Ferguson. The very word conjures up images of racial discrimination, violence and segregation. Images of black and white. Cops and innocents. Right and wrong. How about Los Angeles some 1800 miles to the west of Ferguson? Same story. Different names but the same drama unfolded in LA. Incidents between police officers and the public have blown out of proportion in the past. The black community does not trust the police and they are looked upon as the ‘bad guys’. Much like in the game – Grand Theft Auto.
Now what this adds up to, is a community plagued by gangs, drugs and sky-high homicide rates. Do the homicides cases get solved? No. The people refuse to co-operate with the police even if they know the truth, leaving the killer at large, smug with the knowledge that the cops can never get to him.
At some point the police force in Watts, LA decided enough is enough and came up with a unique plan to regain the trust of this community. They started a youth football team coached by LA police officers. Now don’t even for a second think that all the parents lined up to register their kids for the team. The officers had to go door to door asking if they would allow their kids to join the team. Many turned down the offer. Some reluctantly agreed but refused to leave the kids alone with the officers. Painstakingly and one by one, the parents slowly began to open up to the officers. They no longer demonized them, ignored them or stared daggers at them. Now the Watts Bears accepts players between the ages of 9 and 11. The program is free, the kids get a uniform and they are picked up in a police van. The boys have to get good grades and model good behavior at school. Using sports to reinforce good character traits and having contact with a good role model keeps this boys out of gangs. Most of the boys do not have fathers and this negatively impacts their ability to become responsible citizens.
One of the officers reminisces about finding an abandoned baby in a parking lot on a rainy night. He rescued the baby and put him up for adoption. A decade later he is coaching the very same boy who just happened to join the Watts Bears football team. Three years later the homicide rates have dropped in this neighborhood. Citizens are co-operating with the cops to solve crimes. Kids from rival gangs actually play on the same team – something that was impossible in the past.
The officers who support this program are a couple – one a black woman who grew up in Watts and the other a white man who started his career as a cop in the same neighborhood. So police cameras, guns and protests did not resolve the situation here. Interaction between the cops and community – not just when violence erupts but in a more stable environment to slowly build trust and co-operation, until both sides could see beyond the differences and see how human they were.
If this can happen in LA, the very place that was burning with fires of racial hatred and dissension in the 90s, then this can happen in Ferguson as well. We are a ‘Race of Hope’ – for every 10 people who breed hate and terror there is one person shining the light of love and compassion to bridge gulfs of separation and differences. And the number is growing and growing. I believe that one day we will look at a person and not see the color of their skin but the light of their soul in their eyes and know deep in our hearts that we are one.