NOTIONS: Drinking not from the cup of bitterness and hatred

In August, a group of ministers, whose common bond is their race, their faith, their concern for this city and their desire to help, wrote an open letter to our mayor. It was published in The Indianapolis Star.

In their letter, the ministers decried the rise of violent crimes in our community. They commended the mayor for his “rapid response.” And they asked him to raise a lot of money to advance crime prevention through improved social programs.

The letter said, in part, “We are asking you to lead an initiative to raise a minimum of $25 million per year from public and private sources within the next 12 months to expand and strengthen existing social and community organizations.”

They said the money also would “create new opportunities through faith-based and other organizations to help turn our city around.”

Cynics noted that the pastors’ churches could, therefore, receive some percentage of the $25 million.

By way of context, our leading public/private, social-service funder (United Way of Central Indiana) has, in recent years, raised about $35 million annually-from six counties, not one. So launching a potentially duplicative $25 million campaign might prove problematic.

But the ministers had other context in mind: The mayor’s stated desire to budget an additional $50 million for public safety, and the city’s and state’s ability to secure funding for a new stadium and expanded convention center.

“If we can find $50-plus million for public safety,” said the ministers, “surely we can find half that to mend the tattered social fabric of our community. They also said, “We will not be able to support the building of buildings until we start building up lives.”

Within 10 days of that letter’s publication, the mayor had assembled a racially diverse crime-prevention task force composed of nearly 50 citizens from many walks of life (I’m one).

In no uncertain terms, the mayor charged our group with determining, quickly, what works and what doesn’t when it comes to crime prevention, especially in the short term. Then he asked us to develop lean, actionable recommendations that he and City-County Council members can use to secure funding. Those recommendations are due next month.

But in mid-October, some of the ministers who’d signed the first letter submitted to the mayor a broad-brush proposal for their own initiatives. Then, at a muchpublicized news conference, they issued an ultimatum: If the city didn’t come up with $25 million to fund their programs, they’d slow work on the new stadium.

Many in the community bristled at the threat.

The mayor said the task force findings would drive his decisions. He asked the ministers to submit their ideas to that panel. And at a recent workshop for faith leaders, they had an opportunity to do just that.

But by then, the meet-our-demands-orelse approach had caught on at one of our local universities.

In late October, a group of students at IUPUI, whose common bond is their race, their concerns about perceived racism and their desire to make things better, wrote a letter to university officials.

In it, they issued several demands. Among them: a separate campus center for black students, better communications and $78,000 annually for their programs-an amount in excess of the total university activity budget for all student groups combined.

The students said that, if the university did not reply satisfactorily to their demands within days, and implement them in their entirety by May, they’d take legal action against a vice chancellor and the chancellor and demand the resignations of unspecified university staff members.

University officials replied by the deadline. But black student leaders deemed the response inadequate. So they issued another ultimatum and deadline.

Many on campus and in the community bristled at the threats.

As a middle-class white male, I know only from others the pain of racial discrimination.

As a champion of civil liberties and civil disobedience, I applaud activism and the public discourse that often results.

But as a human being, I find the divisive, self-serving, budget-from-the-blue, takecare-of-me-or-suffer-the-consequences strategy more hurtful than helpful.

Having come of age in the 1960s and ’70s, I read everything I could find about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At one time, I could recite long passages of his “I Have a Dream” speech from memory.

As I’ve watched the ultimatums of the past few months and the discord they’ve caused, a particular passage of that speech has come to mind, one in which King said, “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

Could we meet there someday soon?

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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