What happens when you combine a barbershop, law enforcement officials, and community members? You get "Blades, Fades, and Engage," a monthly town hall hosted by West Philadelphia's Philly Cuts barbershop.
On the third Monday of every month, Philly Cuts serves as a meeting ground for police officers and community members to engage in a disarming conversation about issues that affect communities of color, such as over-policing, gun violence, and broken family structures.
During the third session, on Monday night, framed images of former President Barack Obama, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other historic figures graced the walls of the barbershop as the event's organizer, Officer G. Lamar Stewart, greeted visitors with a firm handshake and a warm welcome. The unmistakable smell of talcum powder, leather, and hair spray alongside mild chatter and buzzing clippers set the scene of a typical black barbershop. Among the nearly two dozen patrons who filled the shop's floor were several plainclothes police as well as a couple of ranking uniformed officers.
"Barbershops in communities of color, particularly the black community, have historically been the place where some of the most challenging and toughest conversations take place," Stewart said. "There are many demographics that [police officers] want to engage with that may not feel comfortable coming into a district for various different reasons. Bringing this type of conversation to a place where our citizens feel comfortable would help us bridge the gap, and we're committed to that cause."
As the discussion's moderator, Stewart posed questions. It wasn't long before guests began to share their thoughts and experiences. Much of the discussion centered on the systematic racism that many in attendance believe has led to the deterioration of trust between law enforcement and the communities they police.
"The distrust is deeper than what's on the surface," said community leader Malik King. "Now that black folks are policing themselves, we're looking to [black officers] to protect us from cops. The root of violence is self-hate, and we have to change the paradigm of how we see each other."
King's sentiments were echoed by Malika Rahman, deputy sheriff detective in the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office. "We live in a [justice] system that perpetuates racism, and my life's work is to bridge the gap. We're so far removed from helping each other. I refuse to be afraid of someone who looks like me."
Along with some of the grievances and frustrations expressed by both officers and civilians, there was an undeniable underpinning of hope in the room. The conversation shifted into a more solution-driven direction when Stewart asked both groups what steps could be taken to improve interactions between officers and their communities.
Nineteen-year-old Nadir Williams of North Philly asked for more black male leaders to mentor young people. Rahman suggested that community members should start with engaging with their own communities. "If we're not willing to engage with each other, we can't have that expectation" from others, she said.