Ephraim Kum’s coming of age took place during a time when the United States was in the midst of a tense racial climate — one which still exists.
The FBI reported a 5 percent increase in hate crimes in 2016. A survey conducted by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal in 2017 shows prevailing pessimistic views on racial relations in the U.S.
As a freshman at the University of Utah, Kum has been working to combat these views with his project Bridging the Gap.
A Need for Change
“It all goes back to the summer of 2016,” Kum said in a soft-spoken tone. “Everyone kind of thinks that they understand what racism is and what racism isn’t in America — that is how I felt. I didn’t know anything, but I felt like I had an understanding.”
Kum’s views on racism shattered after watching what he described as “the murder of Alton Sterling.” Sterling, a black man, was arrested by two policemen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 5, 2016. A struggle ensued that led to Sterling being shot several times at close range.
“From what I saw, he was being pinned down and detained by not one, but two officers, and he was definitely struggling, but still it didn’t make sense that rounds needed to be unloaded into him,” Kum said. “From a common sense standpoint, it just didn’t make sense.”
One day after Sterling’s death, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in St. Anthony, Minnesota. The aftermath was recorded and broadcast on social media by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with him and her then 4-year-old daughter.
“I didn’t really know what to do about it besides be angry, but being angry and not doing anything doesn’t help,” Kum said.
Ephraim and and his friend Danny Salas decided to take action by organizing a sit-in at a park near their homes in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
When Capt. Tim Wallis of the Lawrenceville Police Department caught wind of the protest via social media, he requested a meeting with Kum to ensure the safety of attendees.
“It seemed like a good idea to me that we were able to meet prior and were able to establish some common ground,” Wallis said in a telephone interview. “Everybody has a right to protest and their freedom of speech, we just want to make sure that everyone does it peacefully and that everyone is safe.”
Building a Bridge
Although Kum felt the sit-in was successful in bringing the community together, he described having a nagging feeling that it hadn’t been enough.
“We didn’t really accomplish much in my eyes because everyone who came more or less felt the same about what was going on,” Kum said.
He talked to friends about the idea of creating a forum for those with different ideas on police brutality and racism to speak with and learn from each other.
Kum was initially intimidated by potential confrontations that such a forum might trigger and put it off. However, the difficult discussions he was having with family and friends on the topic reinforced in his mind the necessity for a safe space to find common ground. Kum had kept Wallis’s contact information and decided to pitch the concept to him.
“Ephraim came up with the idea of Bridging the Gap,” Wallis said. “Bring in minorities along with the law enforcement. He and I began working together on it.”
Combined efforts between Wallis and Kum lead to the first forum, held on Jan. 18, 2017. During winter break, Kum returned to Lawrenceville and participated in the second successful forum on Jan. 4.
Marlyn Tillman, who sits on the advisory board of Gwinnett SToPP, an organization seeking to dismantle the school to prison pipeline, was one of the attendees of the event. She thought the forum was a venue where citizens could productively air their concerns.
“They really heard me and got what I was saying,” Tillman said in a telephone interview.
During the forum, she recounted an incident during which she felt police used excessive force against her son in a traffic stop in Snellville — a city in the same county as Lawrenceville.
On the phone, Tillman described walking out of her house to find “my son on the ground, the gun at his head. I went to go back inside and get the camera, which only was a few feet from my door. My son screams, ‘Mom don’t leave me, he’s going to kill me!’”
Wallis believes poor relationships between police and the black community arise when there is a lack of communication between the groups. He hopes efforts like Bridge the Gap provide an avenue to mend that.
“Being a police officer is a very noble profession,” Wallis said. “I think that we as police officers are doing correct things. On most Gallup polls we are up there around seven, eight, nine as far as public trust goes. In the black communities that trust goes down, and I think we need to work harder on that. We need to make sure that if they have questions, that we are transparent and able to answer those questions.”
A 2017 Gallup poll found 57 percent of Americans have “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police.” Of whites, 61 percent said they had confidence in police, while that number dropped among Hispanics to 45 percent and among blacks to 30 percent.
Kum is involved with a number of organizations at the U, including the Black Student Union. He hopes to work with the group to bring Bridge the Gap to Salt Lake City.
“I want this to be a tradition in the city of Lawrenceville and spread to other police departments in other cities and other states,” Kum said. “I want more people to reach out to their police departments and work with them. The best place to start is at the local level.”