Category Archives: Race and Criminality

True Justice

In June, I visited The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  It is part of my work with the Louisville Institute for which I was awarded a pastoral study grant to examine the sociopolitical construct of race’s influence on the malformation of Christian community.  My project centers around the work and witness of Southern Baptist minister Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  I felt drawn to Montgomery, Alabama as part of my pilgrimage to healing communities of faith.

I attended the 75th anniversary of Koinonia Farm’s founding last year.  Walked the grounds and walked around in search of Jordan’s spirit with us.  He believed that his Christian witness compelled him to break the laws of segregation, commanded him to work with persons socially colored black and to pay them a fair wage for work in the 1940s.  His life was threatened.  His businesses boycotted.  His faith no doubt challenged.

He was even kicked out of his church.  His sin– loving his neighbor.

Jordan held up a mirror when churches were expected to be a reflection of the broader society.  Who else was doing this kind of work, challenging the stories we tell ourselves and daring to live into them?  “We hold these truths to be self- evident…”  Bryan Stevenson.  The grounds that now house The Legacy Museum was a “slave warehouse.”  The experience in the space for one present and available to experience this truth is indescribable.

This is not a tourist attraction but a space for truth- seekers.  It tells another side of the story: the human cost of building a “great nation.”  It did not come easy and there was much sacrifice.  The sad and unfortunate truth is that the sacrifice was paid heavily in African and African American lives.  The greed for power and wealth was worth their lives by the thousands.

Still, we talk about it as if it is “water under the bridge.”  But, it is blood in the ground.  Blood that is crying out much like Abel’s (Genesis 4.10).  Likewise, God is looking for answers: “What have you done?”

The answer that is stuck in between our teeth or manifested by the lump in our throats is what gets in the way.  Still, I am going my own way, the only way I know.  Up and away from this train crash, this culture clash.  I’ve seen this one before.  It is a rerun hundreds of years old.

I am seeking hallowed ground, sacred space that challenges the dominant narrative of division, that laments our losses and keeps a record of them.  Lynching in America is one that has been overlooked.  Bryan Stevenson, the visionary for the museum and memorial, wants to make sure that we cannot look away.  Thousands of people were lynched for one reason or another and no reason at all: “refusing to run as errand for a white woman,” “for organizing black voters in Choctaw County,” “for not allowing a white man to beat him in a fight,” “for performing the wedding of a black man and white woman.”

“A lynch mob of more than 1,000 men, women and children burned Zachariah Walker live in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1911.”

“Walter Johnson was lynched in Princeton, West Virginia in 1912 by a mob of 1,000 people.”

“Dozens of men, women and children were lynched in a massacre in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1917.”

Mary Turner was lynched, with her unborn child, at Folsom Bridge at the Brooks- Lowndes County Line in Georgia in 1918 for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Haynes Tuner.”

And there is more.  Connected to American slavery, later convict leasing and now the prison industrial capitalist venture, Bryan Stevenson ties it altogether.  He aims for equal justice under the law and makes a strong case that the American judicial system continues to miss the mark.

True justice, this is what he is after.   A more just fellowship, a kindred faith relationship is what I seek in North American churches.  We both have our work cut out for us.  We were made for it.

HBO has created a documentary on Stevenson’s work.  You can watch it for free right now.

The Exonerated Five, the Emanuel Nine, and why we can’t lose count

Ava Marie DuVernay’s documentary “When They See Us” tells the story of four African American boys and one Latino American boy falsely accused and mislabeled “The Central Park 5” after a female European American jogger, Trisha Meili, is viciously attacked and raped in April of 1989.  With contrived confessions but no DNA evidence to link the boys to the crime, they were found guilty and sentenced to between 7 and almost 14 years in prison.  They would later be exonerated when the actual rapist came forward, Matias Reyes (Central Park 1), confessed to the crime, providing details that only the perpetrator would know and had the DNA to match.  Still, those young boys were put into a criminal justice system that forever changed not only their lives but the lives of their family members.  They received no apology and no explanation.  They are owed both and not surprisingly, those who should apologize include Donald Trump, who took out a full page ad in a number of newspapers asking that the death penalty be reinstated and that these children: Raymond Santana, 14, Kevin Richardson, 14, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Kharey Wise, 16, be executed.

We don’t have time to act surprised.  Lives are at stake and hands that cover our faces in dismay are needed in voting booths, raised in solidarity and clearly visible for all to see, linked together on country roads and city streets that march to the drum major for justice’s beat, folded in intercessory prayer to God.  Because it’s going to take a miracle for change to come.

We’ve got to learn a new tongue because there is a need to rename and reclaim our stories.  We must be our own narrators.  Because we have heard this story of injustice before.  The Exonerated Five, as they are rightly called in an Oprah interview, were not guilty of the awful crime committed that day and deserve a new narrative, which begins with a new name.

We have to start telling their story and in turn, our story differently.  They were and are innocent.  But, they were not the first innocent men proven guilty in an American court of law and they will not be the last.  Kalief Browder, 16, was held at Riker’s Island for three years without a trial.  After his release, he would commit suicide.

There are so many unnamed before him and many more to come after him.  Emmett Till was fourteen years old when he was executed by a mob after being accused of “whistling at a white woman.”  In 1931, the Scottsboro Boys, as they would come to be known, were accused of raping two “white women” on a freight train.  Their ages ranged from 13 to 20 years old.  For fear of lynch mobs, They had to be guarded by the state militia.  Same old story.

Tomorrow, I will visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) museum, where the founder, Bryan Stevenson, set out to tell the African American story from slavery to mass incarceration as well as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.  The first of its kind, the memorial says the names of thousands of women, men and children who were lynched in the 19th and 20th centuries.  On the website, they keep a calendar of the injustices suffered by African American people.  Today’s post reads “On this day, June 18, 2015,

White Man Arrested for Racial Attack Killing Nine in Charleston Church

Tomorrow night, I will see the movie “Emanuel,” playing in select theaters for two days only and say their names again: Clementa C. Pinckney, 41, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, 54, Susie Jackson, 87, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, Tywanza Sanders, 26, Daniel L. Simmons, 74, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45 and Myra Thompson, 59.

Like DuVernay and the producers of the movie “Emanuel,” Stephen Curry, Viola Davis, Mariska Hargitay and Mike Wildt, we must not lose track of the truth.  We’ve got to tell their stories, no matter how numerous.  Because maybe we’ll get tired of days marked by injustice and become sickened by the number of lives lost tragically and say, “Enough.”  Because it’s easier to forget and tempting to lose count.

Clarence

A video recorded by his wife has been viewed more than five million times. It is not of Clarence playing in the yard with their children or him walking their dog. Instead, it is a video of Clarence being falsely identified, nearly handcuffed and arrested by a police officer.

He fits the description of a suspect… in Louisiana. But, he doesn’t live in Louisiana. This is not Louisiana.  This is Texas.  Where are we?

Where is this going? Why does Clarence have to follow where this officer leads? Why does Clarence have to trust his lead, his hunch and not his gut?

I’m sick, nauseated, afraid. I’ve seen this video before. I’ve seen this play out before. It doesn’t end well.

I want to watch his back. Walter Scott shot in the back while running away after a traffic stop. But, his death does not stop traffic. We follow the directions of the crossing guard and walk past him.

“Just relax.” But, I can’t because Eric Garner can’t breathe.  My body is tense and I press my eyes closer to the screen.

I want to be there. I want to make a citizen’s arrest of this police officer. You are in his personal space and trespassing. “Get your hands off of him.”

The police officer has a warrant for his arrest. Who’s arrest?

“Reg.”

“Quentin.”

“You know your name?”

“Tell me your name?”

Clarence refuses. His life is not a game. This is not a guessing game. There are not multiple choices. He has only one choice—make it out of this conversation alive.

Voices raised. Who has authority over his body? This is his body. Don’t touch his body. Shaky hands with a trigger finger.

Clarence doesn’t want to go anywhere with the officer. He fears he would be a dead man walking. “Calm down. This doesn’t have to be a show down.”

Bystanders say, “Just show him your ID and it will be over.” Amadou Diallo tried that. Reaching for his wallet, he was shot nineteen times. They thought he was suspected of rape. Dressed in plain clothes, they bloodied his.

The survey says, “Just go to his patrol car like he asked you.” But Sandra Bland did that and she didn’t make it home alive. Cop car turned hearse. Freddy Gray will tell you it’s a bumpy ride.

Know your rights. Clarence’s two rights still made him wrong. The law is not on his side. The law is in his yard trying to take him away from his family. Because the officer could not see him—as a man, as a husband, as a father– and not a suspect who fits the description of people that interestingly all look alike.  If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right?

Besides, you don’t need ID to see that Clarence is a fellow human being, right?

The supervisor with no supervision will write up the report. And you will read it and take his side… again.

Sandra

See the source image

Another day, another offense, to list them would elicit a lament.  Another video surfaces and we want to push it back down.  We turn up the television or the music to drown out the sound of her voice.  But, our silence is deafening.

The truth we try to deny, we want so desperately to hide is in our hands.  We have the evidence.  It’s on our phone.  She recorded her exchange with the police officer on her phone.  Taser in her face and the officer’s voice is raised.

She’s calling us.

Answering to the truth is a calling.  When will we answer?  Because someone has to answer for this.  Like Cain, her blood is calling us from the ground. “Lord, can you hear her now?”

She was telling the truth.  Too much force leaves me with too little faith in the systems that we create.  It is uniform hate.  We all fall in line and fall farther behind in the journey to arrive in one piece, one single unit, a family.

Sandra Bland videotaped her arrest.  She’s dead now.  No witnesses, we don’t see anything.  Her body is the only witness.

She’s buried now.  But she can’t let it go, won’t let it rest.  She knows how traffic stops often end for those socially colored black.  Don’t reach for your wallet.  Don’t turn your back.  Don’t trust the report.  Back from the dead, she wants persons to know what really happened to her.

Did you hear what she said?

She is here again like Jesus, who keeps showing up after the crucifixion.  We must answer for our inaction.  Sandra is back to continue the conversation we thought was litigated by the courts.  Judgement for the plaintiff?  No, money is betrayal of our value.  This calls for more.

I’m listening, Sandra.

This is America

Recently, the news has covered incidents involving African American persons being physically and verbally assaulted, bullied, disturbed, falsely arrested, harassed and questioned for doing things considered normal in any other context or culture, that is, barbecuing, eating, shopping, sitting on one’s porch, sleeping, vacationing.  Persons would argue that there is an increase in such episodes.  Others would counter with the argument that with the advent of technology, these experiences of micro and macro- aggression are finally being recorded.  I tend to side with the latter.  African American people, now socially colored black, have historically been targeted and told that they do not belong.  From the cradle to the grave literally, America drew color lines.  The signs of Jim Crow segregation have been removed but the spirit of segregation remains.

The false arrest of two African American men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia began the new series of injustices.  “They had not ordered anything.  They wanted to use the bathroom.  They were loitering.”  They had not done anything wrong, but they were going to, right?  In response, Starbucks released a well- crafted statement that read like the cutting and pasting of the best statements on diversity, inclusion and promises to do better.  Their bathrooms are now open to all as if that was the problem.  I wasn’t buying it then and I’m still not.  A loyal customer for nearly ten years, I have stopped buying Starbucks products altogether.  I love authentic community more than I love caffeine.

I have always found it ironic, in light of American slavery and the long history of mistreatment suffered by African and later African American people at the hands of European American people, that the now socially colored white people feel that socially colored black people are going to harm them.  History simply does not support this assumption or the criminalization of African American people.  After being oppressed for hundreds of years, it would seem more logical for African Americans to cross to the other side of the street, lock their car doors, clutch their purses, hold their children closely and call the police when a European American comes near.  This reverse psychology simply does not make sense.

And this is not a case for, “Which came first— the chicken or the egg?  African people were robbed first, enslaved by European Americans, hurt first, threatened and then brutalized first.  American laws were not on their side.  That it remains against African Americans is the manipulation of power required to maintain the image of whiteness.

So, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson must have done something wrong.  The alternative is just impossible, that African American persons are regularly and routinely targeted and subjected to assault, harassment, mistreatment, false imprisonment and sadder still, death.  To accept that whiteness is sometimes wrong, that it falsely accuses in order to tip the scales of justice, of social righteousness in its favor is absurd.  No, whiteness is naturally good, divinely good, purely good.

“Two gentlemen in my cafe… are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” the manager said in the 911 call.

Day after day, we hear details of racialized discrimination, predation, intellectual subjugation and the mockery of African American culture.  But, due to the social construct of race and its rules of engagement, African Americans now deemed socially colored black do not belong.  This is what was defended by a student at Yale whose classmate called the police on her because she was napping in the common area.

“I deserve to be here,” Lolade Siyonbola said.

This is America for African American people.  And despite the forcefulness of which blackness is shoved on us, I will not yield.  I will not agree to expect my body to be targeted for mistreatment.  These incidents have produced a slew of hashtags to include #nappingwhileblack.  “While black” is not a new awareness: driving while black (or DWB), a term used for the racial profiling of socially colored black persons, who would then be subject to unwarranted searches, seizures and even arrest, became “popular,” if this is possible, in the 1990s.

The problem that I find after each of these encounters is that the blame and onus is on the socially colored black body.  These things continue to happen because her and his body is black.  It suggests that if hers was not a black body, it would not have happened.  The solution is that his body behave whitely.  The social coloring of the body is the problem—not the prejudicial behavior or stereotypical perspective of the individual.

Released a little over a week ago, “This is America” is the title of a new song by Childish Gambino, also known as Donald Glover.  The video presently has more than 123,000,000 views.  Trending on YouTube, I decided to watch.  I have to admit that I did not know who he was.  Elias Leight provides his backstory and placement in the music industry for Rolling Stone magazine.  It didn’t matter at the time that I read it and frankly, it doesn’t matter now.  This is not to suggest that his identity is of little or no importance.  To the contrary, a review or reminder is unnecessary as this song has cemented him in the memory of the American psyche.

We know who he is because Glover has done it.  Used rhythms traditionally reserved for dimly lit parties to move us, enlighten us, reflect to us what he sees in us.  He invites us to entertain the naturalization of violence in African American communities and with death’s horse riding through one of the scenes and a choir singing in the next, this conversation includes sacred spaces.  Baptism meets blood bath.  Sadly, the praise of guns is louder than the praise of God in some settings.

Nevertheless, Glover dances, shucks and jives, all the while mocking members that would move past this grotesque display of carnage.  How will the music move you?  Do we nod our heads in agreement to the sound or its substance?  In the end, he is running away, being chased by a mob but he is also running towards the screen and us on the other side of it.  What can we do to save him for in so doing, we will save ourselves?  We have the option to look away or to turn the video off.  This is American.

While there have been numerous discussions about the tragedy of gun violence on artful display in his video, Glover refused to interpret it during an interview.  He responded that his creations are “for the people” and invited them to see what they needed to.  This is America.  What do you see?