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The tragic events occurring in Minneapolis on May 25 changed our nation in a profound manner.

Racine Police Chief Art Howell

The death of Mr. George Floyd at the hands of those who were sworn to protect and serve shocked the conscience of the nation. While the epicenter of this crisis was in the United States, the seismic impact is now global. In the days that followed this deadly encounter, no law enforcement agency would be spared the fierce anger and deep resentment of a nation that had endured one too many such experiences with unarmed citizens. If not abundantly clear on the morning of May 25, 2020, it is now clear that, as a nation, we have arrived at an inflection point. During this defining moment, our collective commitment and strategic engagement will be necessary if we are to emerge whole as a community and as a nation.

As word of Mr. George Floyd’s death spread, law enforcement officers and police facilities throughout the nation came under immediate attack. While the majority of incidents occurring locally were peaceful, the arson committed against the Thelma Orr Community Oriented Policing House changed the local narrative in a profound manner. What happened in the days that would follow are awe-inspiring. More on the life, legacy, and inspiration of Dr. Thelma Orr to follow.

Opportunist vs. Opportunity

As we navigate through this crisis locally, nationally, and beyond, the most frequently asked question is, where do we go from here? The voices of the previously unheard now resonate loud and clear. The next step is to capture and transfer this energy into meaningful action. Issues surrounding social justice, equity, inclusion, and access to employment are core grievances; however, the death of Mr. George Floyd has placed the demand for police accountability and reform at the forefront. Policy and legislative changes are now being called for on a global platform.

As we consider the question of where we go from here, we must also address the issue of fear and fragility. Acts of violence (no matter how isolated) have caused great fear, creating a sense of instability in many communities. During the past week, we witnessed businesses being looted, public roadways obstructed, and police officers coming under fire both metaphorically and literally. Civil demonstrations are a part of the fabric of our nation; however, criminal behavior, organized crime, and threats against committed public servants have no value in advancing the cause of social justice. More important, such behavior does not honor the memory of Mr. George Floyd.

As we take steps to recover, we must first dismantle the perception that everyone engaged in civil discourse is also engaged in criminal activity. The criminal element among us who are engaged in disruptive, subversive, and organized chaos, should not be confused or otherwise conflated with the larger majority, those who simply chose to exercise their constitutional right to lift their voices to petition their government. When we choose to focus exclusively on the actions of the disruptors, without consideration or acknowledgment of the voices of the masses who have no ill-will or criminal intent, we pave the way for “whataboutism” and the subsequent dismissal of legitimate grievances.

To better understand the group dynamics in play, with laser focus, we must identify, call-out, and neutralize the “opportunists” among us. In so doing, we will preserve the “opportunity” for meaningful change. Opportunists (in the verb context), completely diminish the message of those who seek to seize this seminal moment and pivotal opportunity for change.

The fact is, there is a profound difference between the overwhelming majority of peaceful protestors (those who are merely lifting their voices in opposition to both witnessed and lived traumatic experiences), and those who seek to destabilize our communities. Many committing acts of violence and other crimes travel from city to city, embedding themselves into the local fabric to strategically disrupt and destabilize communities from within.

The disruptors have been extremely successful in causing fear and panic, adversely impacting the quality of life for many. More concerning, however, is the tendency to view law-abiding citizens as monolithic, undisciplined mobs with criminal intent. Whether conscious, implicit, or otherwise, such perspectives are reflective of the systemic framework that gave rise to the current climate.

As we strive to reframe adverse perceptions of communities of color, we must also strive to reframe the inaccurate characterization of the vast majority of public servants who place their lives on the line each day in support of public safety. While their stories of heroism are not often the subject of viral online videos, their collective impact is evident on a daily basis.

Police Chief: De-escalation worked in protests

As the top appointed city official responsible for public safety, I can assure you that, here in the City of Racine, you have some of the most committed, best trained, and well-equipped officers in the nation. We engage in problem-solving community partnerships on a daily basis and we work with the business community, religious organizations, Neighborhood Watch, and local citizens to reduce crime and improve the quality of life for all area residents. The policing model that is now being called for on a national has been in place locally for years.

An example of our policing philosophy was on full display during the immediate hours following the attack against the Dr. Thelma Orr COP House.

At this time, demonstrators assembled at the Safety Building to protest against the broader law enforcement profession. The discipline and restraint demonstrated by law enforcement personnel during this encounter should serve as a blueprint for others to follow. Through engaging in dialogue, this potentially volatile encounter was quickly de-escalated without incident.

As an agency, we must remain prepared and positioned to respond to any threat to public safety.

Our policing model however calls for our members to seek avenues for de-escalation before resorting to escalation. Under the community policing model, leading with humility is paramount. For those who know, meekness is not to be confused with weakness. Simply stated, meekness is power under control. As long as I serve as your chief of police, you will see our humanity before you see our Humvees.

Due to unrest in some cities throughout the nation, National Guard troops have been deployed. The result of such deployments is viewed quite differently subject to the vantage point from different zip codes and census tracts. Imagine if you will, the famous Rorschach inkblot test used as a tool to gauge awareness and cultural competence. For many, the presence of armored vehicles and other high-visibility military assets is comforting, restoring a sense of safety and security. For others, however, such experiences have the exact opposite effect. Through a lifetime of shared experiences involving adverse encounters with law enforcement personnel, military deployments conjure up feelings of fear and intimidation. While not readily apparent to all, there are many Americans who have yet to experience the promise of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Such individuals view the presence of military assets as the escalation of the pre-existing conditions that gave rise to the current climate. The challenge before us is significant, but not insurmountable.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the introduction of curfews, military assets, and greater firepower will make us all safer. This however is not a long-term solution. Until there is an agreement between people of goodwill, to come to the table to engage in open, earnest, and purposeful dialogue, we will be trapped in a perpetual loop of escalation. This stalemate will not allow our nation to find the exit ramp that will allow us to escape from the 401-year-old labyrinth we now co-exist within.

The Life, Legacy, and Vision of Dr. Thelma Orr

The recent attack against the Thelma Orr COP House sent shockwaves through the community. For native Racinians, the idea that Dr. Orr’s name would be connected or otherwise mentioned in connection with violence or disorder is beyond comprehension.

For a woman of such small stature, Dr. Thelma Orr was a civil rights giant. From organizing peaceful protests in the 1960s to working with area leaders to transform the Pink House neighborhood resource center into the Franklin Neighborhood Center (now the YMCA Bray Center), to serving as Interim Director for the Urban League of Racine/Kenosha, Dr. Thelma Orr was the Rosa Parks of our region. When word spread of the attack against the facility that bears her name, collective community outrage ensued.

Thelma Orr

The programs and services offered through the Dr. Thelma Orr COP House and six other locations in our region provide stability within otherwise fragile neighborhoods. From healthy student meal distribution and homework assistance programing to gang diversion initiatives and boys and girls mentoring programs, the place-based community services offered through the network of COP Houses are a modern-day extension of the Pink House Dr. Orr championed in the 1960s.

What was intended for harm in the arson of the Dr. Thelma Orr COP House had the complete opposite effect. First and foremost, anyone who knew of the legacy of Dr. Orr would not have engaged in such a heinous act. This fact led to the strong probability that those who instigated this act were not local actors. The fact was validated within 24 hours. Beyond the quick identification and arrest of two of the suspects involved in this arson, the attack against the Thelma Orr COP House did what no other event has done since the death of Mr. George Floyd. The attack introduced a pause in previously escalating tension within the community.

In the true spirit of community policing, following the arson of the Dr. Thelma Orr COP house, an overwhelming outpouring of offers of assistance was fielded from the community. For those who wish to assist in rebuilding the Thelma Orr COP House and to more broadly advance the cause of community policing and youth-based programming, support of the Racine Community Outpost and the Racine Police Pals Association is suggested. To facilitate donations, the new Friends of the Community Policing Committee is under development. Additional details to follow soon.

As a disciple of Dr. King, Dr. Thelma Orr advocated for social change through non-violence. Along with other community leaders, she achieved meaningful change in our community without striking a match or throwing a single rock.  She also paved the way for women and other minorities to be included in many professions, too many to name, including police and fire services.

Most notably, Dr. Thelma Orr exemplified the teachings of Dr. King, who famously professed that “violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.” As peaceful demonstrations span the globe, the essence of Dr. Thelma Orr’s vision is evident from inner cities to communities worldwide.

For those who yet wonder where we go from here, the time to act is now. In the spirit of Dr. Thelma Orr, we can all participate. Whether your actions are large or small, we must each do something productive, do something authentic, and do something quickly and most notably, do something together.

Racine Police Chief, Art Howell