Approaching the Baldwin Hills shopping center in Los Angeles on Wednesday, I was struck by the youth of the men and women—mostly African-American—as they lined up outside the plaza’s theater and crowded the lobby and stairs leading to the packed auditorium.

They were attending “Manifest Justice,” a weeklong pop-up art show and discussion forum focused on the young African-American men who’ve been shot and killed by police, as well as the huge number of black and Latino young people imprisoned or expelled from school, potentially setting them on the path to lives of poverty.

The age of the crowd and its size at the shopping center in middle- and upper-class Baldwin Hills, which has a large black population, was significant. It showed how deeply these traumatic events have affected the African-American community, touching the poor and the affluent.

I attended the event just as African-Americans around the country were reacting to the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man in Baltimore who died at the hands of the police.

A few days before, a homeless black man was shot to death by a Los Angeles police officer, also African-American, in a melee in the beachside community of Venice, touching off protests in the area.

Meanwhile, members of the black community continue to demand the results of an investigation of another fatal shooting. The victim in this case was Ezell Ford Jr., a mentally ill young black man killed last August by two Los Angeles police officers, one Asian-American and the other Latino. The killings of an African-American boy in Cleveland and a black man in New York by white police officers took place around the same time.

Speaking Wednesday night was Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black Florida high school student shot to death by George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch member in the subdivision where he killed the boy. Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder.

“It was absolutely about the color of his skin,” Fulton said of the shooting by Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother was born in Peru.

At first, she said, “I did not want to believe it was about racial profiling. …I didn’t believe we had people living in our communities who would shoot someone because of the color of their skin.” But as she worked her way through her grief and learned the facts of the case, she came to the conclusion that Zimmerman followed her son and shot him because of race.

That’s when she began speaking out. “I speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” she said. “I am Trayvon Martin.”Sharing the platform with Fulton was actress Rosario Dawson and Robert K. Ross, president of The California Endowment, a not-for-profit organization that funds projects to improve the health of minority communities. Dawson is a leader of Voto Latino, which aims to increase Latino voting and elect public officials who will discipline out-of-control police.

The art show at “Manifest Justice” approached the problem with powerful paintings and images. I was particularly impressed with two sculptures. One was a seesaw made of wood by Jim Arnold. On the up side was a figure with hands raised in surrender. On the down side was a figure holding a gun, ready to fire. The other sculpture was an old police car, a Ford Crown Vic, painted white. One door read “Ferguson PD,” referring to the department responsible for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The other door was marked “NYPD.” Sculptor Jordan J. Weber said he bought the used car, painted it, put dirt from Ferguson on the floor, and planted cactus and other invasive plants, which are growing through holes in the roof to symbolize police as an invasive force. Then he cut it up, trucked it from his Des Moines, Iowa, studio and reassembled it in Los Angeles.

Everything I saw and heard at “Manifest Justice” represented an attempt to cure an ailment that so far has failed to respond to the medicine offered by pundits, scholars, politicians, community activists, lawyers and others involved in the criminal justice system.

The easiest story line, one embraced by cable TV news, is “white cops versus black kids.” But it’s much more complicated. As Sybrina Fulton noted in her discussion, “The issue is not about white on black. Sometimes it is black on black or white on white.”

I explored that point in January, in a Truthdig column on young black men being shot to death by non-white cops. It’s the police culture, I was told, and the attitude cops bring to policing in poor, high-crime areas.

I met with members of the Youth Justice Coalition, made up of former prisoners who have organized to reform the criminal justice system.

“It’s not the person that fills the uniform, it’s what the uniform does to the person,” said Kim McGill, an organizer for the coalition. “Blue is the new white.”

Or, as another Youth Justice Coalition member, Abraham Colunga, told me, “It’s cop versus black and brown, any minority. It’s more a matter of cop versus us, no matter what the cop is, black, brown, Filipino.”

Los Angeles is a good example of that. The Los Angeles Times Homicide Report, a compilation of all killings, found that 594 people died in officer-involved shootings between 2000 and 2014. Of these, 114 were white, 300 Latino, 159 black and 16 Asian (the black total is disproportionately high, because African-Americans are a smaller part of the population than Latinos and whites). Yet the Los Angeles Police Department is multiethnic. It has 3,547 Latino officers, the largest ethnic group, followed by 2,756 whites, 861 blacks and 634 Asian-Americans.Kim McGill believes part of the answer is for neighborhoods to exert more control. “We have to change the culture of law enforcement and create real community authority over police if we want to address system violence and transform the treatment of black and brown communities,” she told me.

Another part of the answer is to call off the “war on crime”—police invasions of poor black and Latino neighborhoods that involve repeated stop-and-frisks, resulting in arrests for drug violations that are ignored in affluent white areas. The jails should be emptied of these minor offenders so they can return to their neighborhoods and be the parents their children need. And while ending that useless war, what about halting school expulsions that put young blacks and Latinos out on the street, possibly on the road to jail? And why can’t police learn to deal with the mentally ill instead of shooting them, as too often happens?

I went to “Manifest Justice” looking for answers. But having dealt with these questions for many years, I knew they would be hard to find.

I’ll bet members of the audience felt the same way as they pondered the future and worried about their black sons and brothers over Mother’s Day brunches that had a special, sad resonance this year.

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