MLK Day observance goes virtual in Valley

YOUNGSTOWN — Throughout the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized how fluid, evolutionary and transformational the civil rights movement was and, many people contend, had the wisdom to adopt and shift his strategies with it for achieving a more just society.

For example, it was one thing for black people to gain the right to sit at what had been whites-only lunch counters, but another for them to have greater economic power to afford what was being served.

The movement continues to evolve today to include tackling disparities in access to health care and education, as well as unequal treatment by police, many say.

Those also were the primary topics discussed during Monday’s virtual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Workshop. Hosting the three-hour annual event was the Martin Luther King Jr. Planning Committee of the Mahoning Valley.

Thomas Sauline, the Mahoning Valley Association of Church’s executive director, facilitated the session, themed “Remembering What is Civil and Doing What is Right.”

More than 100 attended and took part in breakout sessions that dealt with criminal justice and health care issues, along with challenges many young people face.

Last April, in the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, realized that the growing health crisis “shined a light on an unacceptable situation,” said Dr. Virginia D. Banks, a local infectious-disease specialist who was referring to a disproportionate number of minorities getting COVID-19 and dying.

The recent vaccine rollout has been “a hot mess,” partly because many people who refuse to take it believe in certain myths about it, she contended. Consequently, it’s vital that more people act as “trusted messengers” to disseminate the facts about the pandemic and the two vaccines in circulation in the U.S., said Banks, who added she’s had the first of her two shots.

“Watch the science” and don’t automatically believe information on social media groups, Banks continued.

“We want to make sure we’re helping other groups,” said Jaladah Aslam, the Youngstown/Warren Black Caucus president, who led the criminal justice task force committee.

Specifically, the task force is committed to working with the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence collaborative, as well as the Suspended License Intervention Program that Judge Renee M. DiSalvo of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court implemented to help those eligible who have had their driver’s licenses revoked more quickly become valid drivers.

Ohio has one of the nation’s highest rates of motorists with suspended licenses, a situation that disproportionately affects people of color, the Rev. Rebecca Kahnt, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Youngstown, noted in giving the committee’s report.

In addition, the task force is working with the Next Steps Coalition, a grass-roots organization formed shortly after George Floyd was killed last May in Minneapolis. The coalition is a partnership between concerned citizens, clergy and community leaders advocating for greater accountability in law enforcement and police reforms.

“There are 27 police departments in this area; they all have their own police chiefs, officers and contracts,” Kahnt said in summarizing the committee’s report. “There is a wall of protection built into these contracts for the police officers that is not in place for other positions (and) that does a disservice for our community.”

For example, officers who are disciplined have their records expunged after one year. Such language in their contracts can encourage them to be repeat offenders of the same charge, with no record of it unless it occurs within the same year, which leads to little or no accountability, Kahnt explained.

That overall situation often fosters greater distrust of police and is a disservice to the communities they serve, she continued.

The need for significant changes in how officers are investigated and disciplined for using excess force and racial profiling remains strong, Aslam added.



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