Tom considers ‘The Great Debate’

By Tom Allon

Violence or civil disobedience? That has been the perennial question facing the Civil Rights movement, which has evolved into the “Black Lives Matter” crusade.

I recently watched “The Great Debaters,” an inspiring tale of a 1935 debate team from an all-black college in Texas that beats Harvard in a dramatic test of intellect, oratory and the ability to shape opinion through language.

At the end of the film, one African-American debater opens and closes with this: “In Texas, they lynch Negroes… I have two choices: Violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.”

I was thinking of this scene recently as the vexing problem of racial injustice continues to plague our country, 80 years after the “Great Debaters.” Two incidents in the news involving African-American men who graduated from Harvard illustrates how far we still need to go to repair the ills our country has visited on African-Americans.

Carey Gabay, a top attorney in the Cuomo administration, was badly injured by a stray bullet while he was with friends on a Saturday night, right before the West Indian American Day Carnival Parade. He was caught in the crossfire between two gangs. Gabay, a 43-year-old whose background and commitment to public service was an inspirational immigrant tale, was yet another victim of our inadequate gun control laws.

How, in 2015 in New York City, could rival gangs possibly be allowed to shoot at one another? Hasn’t New York become the safest large city and haven’t we finally solved the problem of random shootings that plagued the city in the 1970s and ’80s?

Apparently not.

What to do? We need to empower the NYPD to aggressively get guns off our streets. But doesn’t that necessitate using the tactic of “Stop, Question, and Frisk” more often? Probably. Therein lies the rub.

New York’s aggressive policing tactics have come under scrutiny recently, and as a result the frisking of many people has dropped dramatically. Would aggressive policing on Bedford Avenue the night Carey Gabay was shot have protected him? Probably.

Fast forward one week and we see the perils of aggressive policing in another incident involving an African-American Harvard graduate—this time in broad daylight in Midtown Manhattan. James Blake, once a top-seeded tennis player, was thrown to the ground by a plainclothes officer who mistakenly identified Blake as a suspect in an identity-theft ring.

The video graphically illustrates the use of excessive force. Fortunately, Blake did not suffer the same fate as Eric Garner, the asthmatic man whose crime of selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street tragically ended in his death after police used excessive force to subdue him.

What are the lessons in all this? First, strong and measured policing is necessary to continue to make New York a safe place. Second, the NYPD must be allowed to aggressively attack areas that have street gangs to ensure they do not have gunfights that can lead to tragedies like Gabay’s. Third, excessive force must be curtailed; the NYPD should have a zero tolerance policy here. The officer who tackled Blake had two pending complaints against him for excessive force. He should not have been on the street in that identity-theft sting.

On a more macro level, we need to realize that even African-American men like Blake and Gabay, both graduates of one of the most prestigious universities in the land, are not immune to random violence and improper policing.

Blake was gracious in taking calls of apology from the mayor and the police commissioner. He did, however, rightly express his belief that the police officer who threw him to the ground should no longer be on the street.

How should we react to these incidences of excessive force against minorities? As the “great debater” said in 1935: We could choose violence or civil disobedience.

Let’s pray that those who are victims of injustice continue to choose the latter.

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