“Democracy is a method of realizing the broadest measure of justice to all human beings. Only by putting power in the hands of each inhabitant can we hope to approximate in the ultimate use of that power the greatest good to the greatest number.”
— W.E.B. Du Bois
Democracy is a participatory activity.
The same goes for racial and social justice.
Oh, we hear lots of positive words and good intentions expressed in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
We’ve heard it from elected bodies, community leaders, young people and old attending rallies in La Crosse.
That’s all good.
But what about three months from now? Six months from now?
We’ve seen what happens when the spark goes out.
How are we going to make the changes needed to develop a more racially and socially just community?
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author (“The Soul of America”) and historian Jon Meacham says in the wake of Floyd’s killing, we’re talking about 8 minutes and 46 seconds — and 400 years of oppression.
Change won’t come overnight. But it must happen.
Tim Gruenke, the La Crosse County district attorney who has long been a progressive champion of social justice, says it very well: “We’ve always been talking about disproportionate minority contacts in our court system, in our jail,” he said. “We’ve realized that we in the system can’t alone make a change in those numbers, unless we expand it to include the community. … It’s not just going to be fixed in the back end. You’ve got to fix the systemic racism that happens in jobs and schools and everybody else in the community too.”
Gruenke is a key part of the La Crosse County Criminal Justice Management Council. Among other positive steps, that council has worked to keep children — especially children of color — out of the criminal justice system.
Takobie Robinson, a Logan High School student who helped organize the Thursday night rally that started at Copeland Park, said: “We’re coming together as a community, doing things together as a community.”
Diariana Herron, another organizer and Logan student, said: “We wanted more people to feel comfortable, like we’re a community. We’re more than just the thugs that they know us as.”
We hear a lot of public officials say they’ve been doing a lot of listening.
That’s a good first step.
But keep listening.
And start doing.
A number of people Thursday night talked about the accessibility of government, of being heard.
And to think we barely teach civics anymore.
Again, democracy is participatory. So is government. Government meetings — city councils, school boards, county boards — are open to the public.
And, as Tribune reporter Olivia Herken pointed out in her story Saturday, few people ever participate. Few people ever attend.
But let’s be clear: Racism is not a problem that government alone can fix. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862 — an executive order, by the way.
And Brown v. Board of Education came down in 1954.
The fear and frustration caused by the pandemic have exacerbated the divisiveness in America.
But finding common ground is a starting point. Let’s start by agreeing that kneeling on the neck of a black man is wrong.
There can be no debate, no ambivalence.
As for the notion of defunding police, we couldn’t think of a more poorly phrased initiative.
Instead, some suggest the notion of restructuring police budgets and responsibilities by finding ways of supporting the functions that don’t necessarily require an officer.
Consider that last year, La Crosse police received a $450,000 federal grant to integrate victim services into its domestic abuse response.
The Domestic Abuse Response Team has been around since 1999, and it now has an in-house victim’s coordinator to help address the more than 2,000 domestic incidents the police department sees each year.
Luckily, La Crosse police have been at the forefront of educating officers and the community about responding to people challenged with mental health problems in crisis.
And the sheriff runs the largest mental health center in the county. It’s a noble effort — but is the La Crosse County Jail the right environment for counseling those struggling with their mental health?
As with any entity, there can be improvements.
In recent years, the city of La Crosse has settled lawsuits filed by former black officers claiming discrimination. We shouldn’t simply pass that off.
In the wake of the Floyd killing, police departments in La Crosse and Holmen have taken steps to add transparency to their practices, and La Crosse police have promised more community involvement in policies and procedures.
We think those are positive steps.
The Tribune’s comprehensive examination of data a few years ago showed La Crosse police had acted with restraint resolving several high-risk situations without deadly force.
And remember that an officer was shot last September outside a home near Cass Street answering a domestic disturbance. Thankfully, his protective vest saved him from serious injury.
Protecting the community continues to be dangerous business.
But we need to protect ourselves by becoming more involved in policies that matter to our lives.
Have we participated in government to make sure the right priorities are set to bring about a better future?
As we’ve pointed out time and again, the state of Wisconsin spends more on corrections that it does on the University of Wisconsin System.
We don’t think that’s the right priority.
We live in a community where a lot of public officials and public institutions have said the right things.
And many have done the right things, too, in pushing for justice.
But we have a lot of work to do.
Waiting for that work to get done by others won’t get it done.