Category Archives: Race and Law Enforcement

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.

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.

A round of applause for police brutality?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

With the line of what is acceptable being crossed and then pushed back with each outlandish action from the current White House administration and decency being redefined to accommodate the indefensible behavior of President Donald Trump, it is hard not to become disgusted by the hypocrisy.  I am well past feeling disappointed.  What is acceptable, good and right is being changed with each interview, after each commercial break.  This is democracy.  Truth created by the people for the people.

And true to form, Mr. Trump has been consistent in speech and character, each tweet and speech outdoing the other.  Recently, two speeches warranted statements from the groups he was speaking to, here being the Boy Scouts and then to police officers in Long Island, New York.  While both are disgusting, the latter is deeply troubling.  Because the sitting President of the United States endorsed police brutality.  He told police to break the law.  To which he initially received applause.

Applause.  Agreement with violating the rights and personhood of citizens who may or may not be suspects?  See “innocent until proven guilty.”  Applause.  Affirmation of wrong- doing by those who have sworn an oath to uphold the law– not bring it down to their level and prejudices?  Applause.  Appreciation because the President is saying what you want to say or giving voice to what you really want to do, to some people, to those thugs he mentioned?  Applause.   Permission to incite fear in the residents you have agreed to serve and protect?

And these are police in communities– not soldiers at war with an enemy in a foreign land.  Police officers are patrolling America’s city streets and country roads where persons are driving to school and work, persons who want to make it home to family and friends too.  With or without badges, all of us deserve honor.   But, this is not what the current Commander- In- Chief said.

Persons are worried about his access to nuclear codes but I’m concerned about his access to a microphone and a cell phone, for that matter.  Mr. Trump is far from a role model and certainly not a model president.  Still, persons are hanging on his every word and if this kind of speech is mindlessly applauded, then persons could die because of his words.

With communities living in fear, cases pending and families still mourning the deaths of their loved ones, Mr. Trump says, “Please don’t be too nice.”  With body camera and cell phone footage depicting the shooting death of unarmed American citizens, Mr. Trump says, the laws are “horrendously stacked” against police officers.  His words suggest that police officers should not be held to the highest standard of the law and that we should normalize this kind of bad behavior.  Move the line back.

But, police officers are not judge and jury.  There is due process of law.  And no one has the right to change it to accommodate police officers or a president.  Because then, it’s no law at all.  It is but the abuse of power and the passing of social privileges.

Perhaps, this endorsement of meanness is the counter response to political correctness.  I have heard it said that Mr. Trump speaks for many American people, that he says what is on their minds.  Really?  Fellow Americans would agree with the murder of other Americans without due process of law.  They would applaud that?

That’s crossing a line and that’s not democracy.

After the death of Philando Castile: What will we preach?

Image result for philando castile

More videos have been released after a jury decided that the officer who shot and killed Mr. Philando Castile was not guilty of any charges.  A jury of his peers decided he did nothing wrong.  Mr. Castile is dead and this is just standard police training.  What’s most important is that the officer made it out alive, right?  Well, he’s been fired and will not be serving Mr. Castile’s community in the future.  I have no idea how both these truths can coexist.

I sat and watched his death from the police officer’s dash camera and it is just as tragic.  I can hear the anxiety in the police officer’s voice and I am disgusted.  “If you are afraid, wait for back up to arrive.  If you are afraid, why not interrogate your fear?”  Because I hear nothing scary coming from the car.

I hear Mr. Castile’s voice and I feel helpless and weak.  I know that he is going to die just like the other African Americans before him  and we will blame them for it.  It’s always their fault, right?  Still, no gun in view much less drawn or aimed, Mr. Castile is shot to death.

In a matter of seconds, Mr. Castile is shot numerous times and I see another officer move away.  The police officer who shot and killed Mr. Castile had not considered his partner who may have been in the line of fire or the other passengers, to include a four- year- old in the backseat, until afterwards.  She climbs out of the car after witnessing the shooting. His partner grabs her.  Isn’t that ironic?

It was “a split- second decision” that has changed her life forever.  I watch another video and I hear her small voice warn her mother to watch her language.  She doesn’t want her “to get shooted.”  In a split- second, her perspective has changed and she now feels the need to police her mother’s behavior.  Because it is more important that her mother maintain her composure after watching a fearful police officer kill the man she loves.

It was a split- second decision that involved the officer only thinking about his safety and no one else’s.  He feared for his life and had to make a split- second decision to kill Mr. Castile?  A decision based on fear of what could happen. But, wasn’t this why Mr. Castile greeted the officer with deference?  Wasn’t that the reason why he told the officer that he had a registered firearm in the car?  To calm his fears and to reassure him that he had no intentions to harm him.  Because why would he tell the officer that he has a gun and then reach for it?

“Sir, I have a gun.  Please wait while I reach for it to take your life with my family in the car.  Put your heads down, girls.”  In a split- second, this logic was not questioned.  That Mr. Castile also wanted to go home.  Because he knows the drill; records show that he had been stopped by police more than forty times.  But, I am supposed to believe he now decides to kill a police officer?

I’m still trying to make sense of it but I can’t.  There’s no real rationale for the continued employment of the shaky hands of Lady Justice.  Because it shouldn’t have happened.   Murdered out of fear when there has been year after year of nationally publicized police- involved shootings of African Americans?  I would understand Mr. Castile’s fear but not the officer’s.

I know that this messes with our neat little boxes.  Police officers swear to uphold the law so we don’t want to consider that they might break it.  They are the good people and the African Americans are the bad people.  There are cops and there are robbers.  But, what happens to our boxes when the cops are doing the robbing?

See Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees.  He didn’t mince words butcalled these keepers of the law “white- washed graves” (Matthew 23.27).  Jesus was quite comfortable with the inconsistences of our humanity and had no problem calling out their hypocrisies.  Police officers are no different; they are under the same law.  Call it like you really see it.  Jesus would.

So, how then do we preach?  Where will we stand behind our pulpits after the death of Mr. Castile?  Will we pray for his family?  Will we mention his name at all?  Challenge ourselves to sit in the car with him and see justice from his eyes?

Or, will we simply pray for the police officers because they are trying to do the right thing?  But, wasn’t that what Mr. Castile was attempting to do? The truth is that in our eyes, he wasn’t good enough.  We don’t have to say it; our silence sums it up.

Yes, a police officer’s job is hard and dangerous.  If someone is going to die, we would prefer it not be the good guy, right?  Our conclusions are cut and dry, black and white.  No grace and no wiggle room for Mr. Castile or his family in the car that day.  It’s the law.

The Scriptures are not silent on matters of justice so why does the Church pretend to be?  Instead, I would encourage my fellow preachers to speak authentically, openly, honestly and transparently about his death and what it means for you.  And if it means nothing, ask yourself, “Why?”  If you feel that he deserved it, ask yourself, “Why?”  If you believe that you can do nothing to break this cycle, ask yourself, “Why?”  And then write.

Perhaps, tomorrow’s sermon will be a lament.  Maybe it will voice the cry of righteous anger or be an opportunity to ask necessary questions about how we can best serve our community in times of crisis.  While you are searching for an appropriate Scripture for the subject matter, consider the position of the police officer and that of Mr. Castile.  Then, ask yourself, “Where would Jesus be?”