My thoughts

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The Ferguson, MO, rioting and mayhem; could it happen here? Or should I ask, could it happen here again?

Ferguson is a city in St. Louis County, Missouri, that occupies just more than 6 square miles. The population was 21,203 at the 2010 Census. Ferguson has a community college. The city’s motto is “Proud Past. Promising Future.”

This week, I ask myself, could it happen again here in Wilmington, a city of more than 106,000 covering more than 40 square miles?

Today’s Wilmington has a population that is 80 percent white, 16 percent black, but that has not always been the case.

The City of Wilmington Police Department (WPD) is 71 percent white, 20 percent black; Ferguson is a city with a black majority, but white leadership, including its police department.

This Port City has a history of racial ignition; the most notable was the Wilmington Race Riots, aka, the Wilmington Massacre or the Wilmington Coup d’Etat of 1898. The events are a shameful part of the city history in which estimates of 15 to 60 were killed, black businesses burned, including the offices of the only black-owned newspaper in the state, as white Democrats overthrew the legitimately elected local government, which was biracial.

Following this, there was a mass exodus of blacks from the city, turning it from a black-majority to a white-majority city. The city’s black business community, thriving at the time, has never recovered.

More recently, the rioting in February 1971 saw two people killed and others injured during a battle waged throughout the night and into the next day. The riot was triggered by the desegregation of the city high schools for the 1969-70 school year and the simmering anger following large demonstrations in Wilmington after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968.

This Month in North Carolina History, February 1971 – The Wilmington Ten, at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill library begins: “In early February, 1971, downtown Wilmington, N.C. was a war zone. Shots rang through the streets, traffic was blocked, and citizens were barricaded in a church. Although it took only a couple of days to restore peace and order, the actions of those few days and nights would bring worldwide attention to North Carolina, and would resonate for decades to come.”

Sounds like Ferguson, MO.

Three decades after conviction and imprisonment, nine African American men and one white woman, known as “The Wilmington Ten,” were pardoned by then Governor Beverly Perdue on the grounds that “the convictions were tainted by naked racism.”

Not only can a parallel be seen between the Wilmington riot of 1971 and the Ferguson riot of 2014, comparisons can be drawn between the present media-induced imagery and the black and white photos of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. The similarities are uncanny. One of many highly disturbing photographs in the last couple of days that could have been shot during the Civil Rights era pictures a white police officer with a police dog in full attack mode addressing a black protestor.

Every day a bit more of the story comes out. I am not going to attempt to wade into the debate over what happened there, I will leave that to others with more time on their hands.

What stuns me is the inability to curb the civil disobedience, precipitated by the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white officer — the boiling anger, the rioting, looting and burning of businesses there — days on end of chaos. The riot gear, tear gas, stun grenades, lines of combat-dressed officers with heavy weapons,  the National Guard deployed against Americans, the tear gassed streets complete with international journalists, look like the civil war of a foreign country, all because the citizens are uprising against what they see as excessive force against one of their own by a police officer.

Excessive force has long been a complaint heard when complaint is rendered against law enforcement in Wilmington.

In 2013 WPD’s internal affairs received 50 citizens’ complaints, resulting in 68 allegations of policy violations ranging from conduct toward public (17) to neglect of duty (one). There were seven complaints of excessive violence.

The chief’s forward in the 2013 WPD Internal Affairs Annual Report states: “Officers are given authority to enforce laws, take away individual freedoms and use force when necessary.”

Residents recently objected to accreditation of the department, citing the department’s excessive use of this force.

For 2013, there were 232 arrests requiring force, or 2.78 percent of the 8,318 arrests made. This was a 15 percent increase in “use of force incidents” over 2012.

Furthermore the report reveals in 2013, a 214 percent increase in “Hard Hand Control,” a 119 percent increase in officers displaying lethal force, and a 100 percent increase in the use of OC Spray.

In 2013, five WPD officers were involved in shootings and one videotaped incident with a police dog which bit a man surrendering after running a DUI checkpoint.

In 2013, WPD internal affairs received 50 citizens’ complaints revealing 68 allegations of policy violations. From this, internal affairs conducted 21 investigations.

The summaries report 44 sustained special investigations, 36 sustained internal investigations and 24 sustained citizen complaints, totaling 84 policy violations. Corrective action resulted in one termination, five resignations and 10 suspensions, in addition to counseling, performance notes in files and written reminders.

The nation and the people of Ferguson will talk about the latest riots for the next 100 years.

What can Wilmington and the nation learn from it?

Good things can emerge if Ferguson’s unrest fosters real dialogue among us about where we have come from and how we proceed into our future, together.

 

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