must be heard. It doesn't matter who the messenger is, as long as these significant words are received -- especially by those who appear to be tone deaf.

Change never happens overnight. As Justice Ginsburg said a magic wand will not solve it. As one who has studied the great teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can honestly say that it never occurs with one protest, or one boycott. Rather, it is a movement, a concerted push for reform from the ground up. It takes everyone -- from activists in the streets to lawmakers and law enforcement directors -- to highlight our challenges and actively fight for progress. Those on the wrong side of history will always try to attack and demonize people championing what is right. We often forget that even Dr. King wasn't always revered and loved by society; in fact, he was painted as a troublemaker and hated by many. While none of us can ever compare ourselves to the tremendous work he did and the example he set forth, we can try to emulate his dedication to the cause of justice even in the face of the harshest forms of oppression.

In the months since the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice, there have been officer-involved killings of many others across this country that simply didn't make the headlines. This is why we cannot rest. While we may not cosign everything Director Comey said, we must acknowledge that this is a moment of advancement and we must seize upon this moment. People are still suffering. People -- not those of us that play various roles in the public space -- but everyday people must be protected. No one should bury a child, mother, father or grandparent because of someone else's bias. And no one should be forced to deal with prosecutors who may have a conflict of interest when going after bad police officers.

Peaceful chanting, marching and organizing has brought us to this moment; people are paying attention. Now it is our job to make this renewed attention lead to sustainable results. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter who the messenger is, as long as those that are the hardest to reach can hear it.