Are Strained Police Relations With Black Teens a Solvable Problem?

—Illustration by Jamiel Law

How a leadership program for young Black men seeks to confront racism

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The nightly demonstrations. The fires. The show of force by federal agents.

As protestors took to the streets for months to rally against police brutality and systemic racism, Portland, Ore., served as the backdrop for some of the most indelible images of summer 2020.

Amid the unrest, Lakayana Drury sought out common ground.

Through his Portland-based nonprofit, Word is Bond, Drury runs Rising Leaders, a paid summer internship program that provides young Black men space to, among other things, meet with law-enforcement officers for six intense, in-depth conversations that center on a pivotal question: Are the strained relations between Black teenagers and law enforcement a problem that can be solved?

Drury is not under the impression that the weekly meetings will spawn solutions for long-standing problems rooted in systemic racism and deep-seeded mistrust. But he sees the program as a start—and makes it clear that the onus for creating change is on the police, not the young Black men.

"Let's not change minds," Drury says. "Let's change practice and confront racism."

From the beginning, the work has been challenging and the connections strained. In 2017, the first year Drury hosted the meet-ups, two of the participants revealed to him that they had been previously arrested by officers who volunteered to meet with the group.

The global pandemic forced the students and law-enforcement officers to meet this summer via video chats. The series of sessions, book-ended by protests over the police killing of George Floyd and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, were especially tense—even in a virtual format, Drury said.

For some of the young men, that tension carried over into the streets. By day, one of the participants, M'Munga Songolo, learned from and debated with the police officers. At night, he organized student-led protests calling for their removal.

In this essay, M'Munga, a high school senior, reveals why Portland's summer of discontent left him convinced that the police as we know them need to be abolished, not just defunded.

Read "What Abolishing the Police Means to Me: A Student's Perspective" by M'Munga Songolo.


Vol. 40, Issue 06, Page 14

Published in Print: September 23, 2020, as Are Strained Police Relations a Solvable Problem?
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