Town Hall Kick-Starts NAACP Centennial Celebration

Reyna S. Walters | 4/15/2009, 4:52 p.m.

Community members voiced their concerns to government and grass roots leaders at a town hall forum sponsored by the Washington, D.C. branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP, which is the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the United States, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. To commemorate this event, the Washington DC branch of the NAACP is hosting a Centennial Empowerment Week of workshops and events.

The town hall forum brought community members and governmental and community leaders together to address issues ranging from discrimination to community violence. Police brutality was one of the issues that topped the discussion among the panelists and community members present.

€There are times when force is necessary,€ said Commander Melvin Scott of the Metropolitan Police Department. He explained that the Metropolitan Police Department relies on training, monitoring actions of officers, and community members actively reporting instances of police brutality to keep the issue in check. However, there were some who were skeptical of the department€s efforts to reduce incidents of police brutality.

One community member alleged that he had been a victim of police brutality near the Trinidad community. When he tried to report the incident, he alleged that dispatchers sent the same officer who had allegedly committed the act to his home to take the police brutality report.

Kenneth E. Barnes, Sr., founder and CEO of ROOT, Inc., an organization devoted to reducing gun violence, likened the relationship between police officers and some community members to hyenas and lions in the jungle€"with the community feeling like they are being preyed upon. €I know that the police chief and others in charge do not tolerate police brutality, but that does not always translate to the rank and file,€ Barnes said.

Community violence was also a major issue discussed. Barnes cited gun violence as the number one killer of African-American males and highlighted the 53 murders that have already occurred in the District this year.

Barnes, whose son was shot near 11th and U streets NW several years ago, stated that €violence is predictable and preventable.€

€More police doesn€t solve the problem. Washington, D.C. has more police per capita than any other city in the US, yet it is still ranked the fourth most violent city,€ Barnes said. He believes that a comprehensive strategy of dealing with gun violence is needed.

Scott believes that there are too many guns available.
€The police department can€t force people to do the right thing with guns. In fact, there are some people who have them who should not,€ Scott said.

Other government representatives at the forum included Gustavo F. Velasques, Director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights; Mindy Weinstein, Acting Director of the D.C. Field office of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Brenda Ford Harding, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program; and Shirley Horng, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of D.C.

Velasques discussed the D.C. Human Rights Act and its impact on the community. The act, which explicitly covers 19 different groups from discrimination in DC, €is one of the most inclusive statues in the country,€ Velasques said.
Weinstein, representing the EEOC, said that the agency investigates and litigates charges of employment discrimination. Charges of employment discrimination must be filed within 180 days of the date of the alleged violation. Weinstein stressed that the agency cannot assist if a person waits too long to file.

The Neighborhood Legal Services Program (€NLSP€) considers itself a full service law office and serviced over 2500 residents last year. The NLSP helps those who may be unable to afford legal services. Two successful initiatives have been the foreclosure clinic which was started last year to help slow the rapidly increasing foreclosure rate and the wills clinic. €People think that as long as property stays within the family it€s secure, but that is not true,€ Harding said. €When there is no will, the state decides how the property will be distributed.€

Landlord-tenant law was also discussed. €Laws are tenant friendly, but people need to know what their rights are,€ Horng said. €Tenants have a right to live in a house free of housing violations.€ Furthermore, €landlords can not evict a tenant unless they go through the legal process,€ Horng said.

The NAACP will hold events week, including a reception on April 17 with the NAACP President and CEO, Benjamin Jealous, at Station 9, 1438 U Street, NW from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m.

Reyna Walters can be reached at queensimone1908@aol.com