The death of Daniel Prude in late March after he was restrained by officers from the Rochester Police Department may provide what panelists on a Young Black Leaders webinar say is a path to overdue fundamental transformation in the community.
“I think this tragedy represents an opportunity to fix and change long-standing systems that have, for years, kept African-Americans from advancing,” said Malik Evans, a member of Rochester City Council who also works as business and community prosperity manager for ESL Federal Credit Union.
“Our city is in need of healing,” Evans said, “but more importantly, people are looking for fundamental change, particularly around criminal justice and the way that police police our cities. A lot of it is inadequate humanity. When a person needs a blanket, you don’t give him a knee to the neck.”
LaShunda Leslie-Smith, executive director of Connected Communities Inc., Kesha Carter, chief diversity officer at Coordinated Care Services Inc., and Evans provided insight on how Rochester can reshape its future during a Wednesday morning webinar hosted by the Rochester Business Journal.
History, the panelists said, is clear when it comes to racism in America.
“If everything was good and all lives mattered, we wouldn’t have had to have the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, we wouldn’t have had have the Brown vs. Education desegregation court case,” Evans said. “We know we have a history in this country of having to put things on the books to protect for African-Americans things that they are supposed to be guaranteed by being citizens of this country.”
Seizing this moment surrounding Prude’s death is essential, he said.
“Part of our problem as a country is we don’t look to history,” Evans said, “and this is a historic moment, and if we don’t capture everything that happened leading up to his death and everything that happened afterwards, we’ll be here 20 years from now talking about the same thing.”
That’s why they believe there must be an overhaul of policing policies and actions.
“Defunding the police, the phrase itself, is a little provocative,” Leslie-Smith said. “It doesn’t mean necessarily that the police will go away completely, but there is a need for specialized training around the types of cases police end up responding to.
“As a social worker by trade, I have had to deescalate many individuals with severe mental health issues who were in the middle of de-compensating, active psychosis, etc. I’ve never been armed. I was trained with the tactics necessary to help people calm down and give them the support and resources they needed.”
Mental health professionals and protesters alike say RPD officers clearly weren’t trained to deal with the Prude situation, and that’s why reform is necessary.
“A person with an untreated mental illness is 15 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement,” Evans said. “One of the things that needs to happen immediately is that we need to ensure that there are fundamental changes to police calls and mental health calls. Not a year from now, not six months from now, but immediately mental health calls need to start being addressed by mental health professionals who can help deescalate situations, because no one with a mental illness should end up dead when a call has been made for help.”
But law enforcement isn’t the only area where change is necessary. Businesses must continue to reflect the makeup of the communities in which they serve. The next generation must see role models in various leadership roles, so there is a great need for action not just in the protests and marches but in hiring practices and planning meetings.
“Everybody’s not going to be on the front lines,” Carter said. “Some folks need to do some things from the board room, from the kitchen, from the laundromat; they need to be able to find where they fit in to do that work.
“Being able to be in the board room, to fit at those tables, requires so much more than just those folks knowing that they exist. They need to see people who look like them, so those of us who are in positions, we need to make some changes so that young folks coming up can see people that look like them in the C-suites, in the board room, so they know it’s possible.”
There also must be change in school curriculum, Leslie-Smith suggested. She said too much of American history is omitted from lesson plans, which stifles the understanding of white privilege.
“Black history is American history,” Leslie-Smith said. “They (students) may hear about a Martin Luther King, they may hear about an Ida B. Wells, but very, very, very few schools across the country are teaching the full expression of American history and all of its ugliness.
“If young people understand why we are where we are in today’s history, it would give them a greater sense of empathy and connection to the injustices. You would come to an understanding just by way of reading that history, of seeing what your Black peers are experiencing and then recognizing, ‘Wait a minute, I actually don’t experience that.’ ”