By Lee Chottiner
In case anyone thought the spate of fatal confrontations between police and young black men nationwide isn’t relevant to Wheeling, W.Va., Robert Gaudio quickly set them straight.
Speaking at a public forum Thursday, April 30, at Wheeling Jesuit University, Gaudio, a local criminal defense attorney, made clear that the same issues driving wedges between black men and police in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, South Carolina and Baltimore, exist in the Friendly City as well.
“The disparity in two city blocks in Wheeling, W.Va.,” Gaudio said, “you can see in a heartbeat.”
He wasn’t alone in that view.
Gaudio was part of a 13-member panel for a program titled, “Paradox: The African American Male (Victim and Suspect).” Approximately 100 WJU students and members of the community turned out for the event, which was billed as “a discussion of justice in America viewed in black in white.”
The program, which was sponsored by the Wheeling branch of the NAACP, brought together student leaders, lawyers, police and activists to explore the underlying causes for police-black violence, which many panelists agreed was occurring long before a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Mo.
How to stem that violence, they said, will involve, among other things, a genuine effort by all involved to listen to each other.
Many of the panelists spoke frankly, and with more than a little frustration, about the racially charged confrontations with police. They also lamented the social and financial disparities that continue to separate black and white in America.
“This country was pretty much built on racism,” said Jeffrey Lamison, president of the WJU Black Student Union, “and it’s time to cure it.”
The moderator, David M. Fryson, vice president of the West Virginia University Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, called for “a continuing discussion across the state” on race issues.
“We have a continuing problem, and continuing problems need continuing solutions,” he said.
Much of the problem, the panelists said, stems from lack of trust.
Many young black men and women distrust the officers sworn to protect them, according to one panelist, Jeffrey Calcote, Jr., transitional coordinator of youth services in New Martinsville. He said none of the young people he works with have any desire to go into law enforcement as a career and some harbor media-fueled perceptions that officers are corrupt.
Distrust of the police is nothing new in the black community, according to Lamison.
“This is learned behavior,” he said. “This has been going on for decades, long before I was around.”
In his community, Lamison said, parents must often sit their children down and teach them how to interact with the police in order to stay safe. For instance, they tell them to always keep their hands on the steering wheel if pulled over by an officer; never reach down for their wallet lest the officer thinks they’re reaching for a gun.
That’s a familiar rite in the black community, Fryson interjected. “It’s called, ‘the conversation.’”
Wheeling Police Chief Sean Schwertfeger said he finds the lack of trust other panelists spoke of “very disturbing,” but he contended that most officers are unfairly tarred by the bad acts of a few.
He recalled a traffic accident he responded to involving a black man and white women. He handed the black driver his business card and let him go, telling him he was charging the woman.
“The response was overwhelming,” Schwertfeger said. “He automatically assumed I would charge him.”
Another panelist, Uneeke Ferguson, a WJU student from Baltimore, placed much of the responsibility for the violence in her hometown on the media. She noted that peaceful demonstrations in the days leading up to the riots generated little news coverage. She also said Freddie Gray, the young black man who died in police custody days earlier, was not by himself the cause of rioting.
“He was the tipping point,” Ferguson said.
It wasn’t all negative. In a positive moment of the program, Darryl Clausell, president of the Wheeling Branch of the NAACP, noted that he and Schwertfeger “need to talk, and haven’t done so yet.” Schwertfeger agreed.
And Fryson publicly thanked Schwertfeger for his service as an officer—a statement that drew applause from the crowd.
Gaudio lauded the willingness of so many people to discuss difficult race-related issues in an open forum, and the causes of them, but he candidly said it’s not enough.
“It’s all lip service,” he said. “You can move your mouth all you want, but you [also] have to act; you have to do something.”
“Unless we get to the system problems, the systemic issues,” he said, “we will continue to have these problems.”