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Group Wants To Restablish Human Rights Commission In Oklahoma City

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Immediately after former police officer Derrick Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, the Justice Department announced it is investigating whether the Minneapolis Police Department engaged in a, quote, "pattern or practice of unconstitutional, unlawful policing." The end result of that investigation could be a consent decree. That's a court-approved deal between the DOJ and local governments establishing a pathway to change.

Police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., are operating under such agreements. Other places aren't waiting for federal intervention. The mayor of Birmingham has just announced that city's first civilian review board. And in Oklahoma City, residents are building the case to reinstate a Human Rights Commission.

Andrea Benjamin is a professor of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma, and she has been leading the effort for her city's commission for the last year. And she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ANDREA BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd first like to get your thoughts on the verdict. How are your colleagues, neighbors processing the end of this trial?

BENJAMIN: Sure. I think that there initially might have been a sense of relief but also these questions about is it justice? Is it accountability? This is just consequences. So I think we're just - like everywhere else, try to see how we can move forward from here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, there's this big debate - right? - about justice or accountability. I mean, those words are at the center almost of what it is that you're doing. Why did you specifically propose a Human Rights Commission?

BENJAMIN: Sure. So we think that there's something really valuable about communities being able to have conversations around issues in their community. And so it's not to say that we think there are so many problems in Oklahoma City, but what we do think is that it's sort of beyond just policing. We're interested in any experience that a resident in our city has that may or may not be fair. And so I think the Human Rights Commission allows for a broader scope, and it allows for different outcomes.

In some places, Human Rights Commissions are really strong because they do research and then they issue reports that then can be used to help the community make some decisions about what they should do. So I think that's one of the areas that we thought was really important, that, you know, we live near a military base, so there might be veterans in our community. Are they having a good experience? Are they experiencing discrimination? Or, you know, people who have different accessibilities are - you know, is our community accessible? If the answer is no, we want to find out about that and then figure out together how we can make it better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where do you stand in the process?

BENJAMIN: Well, we are trying to finalize the sort of nuts and bolts of it, right? And the goal is to present the legislation to the city council in the coming weeks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that Oklahoma City did have a Human Rights Commission for more than 30 years until it was dissolved in 1996, and I understand that was due to concerns that the LGBTQ community was - and I'm going to quote here - "using the panel to pursue special advantages for their behavior." Are you worried about opposition to this commission again if it passes?

BENJAMIN: Yeah. And I would say, of course, that's really unfortunate that that was the reason why it was disbanded several years ago. That's really not how I think we see ourselves as a city today. Yeah, we are worried that there's going to be opposition, but I don't view this as political necessarily. Of course, it has to go through a political process because it comes out of the city council. But we think that many of the council members and the mayor are in favor of this commission coming back. Otherwise, I don't think they would have asked us to move forward with the task force.

But we're still hopeful, and we hope that if there are concerns - again, it's a community conversation. So if there are community members who don't think it's a good idea, I hope we hear from them and that we can listen and try to come to a place where we find a consensus.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, what you are involved in right now is, of course, part of a wider movement in the United States, elevating community and grassroots activism. Why do you think it's so important in this movement overall to have these kinds of, you know, citizen-based responses to what is a very systemic problem?

BENJAMIN: Yeah. I think given that, you know, city councils or city managers, depending on what system you live in - they are the ones who manage your police department. And so I think having this conversation at a local level allows us to think about the things that we're really good at and what we think we're doing really well but also to be reflective and say, hey, what can we do better?

And so I don't think a national policy that mandates from the top down will be that well-received in a place like Oklahoma City. One thing that I hear - often hear is, but we're not New York City. And I think that's important to keep in mind, that no other place is New York City, right? And so to think about, OK, so then what would community engagement look like in your community? I think each sort of local context is engaging in a way that's meaningful to them, and I think that's really important because then local communities get to see the change that they want.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Professor Benjamin, I'm going to put this to you because you also wear the hat of being a professor of African American studies. And I know when journalists ask this question to people involved in a moment, it can seem a little heavy-handed. But specifically, I would like your perspective because you have the long view. How would you characterize this moment after the Chauvin verdict and after the Black Lives Matter protests?

BENJAMIN: I think we've made some progress. I don't think we're where we need to be, and I say that only because even in the midst of the trial, there are still police shootings. The day the verdict is announced, there's a police shooting. And I would like to live in a country where we rely on our justice system to handle these types of situations and that people are not being shot and killed in the street really by anyone, if it were my preference, but especially not by police officers who are there to protect and serve.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andrea Benjamin co-chairs the task force to reinstate Oklahoma City's Human Rights Commission. Thank you very much.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC'S "TIME IS THE ENEMY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.