LOS ANGELES - Steve Adarkwa grew up in Ghana. What he saw on television shaped his image of America.
“Beautiful streets (and) beautiful people. I'd never seen racism before because I was coming from a country where everything was African,” Adarkwa remembered.
Living in the United States as a black man shattered the glamorized image portrayed on TV.
“I actually saw the intensity of racism or racial divide in this country,” said Adarkwa.
He said he understood the nationwide protests in response to George Floyd’s death and demonstrations against racism in the United States.
“People look at you weird. People talk to you weird, especially when you have an accent. All of a sudden it doesn't matter if you have an education or background, it doesn't matter your social status. People instantly just downgrade you and talk to you a certain way,” Adarkwa said.
Good and bad experiences with police
Adarkwa has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. He serves as a pastor at the Rancho Church of the Living God in Rancho Cucamonga, a community, 66 kilometers east of Los Angeles.
He said he has had both positive and negative experiences with the police in the U.S.
“I actually had policeman who say, you know, ‘I’m going to reduce your offense because you are a gentleman.”’
He also remembered one incident while driving when he was stopped by the police for a broken windshield wiper and taillight.
“After he wrote me a ticket, instead of giving me my driver's license he dropped it in the gutter, and there's a drainage. I couldn't get it because it fell into the drainage,” recounted Adarkwa who went to the police station to complain about the officer’s actions.
He remembered the police captain saying, “We will talk to him, and we want people like you to come forward and complain because when it comes to evaluating their work, these are things that we can advise them on.”
Episcopal priest and immigrant from Uganda, Joy Magala, said she often worries about her sons.
“I have three boys, and every time they go out to walk the dog, I get so scared because I'm thinking they are black. Someone might catch them. Someone might do something to them,” said Magala.
Lessons from the past
Magala and Adarkwa both lived in Los Angeles during the 1992 L.A. riots sparked when four police officers were acquitted of the brutal beating of Rodney King, an African American man.
Adarkwa has seen some positive changes within the Los Angeles Police Department since then.
“They now move to community policing. Police officers began to interact with different communities more,” Adarkwa said.
“More and more people are learning to be politically correct, but a lot of racism is still there,” said Magala.
Najuma Smith-Pollard, senior pastor at the Word of Encouragment Community Church in Los Angeles, who also experienced the unrest 1992, said there has been too many cases across the country where African Americans have been treated without dignity by the police. She said the national protests are more than just a response to the death of George Floyd.
“This case is a reminder of the last case, was a reminder of the last case. You cannot keep beating people and then expect them to not fight back. At some point people fight back.”
Change and defunding police
“It’s going to take time before this is changed,” said Adarkwa of policies within police departments because the U.S. does not have a federalized police force for different municipalities. Each police department within each city has its own policies and hiring guidelines.
The Black Lives Matter Movement has been calling for the “defunding of police” and invest funds in black communities.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to cut the city’s police funding and move the money to youth programs and social services.
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti is proposing $250 million in budget cuts, including slashing up to $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department’s budget. Garcetti said the funds should be focused on the black community and invested in jobs, health, and education.
“It is a step in the right direction; and we need to continue to work toward more transformative change in our city. I personally appreciate the mayor's leadership in this area, as mayors of other major cities now begin to reconsider similar budget cuts,” said Smith-Pollard.
“The idea here is that once people have access to stuff that they need, there will be less need to commit crime,” said Magala. “Smaller police with less equipment can adequately do the job. The extra monies can then be invested in marginalized communities that need help with the essentials of life.”
Adarkwa fears there may be negative consequences to the proposed cuts.
“Cutting police funding in the midst of the present crises could increase the tension between Police and the public nationwide,” said Adarkwa who questioned the impact of a $150 million dollar cut in a city of nearly four million people.
He sees the budget cuts as a “distraction from the main issue which is police brutality against Blacks, when there should be money invested in reforming what appears to be an ancient police culture based on racism…”
On the federal level, congressional Democrats introduced police reform legislation on Monday. The bill includes a ban on the use of chokeholds and would make it easier to sue police officers for misconduct.
Change and the future
While Adarkwa said change of police attitudes start with police departments and new national training protocols, Magala said transformation begins within each person.
“Each one of us needs to look deep in ourselves and see if there be any racism in our lives…any discrimination of any kind.” Magala continued, “How do we look at the overweight woman? How do we see the disabled people who have disabilities? It all goes back to knowing that we are all human beings and we need to treat each one of those people with a respect.”
The pastors said they are encouraged to see people of different ethnicities demonstrating against racism, but Magala is guarded about how much change will take place.
“There is not going to come a time when discrimination and racism is completely gone, but I think our job as human beings is to start that work and do the best that we can in our places of work and our communities to bring about change,” Magala said.