On Dec. 1, 20 young men of color dressed in everything from hoodies and jeans to slacks and dress shirts convened at Oakland’s Impact Hub for a frank, fishbowl-style conversation on the Ferguson grand jury verdict and how they envision the world moving forward.

What needs to change in America so that what happened in Ferguson, MO never happens again? This is the question on everyone’s minds as protests around the country erupt from anger and disappointment over the Ferguson grand jury decision to forego an indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

Jaysen Fort, a participant from Berkeley, spoke about change stemming first and foremost from how black men see themselves.

“From my own experience, what needs to happen in America to make sure that what happened doesn’t happen again is for young African American men like myself to realize that our lives do matter,” Fort said. “This world is still full of racism, and the only way we can combat that is to first start with ourselves.”

Oakland resident Boaz Baker pointed out the importance of recognizing that the laws currently set in place may not apply to everyone.

“Most of us end up in prison or murdered by the people who are told to protect us,” Baker said. “It starts through educating black men that you are taught to respect laws that don’t respect you back.”

The community event was put together by the joint power of Tides, The Advocacy Fund, and Oakland Rising–three non-profits focused on social change within local communities. The participants sat in a circle encased in a larger circle comprised of community members and spectators of different racial backgrounds.

Courtesy of Jasmin Porter

One of 20 men of color speaks out to community members about Ferguson and moving forward. (Courtesy of Jasmin Porter)

Ayegei Wallace, a participant from Oakland, shared his experience of leaving a party in Berkeley with a friend and being followed by a police officer on their way out.

“I’m videotaping and all I’m thinking is that my brother might die instead of going to jail,” Wallace said. “Whenever I’ve been pulled over, it’s not that I fear getting arrested, I fear for my life.”

Host Nathaniel “Toby” Thompkins, Tides vice president of Community Initiatives and Global Partnerships, then asked the young men to think about what they wanted to see differently six years from now. Some of the young men requested more black men on the police force and a stricter standard of accountability for officers.

“The same people who allow murderers to get off tell us how we should act,” Fort said. “Not all black people are looting. Some are shouting, some are screaming.”

According to a recent infographic in Wear Your Voice Magazine, a person is nine times more likely to be shot dead by police than by a terrorist, and the odds are 21 times more likely for black males. At a recent protest in Berkeley and Oakland over police brutality, two undercover cops who were marching with protestors pulled guns and began making arrests while still wearing their masks. They were also allegedly instigators of the looting of chain stores in the East Bay.

The question of how the young men ensure safe passage through their communities sparked a conversation around code switching, or changing the way one dresses or acts in order to fit in with their surrounding environment. According to one participant, you learn not to sag your pants, tell certain jokes or wear hoods in certain situations because it might help you survive.

“I hate to have to do it, but that’s what I feel like protects me,” he said. “A group of white people, I don’t want to look at them because that will automatically trigger danger, but because it’s cold and I have a hood on, I’m dangerous.”

Moving forward, participants discussed what they would like to see change for young black men. Responses included simply being able to wear a hood when the weather is cold, having more accepting outlets for black men to safely express their emotions, and more visible leadership in the community.

At this point in the conversation, the participants were asked to trade places with community members, moving to the outside circle while spectators took their seats on the inside. Community members were asked the same question that was asked of participants: what needs to change in America so that what happened in Ferguson, MO never happens again?

“We have to grapple with the fact that we have a black president, but we still have to tell people that black lives matter,” one community member said. “We need to figure out how to set up a system of accountability that is not just based off of people being white or having money.”

As far as practical solutions go, one spectator said one of the community’s responsibilities is “to train our young men on how to engage with police” and what they can do to de-escalate police confrontations. Another community member suggested more spaces for grieving over racism as a vehicle to heal, change and organize.

At the close of the event, community members and participants were separated into four mixed groups to brainstorm “Big Wins,” or how everyone in the room wants to see things change in an ideal world. Among these were building communities without law enforcement, implementing more of the history of people of color in school to shift the limited narrative, and a policy shift in the police department that requires white applicants to identify their own racial bias in order to be hired.

Above all, the voices of those young men of color need to be highlighted, one community member said.

“When we see the people in this circle, they don’t look like us,” he said, referring to the circle of community members. “These people don’t have our boys’ voices. It’s not up to them to find us, it’s on us to protect our flock. When we don’t protect our flock we’ve failed them.”

About The Author

Natalie Meier is currently writing about issues in public health, tech and small business innovation as a freelance contributor for Oakland Local. Meier is a senior at Mills College studying English and Journalism and is also cross-registered at UC Berkeley. She currently interns for ABC7 News in San Francisco and has written for The Daily Californian, Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), StuVoice, and KALW.

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