MLK Day Conversation Features Leaders, Athletes, Musicians, Families Affected by Violence

Danny Gallagher
Urban Specialists founder and CEO Bishop Omar Jahwar (center) shares a hug with the mother of the late Alton Sterling's three children, Andricka Williams (left), and the widow of East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's Deputy Brad Garafola, Tonja Garafola (right). Also pictured is Trenisha Jackson (far right), the widow of Baton Rouge police Officer Montrell Jackson.
A conversation about racial tension and perpetual violence easily could have focused on recent events such as President Donald Trump's comments about immigrants from "shithole countries" and turned into a collective release of tension over the racial sentiments such words have stirred.

Instead, the panel of political leaders, athletes, musicians, activists and families who have been affected by violence gathered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the behest of the nonprofit advocacy group Urban Specialists to discuss the pain of racial hatred and the lessons that can be learned from the violence it causes.

"We've come here because we're all desperate to see change," said former Dallas Cowboys player and NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders before a packed house. "The most profound things I've done is with a team. When we watched those games yesterday, we didn't see white or black or Hispanic, Democrats or Republicans. We saw teams. When are we going to stop the nonsense? The bickering, the bantering, hypocrisy, hatred, violence, disdain, judgment. When are we going to stop that and become one for the betterment of this team?"

The Monday evening panel series had two lineups of notable guests. The first had 27 people, including Sen. Ted Cruz; U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson; Bradford Jordan, known as the rapper Scarface from the Geto Boys; Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters; and Valerie and William Bell, whose son Sean was one of three unarmed men killed in 2006 by New York police officers, three of whom were found not guilty of manslaughter. Most were there to listen to heartfelt messages, calls for peace and ideas to combat hatred.

Olympic bronze medal winner John Carlos, who turned his win at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City into a political statement by raising his fist during the national anthem at the medal podium, was also on the opening panel. He says the message he wanted to deliver in that memorable Olympic moment still needs to be learned.

"I'll never take my fist down," Carlos said. "Why? Because the injustices have not stopped."

Carlos recalled how his father served his country in World War I only to return to Americans who refused to serve him and his family. Carlos was moved to raise his fist in that critical moment because "as a young individual with a wife and daughter, what am I doing to make my life better for them?"

"Stand for what you believe and don't worry about the pain," Carlos says. "If you don't stand up for what you know, your kids don't have no future."

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"The most profound things I've done is with a team. ... When are we going to stop that and become one for the betterment of this team?" Deion Sanders asked.
Danny Gallagher
Jordan talked about the contributions and messages he tried to make with his music, including the Geto Boys' acclaimed 1991 album, Mind Playing Tricks on Me.

"I was taught that you had to lead by example," Jordan said. "If I was going to influence a generation, I had to make sure that the generation that influenced me, I had to make sure I soaked that up and understood and appreciate that. Today, as I'm looking out, it seems like I might have dropped the ball a little bit and we're still trying to recover. Look at what we've come from and what I am today. I look at what's coming from under me, and I realized we've lost this generation, and I'm working so hard to recover it."

Jordan offered his support for unity to both Cruz, a Republican, and Johnson, a Democrat.

"We cannot pass along this job for generations and generations," Johnson said before shaking hands with the legislators.

The evening concluded with a discussion with widows and other family members who have dealt with the violent effects of racial hatred. The panel included Andricka Williams, the mother of the three children of Alton Sterling, who was shot several times and killed by two police officers in 2016 during an altercation outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Also on the panel were Tonja Garafola and Trenisha Jackson, the widows of East Baton Rouge sheriff's Deputy Brad Garafola and Baton Rouge police Officer Montrell Jackson, who were killed in 2016 along with sheriff's Deputy Matthew Gerald in an ambush during unrest after Sterling's death.

All three women described their loved ones along the same terms: men who cared for their families and other people as if they were members of their families.

"There's nothing [Brad] wouldn't have done for his kids and I," Garafola said. "He just had a passion for life and helping people. I really believe him being in law enforcement was his calling. He wanted to make a difference. He wanted to see a chance, and it didn't matter what color you are because that's who he was and that's how he was raised."

The pain they felt when they lost the most beloved men in their lives still runs deep with them.

"I felt like I lost my mind," Williams said. "It's like he took my heart with him when I got that call. I still haven't got my heart back. It's something very, very hard to deal with."

Jackson said that when she finds herself struggling to deal with people, she recalls something her husband wrote on his Facebook page just a few days before his death.

"A lot of times when I get upset with people, I remember what he said," she said. "'Please don't let hate infect your heart.'"