Black Fathers, Wailing

 

 

 

We are near the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, and the image above is one I have not been able to get out of my mind.

Mike Brown was demonized and characterized as a “thug” who deserved what he got by many following that fateful day last August. Even as he was left lying in the street, the powers that be sought to “undo” him and in effect blame him for his tragic death by pulling up incidents that proved “he was no saint.” The police in Ferguson were more concerned, it seemed, with saving their tails than with dealing with this young man and giving him in death the respect they had not given him in life.

Not his father or mother were allowed to touch him as he lay on that hot pavement for hours.

This was their baby. Whatever he had done, he was their baby, their child, and they were not allowed to go near him.

I have to be honest. I cried as I watched this horrific drama unfold. I shook with anger as I listened to the police demonize Mike before they said a word about what happened, and how.

I visited Ferguson, a couple of times. I stood at the makeshift memorial that was constructed on the site where Mike had lain … and it gave me goosebumps.

There were a range of emotions I navigated as I awaited to see this young man finally put to rest. I watched with a mother’s eyes and felt with a mother’s heart as I watched his grief-stricken mother, Lesley McSpadden, enter that church. His father seemed to be holding up…

But he wasn’t. There is something that happens when a child dies; attention is given to the mother and the father is almost completely ignored. I noticed that when as a pastor I saw and attended to women who had lost babies due to miscarriage. The mother was allowed to mourn out loud; the fathers remained stoic.

Michael Brown Sr. looked like he was holding it together on the day his son was buried. I guess I breathed a sigh of relief; my attention then stayed on his mother.

But the tragedy of what this society has done to black men hit me full in the face when I saw this picture of Mike Brown’s father wailing at his grave site.

I realized that this society so marginalizes black men and boys, and is so smug about proclaiming that black fathers are absent, that we do not embrace the humanity of these men who are fathers, who are there for their children …and whose souls are ripped apart when their children are snatched away due to violence – street or police-induced.

Those who wanted to continue the dehumanization and criminalization of Mike Brown continued. They scoffed at the fact that he had gotten through high school and was going to college. They didn’t care. Their only sentiment was that he had brought his death upon himself.  He was no saint, they kept saying.

What college-age young man is?

I wondered then, and more so now, if those who wanted to sit in their smugness even bothered to lift their eyes to see the pain of his parents as they talked about him. His mother said he was “sweet,” but those who had demonized him dismissed that claim, as the videotape showed him pushing the store cashier.

What, sweet kids don’t sometimes do dumb stuff? Sweet kids don’t smoke marijuana? Sweet kids don’t “feel their oats” sometimes and do things that are really out of character for them?

Did people see the pain of both parents …including the pain of Mike’s father? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xORC3Kfhw0Y)

I can only imagine the pain that Mike’s parents felt the day they buried him…but the picture of Mike’s father wailing as he sat in front of his son’s coffin said more to me than anything I had read back then …or have read to date.

I remember my friend Joshua DuBois, whose wife is expecting the couple’s first child soon, giving an impassioned statement about how black fathers care. He reminded a nearly all-white gathering that it is wrong to continue carrying the belief that black fathers are absent and do not care about their children. Yes, some are absent …and that would indicate that perhaps they do not care, or cannot care at a given time in their lives.

But black fathers, black men …are human …and love their children every bit as much as a white father. They ache for their children, especially for their sons. They walk around knowing they are moving targets for police officers; they know that their children, again most especially their sons, are targets for street crime as well as for police violence against them.

Black fathers do not rest. They know the terrain and the territory on which their children walk.

The fathers of all these slain young black people are wailing … Society may not see them and may refuse to listen to them, but they are wailing.

Just look at the picture of Mike Brown’s father if you are inclined to disagree. That father’s pain …is palatable …and not isolated just to him.

America, will you ever see?

A candid observation …

 

Freddie Gray

What is going on now in the killing of black people by police  is merely an extension or continuation of America’s history as concerns legal violence against  African-Americans.

Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, as well as others, makes the case that mass incarceration is a way to control black lives in this country. Slavery was a good way to keep black people under the thumb of white people; when Lincoln freed the slaves in the states which had not seceded from the Union, Southerners were angry. The cry of “states’ rights” became common as Southerners deeply resented the “interference” of “big government” in their affairs. Whites began to consciously look for ways to again control black people. The result of their search included sharecropping and convict leasing.

But  within the culture of control was also a culture of terror. Black people were objects; people did not regard blacks as human beings, thanks to the interpretation of the United States Constitution and the Holy Bible. Black people were despised for their color but valued for their labor. What white people wanted was to forever be in control; for many, America was a white man’s country. Nobody, not “the law” or God, would object to how they treated their nigras.

Racial discrimination, after Reconstruction, was institutionalized, with laws written into the Constitutions of Southern states to make racism legal. Southern states actually rewrote their constitutions to reflect the legality of racial discrimination. The legality of racial discrimination, accompanied by the criminalization and dehumanization of black people allowed people, including police officers, to oppress black people and throw them into jail for whatever reasons they wanted. Jim Crow laws were put into effect to keep black people subordinate to white people (see “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” written by the Equal Justice Initiative.) Black people could be and were arrested or in some cases, just lynched, for the most minor “offenses.” The EJI report tells of a man who was lynched in 1889 because he tried to enter a room where three white women were sitting, and another man was lynched for knocking on the door of a white woman. (EJI report. p 31)

Black people were arrested and many times lynched without the benefit of a trial for vagrancy, for speaking to white people, for looking at white people, for not stepping off a sidewalk or for bumping into a white woman.  Though it was common, and had been common since slavery, for white men to rape black women, black men could be and were lynched for even unproven allegations of having sex with white women.

Law enforcement did not protect black people. Law enforcement …and local and state governments, did not protect black people, either. The federal government was basically impotent, refusing to become involved in the way states treated black people unless what was going on threatened to adversely affect the state.

Black people, then, have been living in terror and distrust of law enforcement officers for hundreds of years. The Great Migration happened in large part because black people were tired of living in fear, and tired of being terrorized by mobs and cops. They witnesses horrific destruction of black life – black people hung from trees, then shot as they hung, taken down and dragged through the streets. Often times they were burned alive, and sometimes they were set afire after the hanging was done.  Like the Romans who crucified people and let them hang along main drags into major cities to remind people of what happened to those who challenged the government, white people paraded their “catches” through the streets. Sometimes those doing the lynching made family members watch as their loved one was brutalized and mutilated. (http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/spectacle-the-lynching-of-claude-neal/1197360)

In a horrific case, the lynching of Claude Neal in Florida, Neal, who confessed to raping and killing a white woman, he was dragged from jail by a mob. He was taken to a location where he was tortured before he was killed. He was shot; his testicles were cut off and he was made to eat them; his penis was also cut off and he was made to eat it. After he was hung he was shot 50 times. His fingers and toes were cut off and sold as souvenirs. The sense is that everyone knows who killed Neal but nobody talked – not then and not now.

When I heard the account of why Freddie Gray was chased – because he made eye contact with police officers and then ran, a chill ran up my spine. The spirit of racism and of hatred, coupled with the tradition of white law enforcement allowing and often participating in the mass destruction and control of black people…has not died. Black people still do not trust law enforcement – not the police, not the detectives, not the judges or the court system …and white people still feel justified to stop and harass black people for two reasons: one, because they can and get away with it, and two, because they still regard black people as criminals and not quite human. Only when an individual regards another individual as an object can he or she treat others as white police officers have too often treated black people.

None of what the white mobs did to black people was done without violence. I guess that’s why I cringe as news anchors express so much dismay over the potential for violence as black people gather in frustration and anger to protest the way they (we) have been treated. White mob violence meted out against not only black individuals, but against entire towns and neighborhoods was nothing short of barbaric. But again, the resentment of whites against black people for their standing up for justice is not a new thing; in the past, some people who voiced opposition to the unjust laws and murderous treatment they received were lynched.

My prayer is that the family of Freddie Gray gets justice. I am not confident that any investigation of what happened to him will yield charges against the officers who were involved. I hope that we do not receive the dreaded phrase, “the force used was justified.”

Those who lynched black people in the past used that same phrase. That enabled them to kill black people when and as they wanted …and never look back. They accused and killed black people because they could.

It feels like that privilege is still alive and kicking.

A candid observation …

What If It Were My Son?

Freddie Gray is dead and nobody seems to know how it happened.

His body has not yet been released to his family. There has been an autopsy – though the results have not been yet released – and another, independent autopsy has been requested by the family.

But meanwhile, Freddie Gray lies dead and nobody seems to know what happened.

It is maddening that, after a week, nobody knows anything. It feels like incompetence and it begs an explanation as to why such incompetence exists. It feels like information is being withheld in an effort to protect the police.

It brings back memories of how the death of Michael Brown was handled.

I keep asking “What if it were my son?” I can only imagine the agony, the added-on agony, of Gray’s family as they wait for answers, and as they wait to lay their son and family member to rest.

His spinal cord was 80 percent severed, according to reports …and in this day of the highest technology, nobody seems to know how that happened. It begs credulity.

Eighty percent severed…

His ordeal began at 8:39 a.m. on April 12. He was put into the police van at 8:54 a.m. and by 9:24 a.m. he was not breathing or moving. He underwent “extensive” surgery, but it didn’t help.

What if it were my son?

What do you do, as a distraught parent or family member, when life has been snatched from someone you love but nobody will tell you how it happened? That type of death is as problematic as one caused by a plane falling out of the sky. Survivors want to know why and how? Anything less is unacceptable.

I know I would be suspicious by now. I would think that police and the courts and the coroner were keeping information from me. That belief would pour salt into the raw wound called grief and would cause deep anger.

This type of tragedy, suspicious deaths of people at the hands of police, has been happening for decades. The deaths have happened and the circumstances have primarily been blamed on the victim. The word of the police and courts has been taken as sacrosanct. As a result, there are a lot of parents, wives, and other family members who are walking around with two holes in their spirit: one caused by the death of their loved one and the other caused by the lack of knowing what really happened and by the knowledge that the police have been exonerated.

If it were my son, if I were seeing him being dragged by police officers, seemingly unable to walk, I would be weeping. If it were my son, my imagination would be making up all kinds of scenarios as to what happened to him, and I would be weeping. If it were my son, and I heard his cry as he was being dragged to the police wagon, I would be weeping.

But I would also be indignant and angry at the lack of explanation of what happened, why, and how.

My prayer is that the official report being waited for does not end up being an insult – to his family or to the community. My prayer is that someone will honestly explain why Freddie Gray was pursued without probable cause. Running from police may not be wise, but it isn’t grounds for arrest…and if there was no reason to approach him in the first place other than he didn’t look an officer in the face, then his arrest is even more problematic.

If it were my son, I would be weeping …but I would be working to get answers. I would be weeping but I would be reaching for some kind of viable explanation as to why my son was dead.

The six officers who were involved in the arrest have been put on paid administrative leave. That is not acceptable, not for me.If it were my son, their continued ability to make a living while my son lay dead would be insulting and troubling.

The mothers and fathers of slain children, no matter how old they are, are bleeding, all over these United States. They are hemorrhaging and nobody …seems to notice or to care. They are crying, weeping, wailing …because their children are “no more…”  The mothers and parents and family of Trayvon Martin, Kendrick Johnson, Jonathan Ferrell, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Jordan Davis,Lennon Lacy, Walter Scott. Eric Harris …and so many more … are weeping and hemorrhaging their grief over the earth.

The death of a loved one is hard enough on its own. For a loved one to die this way takes one past the point of being able to be consoled. There would be no words to assuage the pain if it were my son…

A candid observation …

Truth, Justice and the American Way

Much of the nation, it seems, is surprised at the findings of deep and embedded racism in the police department of Ferguson, Missouri …and I am wondering why.

The Department of Justice’s report found that there was a pattern of racist behavior on the part of not only police officers in Ferguson, but also in the court system there. Among other things, the report found that African Americans were more frequently arrested and jailed than white people, for the most trivial of “offenses,” including jay-walking and having a tail light out – and were subsequently charged fees and fines. In other words, they were arrested for profit gain of the police department. (http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/04/politics/ferguson-justice-report-shocking/index.html)

Then there was the harassment. Ever the harassment …Michael Brown and his buddy were harassed because they were walking in the street. That sort of harassment was not and is not uncommon, the report said.

African-Americans were the only citizens in Ferguson bitten by police dogs. There is so much more. The entire report is available for “us the people” to read. We need to do it.

The report, said one commentator, indicated not only racism, but a breaking of federal, state and local law. In other words, the report indicates that the police department broke the law.  Some of the Constitutional rights of the Ferguson were violated as well.

That’s the report. For us who live as African-Americans, the findings are not surprising.

Michael Brown’s shooting death was not the only death by police officers that bothered not only Ferguson but people all over the United States. Brown’s death was part of a pattern of abuse heaped upon people of color in this country for generations.

Black people have been saying it forever…I guess, though, that nobody really believed us? I guess they thought we were just whining …and that we should just shut up and get over it?

The Department of Justice report vindicates and affirms what black people have been dealing with for generations. Yes, yes, yes, there is black-on-black crime, but I repeat: most of the time, when a black person kills another black person, the offender is arrested, tried and jailed.

When police have killed black people, however, they have historically gotten away with it. There are a host of families in this nation, going back literally generations, who have never gotten justice for their loved ones killed by law enforcement and the justice system.

The question is, now that the report has been released and the numbers in the report indicate a serious problem …the question is, what do we do now? Not just in Ferguson, but all over this nation? Racism as a disease is not relegated only to Ferguson. Racism is an American illness. It is everywhere.

To add insult to injury, the Department of Justice report revealed racist emails sent on official police stationery by high ranking police officials which denigrated and disrespected President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. News anchors reporting on this seem genuinely surprised, and all I can say is, “seriously?”

Wasn’t it Superman who flew through the air in the quest for “truth, justice and the American way?”

Superman failed.

Clearly, there needs to be a new mechanism that forces Americans to get their heads out of the sand and admit to the racism which is part of the foundation of this nation. Denial hasn’t worked, meaning, denying racism has not made it disappear. Indeed, as in any untreated illness, denial has only made the disease worse.

The protests that erupted after Ferguson speak to a fatigue of people, frustrated about being ignored and pained that their (our) pain is never and has never been validated or acknowledged as real.

It is real.

How long can a nation ignore such heinous hatred? Not much longer, I don’t think.

Just my opinion.

A candid observation.

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 …