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Sparks fly over mayoral candidate's comment about cops and black men

Considering both sides of a thorny issue shouldn’t be the end of Doug Oliver’s mayoral run.

Doug Oliver speaks at the In Conversation With Philadelphia event at Pipeline Philly on Monday, March 30, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff photographer )
Doug Oliver speaks at the In Conversation With Philadelphia event at Pipeline Philly on Monday, March 30, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff photographer )Read more

THE YOUNGEST black mayoral candidate's sin, as far as I can tell, was daring to consider more than one point of view on the crisis of police officers - often white ones - gunning down black men.

But after a mayoral candidate forum last week, some suggested Doug Oliver had compromised his candidacy.

Oliver's timing surely isn't helped by a white police officer in South Carolina on Saturday firing multiple shots into the back of a black man. The officer has been charged with murder.

At the forum hosted by Al Dia, in which I was a panelist, Oliver said that young black men had reason to fear police. And then, the sin:

"The sad truth is that the police have good reason to be afraid of black men," he said.

There were a few gasps from the audience. Fellow Daily News columnist and WURD (900-AM) radio host Solomon Jones later took Oliver to task for stereotyping an entire race for the actions of a few and in essence, sanctioning the use of deadly force. Someone tweeted that Oliver had dug a hole for himself that eliminated him from contention.

Really? For trying to humanize both sides, and for attempting to thought-provokingly answer a difficult question?

Context is key here. Oliver's answer, slightly trimmed for space:

"I believe that it is a push and a pull . . . the responsibility rests with both groups. As a young black man who grew up in Germantown, Happy Hollow playground, 5015 Wayne Ave., yes, black men do have reason to be fearful of police at times. It's not that every police officer that comes across their path is going to do them harm, but there are some that would. And when you don't know the difference from one to the next you're afraid all of the time . . . "

He was cut off by the moderator when I went over my time. But later, he added:

"The sad truth is that the police have good reason to be afraid of black men. That is the truth because when you look at the statistics, that's where the shootings are coming from. And I think at the end of the day one of the worst things that hit me in my core when police Officer [Robert] Wilson was shot was just how far back that set relationships, and how in much more danger black men are simply because he was community policing. He was doing all of the things he was supposed to do when this happened. Everything went wrong. Nothing went right in that situation."

I understand why Oliver's words stunned some, angered others and left the rest wondering if he was pandering to white voters. Too often statistics feel more like justification, and a way for society to wash its hands of other issues at play here: poverty, lack of education, of jobs, of opportunities. Racism.

But from where I sat, Oliver's remarks showed that he was trying to broadly address a flat-out national crisis, and he shouldn't be minimized as a candidate just for that observation.

This pick-a-side conversation about race and police-and-citizen relationships that's going on right now is getting us exactly nowhere. Yesterday's hashtag was #robertwilson, the black officer killed by two black brothers last month. Today's hashtag, is #walterscott, the unarmed black man killed by a white cop on Saturday. It's a disgusting and deadly place we are in. Now what?

Stereotypes are wrong no matter where they're applied. But Oliver was talking about a mutual fear that puts everyone at risk. And if we believe, as I do, that young black men have reason to fear police officers in the wake of racial profiling, stop-and-frisk and deadly force, then why is it so outrageous to take a wider view and consider that the day after a cop is killed, other cops might also fear for their lives?

Fear doesn't give police a pass. An actual, imminent deadly threat should be the only thing that leads to a deadly response by the police - and it has to be more than, "I thought he was reaching for a weapon."

It also doesn't mean that police departments don't have serious work to do around training and transparency. The recent Department of Justice review of the Philadelphia Police Department found an "undercurrent of significant strife" between the department and the community.

But we can't address such complex issues by shrinking them into sound bites. And dehumanizing either side serves no purpose.

The truth is that bad cops are just one of the dangers young black men face in this city and beyond.

Maybe Oliver could have articulated his answer better. Maybe, as one of my fellow panelists mused when I said I planned to ask the candidates about race, there is no way to talk about such a volatile issue within time limits without someone stepping on his, um, tongue.

But from the very first column I wrote for the Daily News, I said we needed to talk about race, however messy, because it affects every issue in this city. So no apology here.

And there should be no apology from Oliver, either.

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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