By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
Words matter and are not to be taken lightly, University of the District of Columbia Professor Bernard “Bernie” Demczuk told nearly two dozen Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) recruits on their mandatory Black History tour along U Street April 20.
In his opinion when people say “riot,” they’re talking about Black people violently reacting to tragedy. That’s why Demczuk instead calls the unrest along U Street following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 an uprising or rebellion.
Bernie Demczuk speaks to officers during the U Street tour. (Photo by Lenore Adkins
“Thug means Black, middle-class means White,” said Demczuk, who is White and teaches African-American history and culture at the University of the District of Columbia. “Urban means Black, riot means Black. I don’t have time to give you a long history lesson on how much there was White rioting against Black people over the last 250 years. Do they call them riots? No, they don’t call them riots.”
The police department has partnered with UDC to deploy a training program for D.C.’s roughly 3,800 police officers and 660 civilian personnel to help them understand the city’s rich African American history and the historic racial tension between Black communities and law enforcement.
While violent crimes have fallen in the District, according to Mayor Muriel Bowser, negative interactions between Black residents and police officers continue to be a point of contention — a larger issue when considering African Americans comprise 47.7 percent of the District according to the 2016 U.S. Census.
Meanwhile, demographic data from D.C. police shows Blacks represent 52.12 percent of the force, while 35.1 percent are White, nearly 9 percent identify as Hispanic, 3.61 percent are Asian, and the rest are either Native American or biracial.
The one day program requires several hours of lectures led by Demczuk and professor Sharita Thompson, as well as tours of the Smithsonian African-American Museum of History and Culture and the U Street Corridor. Training started in January and 550 officers have gone through it as of April 20, Demczuk said.
On the tour, Demczuk took the recruits along a vibrant five-block stretch of U Street that was once home to “Black Broadway,” and formed in response to segregation on New York City’s Broadway. With its jazz clubs, Black businesses, famous residents and its proximity to Howard University, U Street was ground zero for Black life, society and culture.
Today, tension simmers in the rapidly gentrifying corridor between long-time Black residents who saw the neighborhood through its tough times and the new, young White residents moving in, Demczuk said. It’s a something he said police need to know and understand when it comes to doing their job.
The two-hour tour led officers through alleys to see vibrant murals, including the one near the landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl (where Demczuk serves as its historian), past Lee’s Flower and Card Shop and Industrial Bank, two other longtime Black businesses, to the African American Civil War Memorial and other historic points of interest.
Many people on the street stopped in their tracks, curious about why so many cops were walking up and down U Street — several others joined the tour for short stints. Along the way, Demczak introduced the officers to some of the people who make U Street tick, including Tony, a homeless man who implored the cops not to arrest him if they’re ever walking the beat and Shun Pittman, owner of Corps d’Elite hair salon.
“I am so amazed and grateful for this program that Bernie is doing and I hope it takes off nationwide because it’s something that’s needed,” Pittman told the AFRO. “Education is the key for everything, you know? It brings people together.”
The police department isn’t relying on data or evidence to show the program works, public affairs specialist Karimah Bilal told the AFRO. It instead acts as an initiative that offers insight into the culture and background of the Black communities D.C. police serve, while drilling down on the historic mistrust between law enforcement and Blacks.
Through the training, veteran officer Sarah Snapko learned there’s a reason D.C. doesn’t have vagrancy laws on the books — because they were often used to target Blacks who were hanging out when it was too hot in their homes.
She’s hopeful that her fellow officers don’t close their mind to learning something new and wishes she had this training when she joined the force 15 years ago.
“A citizen looks to you as the person who can solve the problem for them and yet there’s so much more you don’t realize, you don’t know especially when you’re coming from an outside city and you’re growing up in a different culture,” said Snapko, who is White and is from suburban Cleveland. “Here, it’s a culture shock and to have this type of training and to serve that community, it’s a benefit.”