As part of the Public Libraries of Saginaw's 2013 One Book, One Community series, police officer and author Brian Willingham will be in Saginaw on Saturday, April 20th to discuss his new work, Soul of a Black Cop at 2:00 PM at First Congregational Church, 403 S. Jefferson in Saginaw. Copies of the book will be available for checkout at any of the Saginaw Public Library branches.
Willingham is a Flint police officer that shares what it is like providing police services to an urban population in a city with a high crime rate. His stories are at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, offering insight for all readers into a world we may not understand, even though it is part of our community.
According to the program Chairwoman, Amy Churchill, the goals of the One Book One Community series “are to select a book on a yearly basis that has wide spread appeal and provides ample topics for discussion. We work to select a book that will highlight relevant and thought provoking issues that affect our community both on a small and large scale.”
Willingham has served with the Flint Police Department for approximately 15 years and is a military veteran. Because of his military background he says that he felt police work would obviously fit with his training, but is quick to emphasize, “I've always had a heart for community service and thought that being a police officer would be a great way to do that.”
Indeed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Leon Litwack calls Willingham's work 'a scream from the bottom…a compelling and often unnerving documentary portrait of an urban war zone…the day-to-day experiences of America's interior exiles.'
Given that Flint & Saginaw share many characteristics in terms of problems that evolve in post-industrial urban areas suffering from job loss and economic hardship, are there any significant insights that he's developed over the tenure of his police service in terms of factors that he feels propagate criminal activity?
“What I've learned living in Flint that is similar to declining industrial cities like Saginaw is a combination of things that lead to the downfall of these communities and other like them across the country,” he reflects. “The introduction of crack cocaine into the culture, massive drug losses, declining tax bases that erode the vital forms of government such as public school systems, police service, and other city services. All of these are factors. Many families are broken and there's a high concentration of poverty, which breeds high rates of criminal activities when people have such limited opportunities to succeed.”
Similarly, another significant component impacting crime is the budgetary cost of public safety, which eats up a majority of public resources. What does Willingham thing about the need to combine public service, as has been done in many communities like Pontiac & Petoskey, or contracting city police services out to the County Sheriff, as is being proposed in Saginaw?
“As long as inner city tax bases and populations continue to decline, the thought of inner cities being absorbed into larger county areas will become more of a reality, because maybe in the next 10 to 20 years places like Flint & Saginaw realistically may not be able to support themselves,” states Brian.
“I really do thing that the nation needs to have an urban agenda to discuss ways to rebuild urban economies, school systems, neighborhoods, support law enforcement, and so forth. What is happening in places like Flint, Saginaw, Detroit and Chicago should be a national concern.”
When asked about the move to decriminalize marijuana and whether the billions of dollars spent upon the War on Drugs could be better served targeting serious felons, Willingham notes, “I have never given any serious thought to the medical marijuana question and I don't honestly see that it has any impact on urban communities. I don't think it's really on the urban radar.”
As for the most challenging component involved with being a police officer and what he feels are the greatest rewards, Brian focuses on the synergy of crime. “The most challenging component of being a police officer in an urban area like Flint is seeing the magnitude of the problems combined: drugs, violence, failing school, lack of jobs, broken families. It seems an impossible task at times on small levels individually with people who appreciate the work you do. But the most rewarding work that I've done as a police officer has been volunteering my own time reading to kids, coaching sports, connecting with parents and schools. This is what makes the difference.”
In writing his memoir, what are some of the pivotal insights that Willingham wanted to share through his work? “The major insight of my book is that racial injustice and the decline of America's urban communities should be of concern to the nation. What is happening there threatens the well-being of the entire nation. If President Obama is listening, America needs an urban agenda specifically designed to address the crisis of inner cities.”
According to Churchill, Willingham was chosen for the series for many reasons. “Every year we begin by compiling a list of possible books and authors for selection. Our primary selection criteria are that the author must be available for a visit to our community. After we determine the availability of the authors, the committee reads the selections and votes on the book they feel is the most relevant and thought provoking.”
Some of the objectives Churchill is working at implementing with this series that people will benefit from are numerous. “This year we had a kick-off program to announce our book selection in January 2013. The event was aimed at families and the author made a special visit. In addition during the yearly program we make multiple copies of the selection available for checkout at all our Public Libraries of Saginaw branches. We also purchase copies of the book to disperse into the community as part of the 'Traveling Books' portion of the One Book One Community Program. The traveling books are meant to be read and passed on to other interested readers reinforcing the idea of shared reading and discussion.”
“During the month of April our branches will also have book displays highlighting the event,” she concludes. “This year we produced an interview with the author that is available as a podcast on our website. On April 20th when the author visits Saginaw, attendees will have a chance to meet the author and have their own books signed as well.”
With Willingham as our guide and translator, we witness how the death of industrial production and the parallel government retreat from providing social safety nets to citizens has culminated in a culture of abuse: self-destruction emerging as a festering blight. Drugs and alcohol calm the unquiet, while guns restore a sense of lost social power to powerless black men and boys. Black men go to prison, black women despair at their plight, and black children raise themselves and other children, all too often relying on consumerist cultural images of misogyny and machismo promoted by the mainstream culture.
Through reading Willingham's experiences, one realizes that the ghetto beat he works is indeed a prison with invisible walls. For many of the people that he writes about there is nowhere else to go, and Willingham illustrates this through story after heart wrenching story, coupled with his profound comprehension of the human condition. It is a story of eight months in hell.