Kenneth Reed, 48, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, is African American and a resident of Detroit. This interview took place in the midst of the recent spate of police-involved killings nationwide -- after police killed an African-American man in Baton Rouge and another in Minnesota and after a shooter in Dallas killed five police officers; but before another shooter, in Baton Rouge, killed three police.
Are race relations generally good or generally bad now?
Reed: Generally, bad, at this point. Whenever our (African American) children come down into the downtown area -- be it (the Detroit) RiverWalk or inside downtown or in other places, Cass Corridor -- which I call Cass Corridor, I’ll never call it Midtown -- they’re made to feel uncomfortable in their own city and that is a problem.
Who makes them feel uncomfortable?
Reed: Well, I think some of it is the merchants, some of the residents and policy in terms of law enforcement.
Do you think race relations is a major concern just among black people or or is it equally as important to white people?
Reed: With black people it is a very big concern, particularly in the city. When they go to venture into the inner-ring suburbs, more often than not they’re profiled by law enforcement agencies. As far as with whites, I think it may be a concern. I think their concern is more out of fear of the unknown. If you get to know someone you’re not comfortable being around every day then I think some of those fears would be alleviated.
Do you think white people’s attitudes toward black people have become more negative or more positive?
Reed: I think particularly in the last 18 months it’s become more negative because of mainstream media. I think a lot of rhetoric that has been espoused by the candidates, particularly by the Republican Party and (Donald) Trump in particular has made it popular to espouse feelings that may have otherwise been kept to themselves. He seems to have made it cool to say what we really feel. What we really feel.
Do you think black people’s attitudes toward white people have become more positive or more negative?
Reed: I would say black people are a very forgiving race, not that we always go seeking friendship or what have you. We tend to be more open minded in terms of wanting to have good race relations overall. That’s not always the case on the other side. I think it’s a thing where blacks would not be opposed overall to having good race relations but it comes to a trust factor. There’s a lack of trust in terms of blacks being able to trust whites, because history depicts (justification for mistrust).
So you think the rift between whites and blacks is that whites fear blacks and blacks don’t trust whites?
Reed: It’s a trust factor. A lot of it stems from law enforcement and the inner-ring suburban enclaves. And when you feel left out in your own city, you feel as if you’ve been colonized all over again.
How has the relationship between Detroiters and police changed since 1967?
Reed: Only through our work where we got federal intervention through the (U.S. Justice Department obtaining a) consent agreement (to monitor and curb police abuses), the way the Detroit Police Department works has shifted. It has changed to the extent where we’re not being clubbed upside the head. A deaf man is not being killed because he’s holding a rake in his hand. That portion has stopped. (I’m) cautiously optimistic in terms of moving forward. There’s more of an open dialogue, but I think it’s only because there was federal intervention.
You say the federal intervention changed the way the Detroit Police Department works. How? What specifically has helped make each side more trusting?
Reed: It’s an uneasy trust. I believe what has happened is with the federal oversight some of the policies have changed. You’re not housing people who are witnesses to a crime against their will at the lock up; things mandated through the consent agreement are being carried out by the department. That has brought about a certain degree of trust between the citizenry and the department. I think also when the Detroit Police Commission got their full powers back, we got police commissioners now who are out in the community more. That has helped as well. The commission is mostly black.
What about the advent of community policing?
Reed: We had officers assigned to community policing. They would get to know the residents, the children, the block club presidents, your community organization presidents. They would be known in the community. And bear in mind when it was really going well that’s when we had the residency requirement (where city employees had to live in the city). When I was growing up, I had a police officer live next door to me. We had police officers living in the community.
So they were not unfamiliar with the community?
Reed: Now with residency (requirement) gone in the year 2000, you got police officers who may not look like me or you. They don’t understand the culture, they don’t understand the youth as well as they should and that is what led to the problem.
You’ve said in the past that some officers today have replaced “protect and serve” with “command and control.” What are the leading causes of police brutality?
Reed: Now you have command and control. It used to be when officers come on shift they may be 50-150 calls in the hole from the previous shift. If you go from scene to scene you don’t have time to decompress, everybody reaches a breaking point. And if you already have a predisposed bias in terms of the people in the city you’re supposed to serve and protect, if you already have preconceived biases and you’re not really accustomed to being around black people you might believe the stereotypes that they’re poorly educated, they already don’t like cops, that these people, they’re animals more or less. They may not even view us as human. And they bring that on the job. That’s a recipe for for disaster.
Could what happened in Dallas - police being targeted and killed - happen here?
Reed: Absolutely. Come around my house on New Year’s Eve and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
So there’s a lot of ammunition and guns in the neighborhoods, but is there an attitude that if there’s one more incident with the police someone is going to snap and go after police here?
Reed: Unfortunately you have young people who may not necessarily have the economic opportunities, they might not have the educational opportunities. They may have already been exposed to the criminal justice system.
People who don’t have opportunities don’t have anything to lose and could choose to take drastic actions against police to make a point?
Reed: Once you get that felony on you, your employment opportunities generally just dry up. Who’s to say? A crew out here might just decide, “Let’s take it to them (police).” Bear in mind in 1967 you had lack of economic opportunity. Housing was a problem. Police brutality, harassment was a problem.
The Kerner Commission (A presidential commission appointed to find the root causes of disturbances and riots across dozens of American cities in 1967) said that we were moving towards two nations: one white, one black separate and unequal
Reed: We’re looking at this again today. What’s changed?
You tell me.
Reed: We’re going right back into that.
How is that true when we have places such as Warren which had 182 blacks in 1967 and now it’s 15 or 20 percent black? There’s so much integration, at least in the inner ring suburbs. How are we still moving toward a nation divided, separate and unequal?
Reed: Look who’s left behind when the middle class left the cities. Those who can’t get out. The poor who can’t get out. Then there’s those of us who have an undying love for Detroit. We’re going to be here regardless. We stayed and prayed. Now with the new Detroit, a lot of (African-American) people are made to feel they’re not even welcome in their own city. Those attitudes from the parents sometimes they permeate right down to the children and young adults.
You said you weren’t surprised by what you saw in Dallas – is that because violence begets violence?
Reed: You have some young people who have the mindset that, “I’m not going to sit there and let you put a billy club upside my head. You’re not going to sit up here and just tase me for no apparent reason and you’re not going to just sit up here and continuously shoot us without some type of repercussion.” So everything reaches a boiling point and it’s starting to boil over. As they say, pressure busts the pipe every time.
Do you think what has happened with the police involved shootings (of black civilians) will make people confront their own biases or make them more biased?
Reed: I think it will make people more biased. The outright racist-type attitude towards black people is going to escalate. I strongly feel that. So we could be in for a long, hot summer. There’s going to be some hardened attitudes behind this.
Five years from now, when there are even more whites living in the city, after you see more people from Detroit who are black moving out putting people in closer proximity to each other, will that help race relations?
Reed: Leadership has to make the commitment that people get to know about each other. The fear of the unknown -- that’s where we’re at. We’re so fearful. I think some of it comes from the past in terms of what we learn from our forefathers and a race of people who have been oppressed as long as black peoplje have since they came to the shores of America continue to be singled out.
You have a (state) legislature that comes with policies centered on the city of Detroit. A legislature that would split up a school district, withhold money; a legislature that will go out if its way to take away opportunity for children to have quality education all under the guise of reform. Reform what? I think people have a right to live out what their destiny is. They have a right to elect those who they want to govern them. Revolution is the hope of the hopeless. The times, things are not looking good right now. It’s not a whole lot different (from ’67). My uncle is 95 years old. He was working at Mack stamping in the middle of the rebellion (in 1967). He had to show his work ID to be able to move through the streets and not get shot. It could very well come back to that.