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The race issue – again 

This isn't the column I was going to write. I've been focusing frequently on problems and conflict and tragedy, and I meant to celebrate some of the really good things have been happening in Rochester.

And then problems and conflict and tragedy raised their head again, downstate and here at home.

Hardly had the Ferguson grand jury decision begun to recede from the news than we learned about another grand jury decision. This one dealt with the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed, 43-year-old black man who lost his life after a confrontation with police on a sidewalk in Staten Island in July.

Unlike some cases of police-related deaths, this tragedy had several eyewitnesses. In fact, thanks to a cellphone video, the entire world can now witness the events that led to Garner's death. Police thought he was selling loose cigarettes - a misdemeanor - and as they start to arrest him, we can watch as he insists that he hasn't done anything.

"I didn't sell anything," a clearly frustrated Garner pleads. "I did nothing."

"Every time you see me, you harass me," he says. "I'm minding my business, officer. Please, leave me alone. I told you last time, leave me alone."

One officer and then another starts to put his hands on him, and Garner turns back and forth between them, saying "Don't touch me. Please. Don't touch me," raising his hands and arms in protest.

The two officers, joined by other officers, grab him and pull him to the ground, and when Garner tries to crawl away, an officer wraps his arm around Garner's neck as Garner lies stomach down on the sidewalk. One officer pushes on Garner's head, others press on his back, and Garner begins repeating, "I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe."

Garner is subdued and lies motionless, EMT's arrive, and police load him into the ambulance, where he dies on the way to the hospital.

A medical examiner's report says Garner's death was a homicide, the result of "compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police."

Garner wasn't aggressive; he tried to keep police from restraining him. That turned out to be a death sentence. And last week a grand jury found no reason for an indictment.

That wasn't the only troubling police news last week. The day after the news from Staten Island, the US Justice Department announced that a two-year study of the Cleveland, Ohio, police department found a pattern of excessive force by officers.

Police departments around the country are under scrutiny, protests are continuing, and many police feel besieged - "alone," as the New York police union president put it. That's understandable; despite the deaths, there's no reason to believe that all police are abusive, any more than there is any reason to believe that all black men are violent. Police often work in dangerous conditions, and some of the people they confront are angry, abusive, emotionally out of control. Some are violent - violent enough that police officers' lives are threatened.

So this country has plenty of problems to deal with. And to show support for police is not to disrespect the people who become victims of police.

Now we come to the local news. In the midst of a week of protests about the Ferguson decision and the news about Staten Island and Cleveland swirled, local radio host and blogger Bob Lonsberry planned a rally and march to support Rochester police.

We can debate whether his timing was good; I don't think it was, but others will disagree. What to me is less debatable, though, was the location Lonsberry chose for the rally and the 3.6-mile march: the heart of a predominantly black, inner-city Rochester neighborhood.

Presumably Lonsberry picked that location because it's where Officer Daryl Pierson was killed in September. He insisted in one of his blogs that the event wasn't meant to be "a statement against" anyone. "It's not us versus them," he wrote, "it's not white versus black, it's not city versus suburb." And he invited people in the neighborhood to join him.

But it was a march through a predominantly black neighborhood organized by a white outsider, some of whose fans have been posting hateful, racist comments on his blog - at a time of heightened tension, throughout the country, between the residents of black communities and predominantly white police departments.

There is no way most of us would see that march as a healing, unifying event. Lonsberry's intent may have been purely to show support for the police officers and other first responders who do indeed risk their lives for all of us. But certainly many people it would view it as confrontational.

And predictably, his blog whipped up comments from some of the anti-city, anti-black, anti-poor, anti-Mayor Warren residents of the Greater Rochester area. That's the last thing we need.

What we do need is some way to bring all of us together: white people who distrust black people, white people who insist that people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner have only themselves to blame for their deaths... black people who assume that Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson was lying when he said he feared for his life in his confrontation with Michael Brown... police officers, young black men, black and white community leaders... all of the people who have been ranting angrily on social media... all of us. Until we calm down, listen to one another, and struggle to understand one another, we won't get anywhere.

This country may have eradicated slavery, but racism and racial tension are still very much with us. So are their effects. In 1968, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to study causes of the riots in the nation's inner cities, concluded that the roots included racism, lack of economic opportunity, segregation, and inadequate housing. Nearly 50 years later, those problems remain.

"Our nation," the Kerner Commission warned, "is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal."

Moving toward two societies? Looks to me like we're pretty much there.

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