Mr. Dennis Henderson’s students trust him because they watched him on TV experience what so many other black men have experienced: an unprovoked stop and an unwarranted arrest by police. In 2013, the middle school teacher was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after attending a contentious community meeting about police relations. Later, the DA would drop all charges and the city of Pittsburgh would settle Mr. Henderson’s suit out of court, but it was already too late. Rather than let shame silence him, as it has too often in the past silenced those victimized by power, he used his experience to teach his students the truth of that power. When he tells his students the world demands more of them due to their blackness, they believe him. When he tells them change only comes from action in the courts, they believe him. So when he tells them change won’t come unless they are the ones “working in courtrooms,” will they believe him? Will we?
The tragic deaths of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice have stirred a national conversation about race and police misconduct, and rightly so; Disturbing video footage has revealed what many in disenfranchised communities have known for years, and which statistics and federal reports bear out: the police are more likely to target blacks, are more likely to use excessive force on blacks, and when charged with police misconduct are more likely to enjoy the benefit of the doubt than their accusers. Since the civil unrest in Baltimore, many in politics and the media have debated how best to ease tensions between communities and police. Everything from civil oversight panels to body cameras have been proposed. While these and other ideas would improve police-community relations, they don’t attack the systemic problems supporting a culture of police misconduct and unaccountability. Racial profiling, excessive force, and harsh, inflexible penalties are symptoms of a greater problem. Real solutions that serve the interests of black communities and police must attack institutional racism within the criminal justice system, and that is why civics teacher Dennis Henderson encourages his students to pursue careers in law.
According to the American Bar Association, less than five percent of all lawyers in the US are black. In contrast, the FBI’s statistics show blacks account for nearly thirty percent of the criminal charges filed in the US. The events in Baltimore demonstrate that black representation in government isn’t enough, nor is black representation in the police force enough. After all, three of the officers charged with Freddie Gray’s death were black. The fact is, if a community is subject to the authority of a system, it must have a say in how that system operates. Mr. Henderson advocates the law for his students because he understands that a community policed by outsiders is a prison, a courthouse divorced from its community is a kangaroo court, and a government not of the people, by the people, for the people, is a tyrant. Read or listen more about Mr. Henderson’s story on NPR, here.