A Young Black Man Weeps

I have been trying to figure out what to write, what to say, and how to say it.

I have been to Ferguson three times since Mike Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, the last time being just this week. Each time I have gone, I have been, my spirit has been …jostled, shaken from its place of comfortable berthing. Seeing the site where that young boy lay for four and a half hours in the hot sun literally made me sick. It made me sick in August when I saw it, and it made me sick again when I saw it this week. In August I went and stood at the site; this time I could not do that. It felt like a breach of sacred space, an intrusion. I could not do it…

My two prior visits were before the grand jury absolved Wilson of all guilt. This time, the visit was after that ignominious decision…and before the decision made by another grand jury in Staten Island, New York, involving a police officer who choked Eric Garner.

This visit was one where I was a part of a group of 40 faith leaders from around the country. We were trying to figure out how to respond theologically to what has happened. What, in the name of God, do we do?

We listened to young people who have been on the front lines of protest for 117 days – from the beginning until now,  share with us how they have committed their lives to the cause of justice. They have left school, quit jobs, sacrificed so much …because they are tired of injustice being the rule of the land for African-Americans. They challenged us. What were we going to do? What were we willing to do? Their passion and their pain were palpable, and their words were piercing. We left, or at least I left, deep in thought and prayer.

A new movement for justice was and is upon us. What do we, older folks, and theologians at that, do as parents weep all over this nation for their children, who are no more –  like Rachel is described as doing in the book of Jeremiah: the sound of Rachel: A voice is heard in Ramah (Ferguson, Beavercreek, Ohio, Staten Island, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, Portland, Oregon …and on and on and on), mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

We were, or at least I was, wrestling with what had been put before us, when, the next day, as we continued our theological responsibilities, we heard that the grand jury in Staten Island had refused to indict the officer who choked Eric Garner to death.

This, despite a video that showed the murder happening, and a coroner who ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

Again.

Injustice, again.

A slap in the face …again.

We continued to try to work, but something had shifted. We tried to push through …

And then, there was a wailing.

I looked up to see a young African-American man walking out of the work room in which we all sat. He was weeping …and then, once outside the room, he wailed.

“Why?” he asked, his body shaking. “Why? There was a video. The coroner said it was a homicide…and still, nothing. NOTHING!” As he wailed, the people who had by now gathered around him began to weep; we were the harmony to his doleful melody.

He sobbed. His body shook. His head was hung…and then it was looking up, imploring God to give an answer. “How long?” he shrieked again. Some of the faith leaders began to have the courage to ask the same question. This was no time for religious platitudes. How long?

“How can I bring a child into this world when I am pretty sure he or she can or will be shot by police? How can I do that? How can I bring a seed into this world?”

I thought of the smug and arrogant white people who have said, and who frequently say, that if black people are killed by police, they deserve it. I thought of them categorizing black people as thugs who want hand outs. I thought of how they have not ever been able to believe that black people are human beings with the full range of emotions as have white people. They could not see this young man. They would not want to.

In our group of faith leaders were white people as well as black and Hispanic. A look around that pained circle that had by now surrounded this young man revealed tears streaming down nearly everyone’s face. This was injustice, painful, repetitive injustice, and it hurt

Some white person on my Twitter account wrote today, when I said there was and is no justice for black people in America, that perhaps I could lead black people back to Africa where there are no white people. I thought for a moment; I didn’t respond to her crass indifference, but I did think that it would be better if someone could lead white people to Africa …where there are no white people…

The sound of that young man’s weeping and wailing will not leave my spirit. The voices of the young people the night before will not stop dancing around in my heart and spirit, either.

Now, what to do with the weeping and wailing. For that young man, for black men and women all over this nation who are weeping, and being insulted by being called thugs…what do I, we, do with the weeping?

As I weep, I am searching for how to help us turn our mourning into dancing, how to turn injustice and a giant evil system into a system which, as Obery Hendrick says, “treats the needs of the people as holy.”

For black people, that has never been done.

But the wailing says that it is past time to make that become a reality.

A candid observation …

Ferguson, Our Ferguson

From the beginning there was something very wrong with this case in Ferguson.

Immediately after Mike Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police department showed video of Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store. Even as his body lay on the hot pavement, dead,  the police showed more interest in protecting themselves and their officer than in anything else. They were going to jump in front of this, and make sure the American public knew that Brown was no saint.

That in and of itself is no surprise; there are no human saints, and teens more than other age groups are often rebellious, not interested in following any rules. Teens push the envelope as a matter of course, no matter his/her color or ethnicity.

But it was really important for the Ferguson Police Department to get that image and perception of Brown out, because it fed into white America’s belief that black people are criminals; if, then, Brown was shot and killed, everyone could see that the officer was justified. This was just another black thug.

As the protests and anger welled up in Americans across the country after hearing what witnesses said happened, the police in Ferguson stayed the course. Instead of talking to and with residents of Ferguson, at least pretending that they understood their angst, police dressed up like soldiers, putting on riot gear and using military weapons to protect themselves against the protesters. These people, the message was, are bad news. They are dangerous, out of control, angry for no reason.

It didn’t help that some of the protesters looted. That was fine with the police and the media, though. The looting fed into America’s image of who black people are and what black people do. The talk on the news was of violence, ironically but intentionally forfeiting discussion about the violence regularly meted out to black people by police – white and black.

Then, as we awaited the decision of the grand jury, all the media worried about was the threat of violence. They were worried about keeping the peace, not working for justice. There was nearly no empathy or concern shown for Brown’s family, and there was certainly no credence given to the people who protested daily – peacefully – on the streets in Ferguson.

A police officer on CNN yesterday said that the protesters were out there daily, “trying to kill the police.”

Please.

Now, the decision of the grand jury has been rendered, a grand jury which was made up of nine white people and three black. Their goal, it feels like, was to get that officer off the hook, which they did. It never felt, from the way the procedure was being reported, that the grand jury was interested in letting a family have reassurance that there would at least be an attempt  to obtain justice for the murder of their child.

Darren Wilson got on television and thanked everyone who supported him.

He never voiced an ounce of empathy or sympathy for the parents of Mike Brown.

I did read that, in his testimony to the grand jury, he said Mike Brown looked like a demon. I imagine that when he said that, that the people sitting on the grand jury listening shuddered, grabbing hold to their own images of and beliefs about, bad, black people.

What this whole situation has reinforced is the notion that black lives, black people, do not matter. I daresay that if the kid killed had been white, and the shooting officer black,  there would have been no grand jury. The officer most likely would have been arrested. That’s the way this nation works.

Black people all over this nation are angry, hurt …and discouraged. When will the lives of black people become as important as are the lives of white people?

Probably never. Not in this country.

A candid observation ….

 

 

Can America Be Saved?

On this day, the nation and perhaps the world is waiting to see if Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in August of this year, will be indicted.

The media has concentrated most on its fear that if there is no indictment, that Ferguson will erupt in violence. In every interview they have done, the presiding reporter and/or anchor person has eventually, somewhat uneasily, asked the question, “What do you think will happen if Wilson is not indicted? Will people go to the streets?”

The question is maddening and insulting, for at least two reasons. First, the people have already taken to the streets. Peacefully. People have been protesting …peacefully …for over 100 days, and the media has not chosen to highlight that. Innocent people have been manhandled by police and thrown into jail for protesting …peacefully. The media does not seem to get it: the people are not looking for violence. They are looking for justice. They want Darren Wilson to at least have to go to trial for killing Mike Brown. That really is not asking much.

The second reason the question is maddening is because the issue of justice for black, brown and poor people is almost never covered by the media.  The media are largely responsible for the images and perceptions America and the world have for black people. What the media does is portray black people as animals, non-humans, who cause trouble. Not too often does the media seek to get into the hearts and souls of the people, the parents, the friends, who are left behind after one of their loved ones has been killed by a law enforcement officer. No. The attention is given to the few people in mass demonstrations who loot and throw things at police.

The media could do much in letting America and the world know that this thing with Michael Brown …and Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis …is not a new thing. The media could let people know that police have been killing black people for literally years and have been allowed to get away with it. The cases are there, the stories, of black people, most often black men but black women as well, being pulled over for a “routine traffic stop” and somehow ending up dead. These are not criminals, many to most of them. They are guilty of one thing: being black in a country which does not regard black people as humans. These cases happen, the people are gunned down, and the offending police officers are allowed to get back on the streets after an “internal investigation” which almost never finds them guilty of wrongdoing.

The media doesn’t cover the disparate ways police relate to and with black people. Police don’t come into black neighborhoods to see what good they can do. No, police come into our neighborhoods, by and large, and harass young black men. They do it because they know they can …and can get away with it.

Police are no different from the masses; many to most of them are white, and have never known a black person. All they have known is what the media and our schools have taught them: black people were slaves. Black people do bad things. If a black person gets shot by police, that black person deserved it, plain and simple.

Those types of pronouncements lets America and its officers off the hook. America is filled with white people, primarily from the South but certainly not confined to that area, who are angry. Many to most white people think that black people do not belong here; that America was created to be a “white man’s country,” and that black people are out-of-place. They conveniently forget that white people, in search for big bucks, brought black people over, who really did build this country. They forget that had it not been for black people, America would never have become the economic powerhouse it has been for a long time.

I listened to a white attorney say that God meant for America to be for black people, and he said that God sanctions and approves of violence against black people. (see “The Last White Knight”)   For whites in this country, blacks are, simply, a problem.  Blacks are blamed for their poverty. Blacks are considered to be lazy and therefore, unemployed and unemployable. Whites conveniently forget that too often, now and in our history, white employers have refused to hire black people, some even putting signs up that say “Whites need only to apply.” (see, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson).  Whites conveniently forget that black men have stood out in lines waiting to be hired when jobs were scarce and that they were always the last hired, if at all. Whites do not know the extremes black people have had to go through in order to survive and make it in America.

Because white people do not see black people as human but, rather, as subhuman (per our description in the U.S. Constitution), they have not really been able to care, to feel, to understand what it is black people are wanting. Black people do not want hand-outs. Black people want what white people have without thinking about it: black people want justice.

I don’t imagine that many white people understand that the parents of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and so many others …are aching….not just because their sons have been murdered by people who are supposed to protect us …but because they have had to fight to even get authorities to see that it is important that they get justice.  Yes, there is black-on-black violence, which is horrible, but that is a different kind of situation than the one I am referring to. Black-on-black crime happens, many times, because poverty and joblessness breeds that kind of behavior; crime is high in any ethnic group or neighborhood where the poverty is rampant and the opportunities lacking. Those parents are grieving, too…but in many cases, they see the assailants of their children put into jail. Not so when police kill our children.  Black people cry because the governments – state and local – not only get away with killing black people, but many of them in government and law enforcement agencies are participants in the violence.

Black people are not protected in this country. Black people are disposable. Black people are objects, and therefore, black people can be killed and nobody will have to answer for it.

This way of looking at black people is an illness. It is America’s illness, and it is cancerous. It is killing us as a nation. No nation can call itself “great” or “exceptional” that treats its own citizens this way. America is rotted in its center, but will not address or do the work to scrape the rot out.  America’s political system is based largely upon feeding racist language to a base of white people who are afraid of black people, who think black people are America’s problem, and who want black people out of here.

Can America heal? Can the pus that is oozing from America’s sores and infecting more and more of this nation stop, a sign that the illness has been treated and cured?

I don’t think so, not unless and until it decides to treat the rot. And I just don’t see that happening, not any time soon.

A candid observation…