By Delonte Gholston
On a Saturday last April, a group of pastors and other faith leaders brought together a broad cross-section of the downtown community to talk about a rash of officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles and the rest of the country. Under the banner of the Downtown Los Angeles Clergy Council, they called this gathering the inaugural meeting of the Trust Talks.
These first talks, hosted at the Last Bookstore in downtown, gathered more than 100 business owners, loft dwellers, residents in single resident occupancy hotels (called SROs), homeless people, community activists, service providers, faith leaders, and Los Angeles Police Department officers. Participants were divided among about a dozen tables, with two trained facilitators at each table, for some difficult but constructive conversation about community policing.
Just six days earlier, Freddie Gray had died from injuries sustained while in Baltimore police custody. Six weeks before that, an unarmed mentally ill man known as “Africa” in L.A.’s Skid Row community had been shot several times and killed after an altercation with LAPD officers. That shooting was videotaped on a cell phone camera and quickly went viral on social media.
The Skid Row incident stirred up the ire of activists with #BlackLivesMatter, the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), and other organizations; it inflamed tender wounds in a city with a history of incidents of police brutality and civil unrest.
Hard to Believe
Yet at the Trust Talks, LA CAN activists sat at a table with LAPD officers, business owners, loft dwellers, and even the city attorney who had prosecuted one of them. They debated. They listened. They debated some more. They laughed. Then they debated some more. It was nothing short of a miracle. Even though I saw the event myself, and helped to organize it, I still find it hard to believe.
I fell into this work by accident. I had been interning at New City Church in downtown for almost two years while I was finishing a seminary degree. Because New City’s pastor was leading the Clergy Council meetings, I would attend occasionally.
But when Trayvon Martin was killed, something stirred in me that I hadn’t felt since I was a 6-year-old reciting Martin Luther King Jr. speeches I listened to on an old record player in my parent’s basement in Washington, D.C. Martin’s story seemed to be part of this larger narrative about the wages of injustice.
It was a tragic story that also included Emmett Till, Oscar Grant (who was fatally shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in 2009), and of course, King himself. It was the story of innocent black men being gunned down because people in authority were afraid of them. As a musician and pastor, I poured out my grief over Martin’s shooting into a song that I shared with my church.
Then came the wave of other shootings: Rakia Byrd, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott. All were unarmed; all were black or brown. It just didn’t make sense.
I know what it is like to be pulled over for no other reason than being guilty of “driving while black.” And though my kind and unthreatening demeanor has generally led to positive interactions with the police, I cannot ignore the terrifying question in my head and heart: Am I next?
So it was not surprising to me that a grand jury’s clearing the police officer of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown triggered an explosion of rage in Ferguson, Missouri. The Sunday after the Ferguson decision, my pastor asked me to lead our church in prayer. I prayed for justice, reconciliation, and healing. It was cathartic and powerful, but it was only the beginning. The amen was not the end.
Am I next? That question continued to challenge me.
I couldn’t just write another song or pray another prayer. In the tradition of King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Adam Clayton Powell, I realized my faith compelled me to do something more. Like other young people, I hit the streets to protest.
Protesting was and still is the right thing to do. Like prayer alone, however, the catharsis of protest can seem fleeting and incomplete once you go home with a hoarse voice and sore feet.
I want to do more than protest and pray. I want to be part of an effort to take even a small step toward healing and justice in my community. I want to give voice to people who are usually told that they are the problem. I want for people on all sides of the issue to be humanized instead of stereotyped or vilified. I want to find a way to be faithful to a gospel in which Jesus focuses on people society has abandoned and left for dead in order to touch them, heal them, listen to them, and restore them into a loving community. It’s a sacred story that says Jesus gave his everything, including his life, just to love those whom others considered unlovable.
For me, the Trust Talks are a first step toward creating that kind of community and that kind of love.
The Trust Talks are a series of roundtable dialogues engaging stakeholders from every major segment of downtown Los Angeles. We have met three times in the past 12 months and are planning a fourth gathering in June to discuss our stories and experiences with race, mental health, and policing, and to learn how we can help restore trust between law enforcement and the community.
At each gathering are 125 to 150 homeless people, business owners, loft dwellers, service providers, and leaders in the faith community. At each table there are members of the LAPD, along with trained facilitators and representatives from the City Attorney’s office. Also at each table there are activists from Skid Row city limits, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, and other advocacy organizations to provide diversity of thought and true dialogue. At the last two Trust Talks, we have also had 20 minutes of storytelling and solution sharing from thought leaders and practitioners in the areas of police training, mental health treatment, historical race analysis, and homeless advocacy.
This article was originally published by the Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement at the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture. It was subsequently published by the Huffington Post.
Delonte Gholston is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, and has served as a pastoral intern with New City Church of Los Angeles.