Radio talk show host Warren Ballentine is heading to Portland next week to help lead a conference on law enforcement. The Northwest Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives will hold its annual training meeting, "Leadership through Excellence: A Dialogue to Mentor Our Future" from April 17 – 20 at the Crowne Plaza Holiday Inn. A civil rights advocate, whose radio handle is 'the people's attorney,' Ballentine will host a town hall meeting for 200 students and give the keynote speech at the closing banquet.
Last November, Ballentine was a key instigator of National Blackout Day, urging African Americans to join him in refusing to spend any money on one chosen Friday. The idea was to highlight the spending power of Black America and at the same time draw attention to the persistence of racism and injustice. The University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth has estimated that African American spending power is about $845 billion a year (after taxes) — more than $2.3 billion a day.
Ballentine helped draw national attention to the Jena 6 case, advocated for Genarlow Wilson, the teen jailed for consensual oral sex, who now has been released, and spoke out in support of Megan Williams, the Virginia woman who was kidnapped and tortured by six Whites.
The Skanner interviewed Ballentine on the phone last Monday.
What's the biggest challenge facing Black law enforcement professionals?
"Well I think that finding opportunities for advancement is the biggest uphill battle right now. Throughout the country it's very hard to find minorities of any ethnic background in authoritative positions where they are actually in the leadership roles. It has gotten better over the years – don't get me wrong – but I think we could improve on it, especially when you think about how many minority people are getting locked up in this country every single day."
The United States puts one in nine African American men between 19 and 30 in jail. Is bias in the system to blame?
"It is. There are some big disparities in the legal system. I think what's happened in this country is that locking young men up has become very profitable for a lot of people and that's why you have this blitz on these young men who're getting locked up for any- and everything.
"But another thing is this: It becomes an accountability issue for the community and for the parents of these young men because … some of this is self inflicted. Because we know our children are doing wrong; we know they are out here doing things they shouldn't be doing, but sometimes we get so consumed in our own lives that we miss what is really going on with them."
"Of course there is going to be this element of racial profiling. When you consider the judges – most of the judges that are sitting on the bench — I would say most of them have no idea about minorities until they get into the legal system. They probably didn't grow up with them, they probably didn't go to school with them, and if they did grow up with them and go to school with them, how many actually became friends with them. And you can have police officers who may not have ever been around anybody that is a minority, period … coming from a suburb and then moving to a city and becoming a police officer. They have preconceived notions about minorities already. And when you have something like that factoring into the mix, you're always going to have some kind of racial disparity and racial profiling going on."
What will you be talking about when you come to Portland?
My speech is going to be based on Genesis 27:19 and 27:20. It's about the dreamer. And we have to understand that we are living in a day and a time where it is our right to dream again and it's our right to want to be successful and it's our right to want to talk about fixing the problems that we have.
"I think one of the problems that we have right now is that we are not dealing with our issues. Instead of dealing with the pink elephant in the room or the 500-pound gorilla in the room, we're choosing to walk around it.
"So I'm going to ask the young people to be dreamers. And I'm going to ask the people in the legal system to be dream fulfillers. When you get in this system you have to safeguard the public, but also you want to educate the public so they don't get caught up in the system. I hear presidential nominees talking about prevention for health care; well I would like to do prevention for the legal system to keep people out of it."
What do you mean by prevention for the legal system?
For young children I think, it's about having a good education system that includes opportunities to do theater and art and rapping, the kinds of things that they want to do.
For the officers and court officers, I think if you tie in sensitivity training and ethnic training, then learning the history of people — because all ethnic groups are different. That will increase sensitivity to different people.
"I think … we should have a program where lawyers go into the schools and break down our laws and show children that, 'Look, hey if you get your girlfriend pregnant at an early age then this is what will happen with child support. If you punch a teacher, you could be charged with this crime.
"I think we need to get that prevention in there at an early age. If you're going to do something and you know that you can be held accountable for it, nine times out of 10, you won't do it. If you know that if you come home at 11 o'clock your mother's going to put you on punishment, you're going to get in the house at 10:59."
What are the most hopeful signs you see?
"I think there is an element of hope that the dream is coming back, and I think that's due in large part to Barack Obama. He's bringing something to this country that is desperately needed. I think he's giving the country a chance to actually talk about race and show that, right now, race isn't the single factor behind everything going on. Don't get me wrong, it plays a major part, but there is hope that it won't be this way forever. I think that for the first time in this country's history we have gotten to a place where that is true."
"The other thing I want to say is that I love George Bush. I'd like to thank him personally, because without him being the way he is, I don't think this would ever be occurring. George Bush is the greatest man alive. Because, think about it like this: When you're sick and you have a really bad cold, you go to the pharmacist and you don't care whether he's Black, White, Indian. You don't care, so long as they've got medicine to get you better. You just want to get your medicine. After George Bush, we're all so sick that we don't care who's giving the medicine. We just want the medicine right now."