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Local Column

Olson: ‘Those people’ are us

I hear the talk, and read it in the comments that people leave on stories on the Daily Chronicle website, or even attach their faces to on the newspaper’s Facebook page.

A black or a brown person gets arrested or is sentenced to prison or some such, and it’s “those people” should go back to Chicago, or Mexico. “Those people” are ruining DeKalb.

If you want to know where that attitude will get us, here in DeKalb County and across the country, look no further than what’s transpired in the past week in Ferguson, Missouri.

You know the story by now: In a majority black community with a mostly white police force where racial tension had been building for years, a confrontation between a police officer and two men on the street ended with the officer shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed.

That lit the fuse, and like a string of firecrackers, the explosions kept coming, with daytime protests followed by nights of looting and rioting.

People in military fatigues were deployed, pointing scary-looking weapons at people, hitting them with tear gas and rubber bullets. They were “the police,” but they looked alarmingly like soldiers enforcing some kind of martial law. There were complaints about heavy-handed police tactics as they arrested activists, politicians and news reporters.

As President Barack Obama pointed out, both police and residents have engaged in some inexcusable behavior.

On Friday, police identified the officer involved in the shooting as Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran officer who was responding to a reported robbery in the area. After days of being a national news story, tensions seem to have eased, thanks in part to a different approach by police.

But there’s still anger, and not just in Ferguson. I don’t know what happened that day. But while Wilson will receive the benefit of due process, including a day in court should he be charged with a crime, Brown received street justice and a death sentence.

Maybe the surprising thing isn’t that this is happening in St. Louis, but that it doesn’t happen more often in cities around the country.

Many cities have areas that the rest of us regard as separate, places whose problems, no matter how ghastly, are regarded as apart from our collective problems and probably unsolvable, anyway.

But those neighborhoods, and “those people” who live there, are part of our communities. The more we ignore their troubles, the uglier things become when they can be ignored no longer.

We know about the violence in Chicago, where there were 82 shootings, including 16 deaths, over the Fourth of July weekend. Five of those killed were shot by police after they refused to drop weapons. Two people died days after being shot.

This made national news, but many of us who live near that big city have become desensitized to what’s happening. The killings take place in faraway neighborhoods we will never visit.

But Chicago’s problems don’t always stay far away. People from tough neighborhoods do come to our communities. Sometimes they come here to stay, looking for an escape or a fresh start. Sometimes, they wind up in places like University Village in DeKalb, where most of the residents receive housing assistance and 92 percent of the households are headed by women.

That’s one of the areas police advise people to avoid during homecoming at Northern Illinois University. Already this summer we’ve heard police issue warnings about planned street robberies in that area.

But we can’t wall these neighborhoods off from our communities, either in mind or in practice. We can’t treat people living in poor neighborhoods as outsiders whose troubles aren’t our own and leave it to police to deal with the fallout.

That’s why the story by Katie Dahlstrom on the conclusion of “Camp Power” at University Village was so good to see this week.

The Ben Gordon Center’s Mary Hess, Live Healthy DeKalb County’s Lisa Cummings, and Northern Illinois University’s Nancy Prange coordinated the program, which taught neighborhood children about sports, nutrition, and academics.

The idea was conceived by the DeKalb police’s At-Risk Youth Task Force and was sponsored by General Mills, which contributed a $20,000 grant. Hundreds of volunteers and mentors participated, along with about 100 children – 60 of whom regularly attended.

As important as engaging the children, it built some understanding.

“I think by having all the volunteers come in during the summer, they were able to see that University Village is like any other neighborhood with kids and families,” Hess told Dahlstrom this week.

Yes, it is like any other neighborhood. As in any other neighborhood, the people there should know that they are part of the community, and that the police will protect rather than target innocent people no matter how they wear their pants, their sweatshirt or their baseball cap.

Initiatives like Camp Power are one way of getting that message across. It is great that it happened this year. Let’s hope that it can continue next year, along with more outreach programs that make sense. The goal should be to build understanding and help people who already must cope with difficult circumstances in their day-to-day lives feel that they belong.

People can’t look at it as a matter of us and them. In our communities, it should be us and us.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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