For Phillip Agnew, the meeting on Monday was a long time coming. He had thought there should have been one after the killing of Trayvon Martin. After the shooting of Jordan Davis. After the killing of Renisha McBride.
Finally on Monday, Agnew got to meet with the president of the United States. Agnew was one of seven young community organizers who met with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Attorney General Eric Holder at the White House.
The meeting was part of a day-long focus by the White House on the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where last week a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The case has flared racial tensions since August, and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision has brought about protests across the country.
Agnew, the 29-year-old co-founder of the activist group Dream Defenders, told Fusion in an interview that Obama’s message to the organizers was this: “I hear you.”
“It was important. We have come some way but have so much farther to go,” Agnew said.
“We conveyed to the President the reality of what is going on outside the Beltway: how the government has contributed to the marginalization of our people, their role in infringing upon the human rights of our people, and what we believe must be done to alleviate the current circumstance.”
Some of the young organizers told Fusion they wanted to emphasize that history provided a reason for them to be in the room with three of the most powerful people in the country — buildup that has finally exploded in the aftermath of Brown’s death. They wanted to hear what steps he was prepared to take to address their concerns, and they wanted to lay out some of the things they believe he should do in addition.
After the series of meetings on Monday, Obama announced the formation of a task force that would report back to him within 90 days with recommendations on how law enforcement and communities can best work together. He said the task force would study places where the two are working well together, and that the recommendations would be implemented immediately on the federal, state, and local levels.
Obama also announced stricter regulations on the supply and use of military equipment, as well as plans to provide up to 50,000 additional body cameras for police to wear.
“We wanted to make sure the president understood we heard him on some of those things, and that there were other things we thought were extremely important,” said Jose Lopez, 27, the lead organizer for the activist group Make the Road New York, who also participated in the meeting.
One area where Lopez expressed concern was in the collection and reporting of officer-related data on shooting deaths. Hundreds of shooting deaths by police have gone unreported over the past five years because there is no mandate for local police departments to report such killings to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, there were 461 “justifiable homicides” by police in 2013 — which are the “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty” — but the true number is likely much higher.
“It’s hard to have a conversation around holding officers accountable if there isn’t federal mandate about collecting and disseminating some of that data,” Lopez told Fusion.
Lopez said the young organizers also pressured Holder to intervene and bring federal charges against Wilson. The Justice Department is still in the midst of an investigation over whether whether Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights in his killing — but legal experts say it will be tough to bring charges.
He said Holder seemed to understand their frustration.
“We thought the grand jury made a mistake, and we all believe the Justice Department should get involved in cases where we believe police officers have abused their authority,” Lopez said.
Other activists, like Ashley Yates, a 29-year-old co-founder of the St. Louis-based organization Millennial Activists United, expressed frustration over the militarization of police and said she urged Obama to go even further than what he announced on Monday.
“It is a form of psychological torture to walk down your street and see Humvees posted on the corner. I do not see a need for those,” she said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
More than anything to the youth organizers, the meeting was affirmation that their movement has gained steam in the 116 days since Brown’s death. For the first time, they said, they felt like they were listened to by the world’s most powerful former community organizer.
The meeting was supposed to last about a half hour, but it went at least 20 minutes over. An aide came in twice to move it along, but Obama shooed the aide away. He asked questions, listened to their concerns, and shared his own personal stories about discrimination. They said it made them hopeful for even more progress than they have gleaned over the past 100-plus days.
“The meeting was history,” T-Dubb-O, a 26-year-old St. Louis hip hop artist who was in the meeting, told Fusion. “What we are trying to get across to the president is something he knows because he is a black man.
“It’s getting it across to the rest of this country that we have had issues with. Yes there are plenty of issues. Poverty, unemployment, unaccredited school systems, police murdering us, the low minimum wage, etc. These are all things we addressed and he hears us. Now it’s time to work.”
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