A Baptist pastor affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has teamed with a Nation of Islam leader to demand justice for an African American man allegedly beaten by police in Flint, Mich., earlier this month.
Devontae Powell, lead pastor at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in Flint, invited the Muslim minister, Jalil X. Carter, to his sanctuary for a recent town hall meeting about the police brutality incident. After explaining that Allah is the Arabic word for God, Powell said he then asked Carter to lead the assembly in prayer.
“You could see some eyes rolling in the pews, like ‘Oh, that’s different,’” he recalled.
But a different approach is necessary in the wake of the two beatings that Flint resident John Fleming said he received at the hands of police on April 2, Powell said.
According to local media reports, Fleming reported being assaulted then released by Flint Township police after being falsely accused of shoplifting at a Walmart. While seeking medical treatment at Hurley Medical Center for those injuries the same day, he said he was tackled and cuffed by officers and punched by a deputy with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office. Although he was briefly jailed, Fleming was not charged in either incident.
Rather than staging protests, Powell said he, Carter and other activists will present demands to the institutions involved to bring justice for Fleming.
“Any time there is an injustice in the community, the immediate reaction is to protest. But protest is the last line of defense,” the pastor said. “Before we do that, first we want come together to make a call to action, which means to inform the community, listen to the community and then create action items that we are asking of the township, the sheriff’s office, the hospital and Walmart. We want to communicate with all of them that there is no way you can work for the community without working with the community.”
The April 12 town hall gathering at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church was held to provide updates about the case and to take ideas from citizens on how to respond. The consensus was that law enforcement officers should undergo training to familiarize themselves with the culture of minority neighborhoods, Powell said.
“This training would help in the policing of urban communities by teaching our culture, our language and what makes us who we are as a people. In this particular incident, he (Fleming) was treated as a criminal, but he was not a criminal. Why was he seen as a threat? You need to engage us like you’re serving us, not policing us.”
The effort led by Powell and Carter also is demanding investigations into both beating incidents and into the policies and procedures at Walmart and the hospital that may have contributed to them. The leaders of both law enforcement agencies have pledged to conduct internal investigations.
“With Hurley (Medical Center), we are asking if their staff has ever gone through mental health training and whether they saw any signs Mr. Fleming was already in mental distress when he got there. Why is it no one was able to recognize his stress? He had an emotional reaction to getting beat up by two police agencies in four hours. There are so many people who dropped the ball along the way, so we want to see reform in all these entities so it won’t happen again.”
They also want to press Walmart for information on how the retailer typically handles incidents of shoplifting. “Why did they feel Mr. Fleming was shoplifting? Why did they falsely accuse him of shoplifting? He had his receipt. It could have all been checked out,” he said.
Powell said the movement to seek justice for Fleming also has been aided by the Flint chapter of Black Lives Matter. Absent, however, is a groundswell of support from African Americans in the city.
“It’s difficult because the Black man inside of me wants to be enraged by the unethical behavior that has occurred,” the pastor explained. “But I’m also outraged by the lack of involvement by the Black community in Flint. I am not for rioting, but these town halls should be packed out.”
While many African American pastors have called him to privately express support, much of the Black church has not taken an active role, Powell noted. “We need people to show up not to support me, but to support Mr. Fleming and his family, and to support him getting justice.”
“We grew up in church our whole lives. Where is the church in this?”
Their absence was apparent during the recent town hall meeting at Rising Star. “One of the things that pained me, and that I am still grappling with and praying about, is when the sister of John Fleming stood up and said, ‘We grew up in church our whole lives. Where is the church in this?’ What could I say? I was there and the Nation (of Islam) was there.”
Powell said the situation has been personally difficult for him as well but he has been helped by support from CBF’s Pan African Koinonia.
The challenge ahead is huge, he said. “We are making steps in the right direction. It’s going to be a long battle, though.”