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 …

No Violence. Strategy

The entire debacle surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown has been at once fascinating and energetic …and yet, troubling.

I am not so concerned with people, spurred by the media, concentrating on the violence, putting it down as barbaric and primitive, though it is interesting that white culture has seemingly forgotten its own history of violence. White culture, especially the law enforcement culture, has been relentless and legion in exerting violence against black people. When black people fought for the right to vote, and for the right to sit at lunch counters and to integrate facilities, white culture, with police either participating in the violence or standing by and watching it …responded with violence. The show of force in Ferguson, with police in riot gear and coming on like they were fighting in Iraq or somewhere, is not a new thing. A careful walk back through history shows disturbingly similar photos of military-like police officers standing ready to demolish groups of black people. Police, encouraged and ordered by Bull Connor, used police dogs and fire hoses on women and children when they protested racism. Police were often part of violent KKK outings that took lives of black people and many were members of the Klan themselves, as were many of the attorneys and judges that tried and heard cases of black people; that’s not something that is an opinion, it is documented history.

No, though I don’t like it, I am not so concerned with people concentrating on the violence that erupted after Mike Brown’s shooting.

What I am concerned about it this spirit of anticipation of violence if Police Officer Darren Wilson is not indicted.

Everybody in America knows that police officers are seldom held accountable for the killings that they commit. They are nearly always excused. They are allowed to shoot people and give as the excuse or reason, “I was in fear for my life,” and it’s like getting a token to go through a subway turnstile. It is highly probable that Wilson, although apparently he has a record of not being so nice to black people in his capacity as an officer ….will not be indicted.

If that happens, my prayer is there will be …not violence …but mind-blowing strategy. I am prayerful that if Wilson is not indicted, “the strategy” will go into place immediately. I am prayerful that “the strategy” will be so tough, so effective, that it will shake the economic foundations not only of Ferguson, St. Louis and the state of Missouri, but will become a threat and a wake-up call to police departments all over this country, a sign that people are fed up with police officers getting away with horrific shootings allowed them by the unbridled power they possess.

Let me say up front that yes, police officers have a tough job. They are, in many cases, “in fear for their lives.”

But it appears, from the work that I have done with Ruby Sales and The Spirit House Project, that in many of these shooting deaths, the police have exerted their power to kill…and have gone unscathed and unaccountable.

People in power don’t care an iota about the emotions of other people. Their quest is to maintain and perhaps increase their power. They don’t have to worry about “the least of these” or, as Professor Obery Hendricks says in his book, “treat the needs of the people as holy.” They just do not have to care…and many times, too many, they do not.

So, the police officers and police departments don’t care if there are weeping mothers and fathers left in the aftermath of a shooting that results in the death of an unarmed person. They don’t really even have to defend themselves half the time. They run on the myth that black people are bad, that they are lazy and will not work, and that if they were shot, they deserved it.

That feels like the spirit of a police state.

So, it really will not bother the Ferguson Police Department, or the St. Louis Police Department  if folks in Ferguson get violent if Wilson is not indicted. They almost want that kind of reaction. It is a reaction they can beat, and they know it.

No…the cities and states of this nation need to be made uncomfortable in another way. They need to feel the power of the people in another way. In Montgomery, Alabama, the bus boycott caused the bus company, downtown stores and businesses and the city to lose a little over $1 million…and that was in the 1950s. White businesses were made aware of the economic power of black people; blacks pour an inordinate amount of money into white businesses. We help make rich people richer.

Any strategy that works in this issue of police brutality, is going to be a strategy that somehow hampers normal and accepted behavior and practices. A successful strategy will put a strain on the status-quo. Street violence is just not going to be acceptable.

Even as I write this, I do not know if an effective strategy is being developed. I hope so.

It is the only thing that will get the attention of power brokers who are cocky about their power…and have no intention of changing it.

A candid observation.

Justice Denied

As an African-American, I find myself ever wishing and hoping for …justice for our people killed by law enforcement officers…but it almost never comes.

Yesterday, the officers who shot and killed John Crawford in a Wal-Mart store in Beavercreek, Ohio, were not indicted. In spite of the fact that Crawford was holding a toy gun in a store where it is OK to carry guns …he was gunned down and his killers will go free. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/24/john-crawford-iii_n_5876574.html)

The names of the officers are, by the way, Sgt. David Darkow and Officer Dean Williams.

There is always “something” that we the public “don’t get.” There’s always a “reason” why African-Americans are gunned down and killed by police, and the “reason’ is enough to clear the officers of any wrongdoing.  The grand jury must have seen something, heard the “something” that we, the public, “don’t get.” They found that the officers’ actions were justified. No excessive force…

We in the African-American community have seen police work in our neighborhoods; we have seen and heard the harassment, the taunting and daring officers give in our communities. They do not protect us. They seem to feel we don’t deserve protection.

Instead, they goad our people, especially our young people …and then blame them for any altercation that might ensue or, ultimately, any shooting death that might occur.

When Rodney King was attacked by police officers years ago, I, for one, rejoiced because the beating was caught on tape. Now, I thought, the people will see how police treat African-Americans. They will be arrested, I again thought erroneously. They will lose their jobs. They will be held accountable.

But the justice I thought would be a no-brainer did not come. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing …and the African-American community in Los Angeles went up in flames.

I have been holding my breath as the grand jury in Ferguson has been out, considering the future of Darren Wilson. Officer Darren Wilson. There is nothing in me that believes he will be indicted.

But in the case of the officers who shot John Crawford, I thought, just like I thought when Rodney King was beaten, that surely these guys who shot Crawford would be made to answer for their actions. That would have been justice. But, as usual, it is justice …denied.

When Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam killed Emmett Till there was a trial …but it was a farce. An all-white jury found the two white assailants innocent…and took only minutes to come to their “verdict.”  Later, they arrogantly confessed in an article which appeared in Look Magazine. They were arrogant, cocky, unrepentant…Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, who insisted that the world see what these men had done to her son, never got justice. What agony she must have felt for the rest of her life.

I would imagine that the officers in Crawford’s death are likewise feeling on top of the world today. Arrogant, Cocky. Ready to get back to work, feeling like they can do whatever they want and get away with it.

People have said to African-Americans, “Wait. Don’t jump to conclusions before “the facts” are known. Let the system work.”

Thing is, we’ve been waiting for “the system” to work in our favor for some time. Mothers and fathers, wives and children, have been robbed of justice in the deaths of their loved ones which has come at the hands of “law enforcement” for literally decades in this nation. In addition to weeping over the loss of their loved one, they have wept and are continuing to weep over the fact that the assailants have been cleared of wronging and are free. I call that justice …denied.

“The law” in America is held up as sacrosanct. If one is truly American, one obeys “the law.” And if one doesn’t, one should expect to be punished.

But that proclamation seems only to hold for certain situations. White people in the South ignored “the law” when the federal government ordered schools to be integrated after Brown vs Board of Education.  Some governors closed schools rather than integrate them. “The law” didn’t apply to them, they decided, …and they were none the worse for it.

Word: Whenever a person or a family has justice denied, there is deep pain, then deep frustration, followed by depression…and then anger. The anger amongst African-Americans is bubbling, America. Can’t you feel it?

I can.

A candid observation …

 

 

Police Trained to Shoot to Kill

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A friend of mine, who was a police officer for 30 years, weighed in on my despair of what is going on in Ferguson

“As soon as that officer got out of his car, he intended to shoot him (Brown),”  my friend said. “When you pull the trigger, you are intending to kill the target.”

As I agonized over the fact that Mike Brown had been killed, even I knew that police shoot to kill. Years ago, as I studied journalism and our class visited a police department, I asked the question of why police didn’t just shoot a person’s knees. That way, I said, the perpetrator could be stopped in his/her tracks, right?

No, the police officer who was teaching the class said. “We shoot to kill.”

My ex-cop friend affirmed that answer. “The bullets police use are designed to spread; they bounce around when they hit you. They mushroom so they can do more damage.” (I had remarked on how a bullet that entered Mike Brown in the forehead had gone in his eye, moved around, come out of that eye, gone back in that eye, and then exited near his collar-bone, according to the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/18/us/michael-brown-autopsy-shows-he-was-shot-at-least-6-times.html?_r=0)  “Police use those and think they’re being more humane. Military bullets go through one person into the person who’s behind the person initially shot. The idea is to stop the threat; you need something that is going to kill, not just wound a person. You are trained to kill. When you would someone, you’ve actually missed them.”

That was and is a troubling thought. By Sunday, August 17, crowds in Ferguson had been out on the streets for several days, hours each day, marching, praying, shouting for justice in the death of Mike Brown. There had been violence after sun fell; local police, in full riot gear, used tear gas and pointed assault weapons at the already-troubled members of the community. Instead of quelling the violence, the police action only caused more agitation.

I was disturbed at what I was seeing. There was more and more talk about the militarization of police forces in the United States. The author of a book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, said on a CNN interview: “Using tear gas is illegal.”

My head jerked; up to that point, I had been only half-listening to all the discussion about military weapons being used by the Ferguson Police Department; maybe I thought it was just hype, or maybe I was just weary of seeing people struggle against a system which had historically meant them no good…

But the statement about the tear gas got to me. I had seen the huge tank-looking trucks; I had seen police perched upon them; I had seen the smoke from the tear gas, and I had seen the police – lots of them – advancing toward the crowd with those guns drawn. It seemed like I was looking at a picture of a battle in Iran or Iraq or Gaza. But no, it was here, in the United States. I remembered seeing police with those guns cocked and ready to fire, moving menacingly toward the crowd; the image of the light coming from them had actually made me shake. (I am not sure if the light was a night-light or a laser which would allow a more accurate shooting). I heard people say how badly the tear gas burned their eyes, their throats. I heard people say that tear gas was dispersed in their back yards. The looters got gassed, but so did many innocent women and children. The thought had bothered me ..

So, when I heard author Radley Balko say that tear gas was illegal to use, my antennae went up. Why in the world are authorities letting police use tear gas if it’s illegal?

My cop friend tried to console me. “It’s the more humane of the gasses that are available,” he said. “In the military, there is a gas used that can cause a person to “crap their pants” immediately.”If you ban tear gas in riots, they could use another. There is sonic equipment available and it sends out sound waves that cause confusion and headaches. They use that over in Iraq.”

It was too much information, too much, too quickly, at a time when I was grappling with my outrage that such tactics had been used against the crowd. I had seen tear gas used plenty of times, going all the way back to the Detroit riots. I took its use for granted. But now I was hearing that it was illegal to use it in civil disturbances…and I was disturbed. My friend continued to talk.

“Having this stuff is one thing,” he said.  “Knowing when and when not to use it is another thing.”

My friend, on a roll educating me, said that the militarization had been going on since the 1960’s. “Right after the Civil Rights movement ” he said, “weapons and equipment used in the Vietnam War started coming into our country and given to police departments.” Back then, the police used heavy-handed violence on students, primarily white, protesting against that war. A politician at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 observed that America was becoming a “police state.”

Now, local police departments are being supplied military equipment by the Pentagon. These are weapons and equipment used in the Iraq War.

“Police,” he said, “are training for another terrorist attack. SWAT teams train for “urban warfare.” They are trained to ‘be’ or act like the military,” he said.

“Police departments don’t know what they’re doing,” said the ex-cop. “They get these weapons and get a six-hour training. They always over-react because they don’t now how to deal with people.”

On the unrest in Ferguson, my friend said, “This is what I call a “police riot.” Any time a situation is escalated by one side, that side is responsible. The people in Ferguson were agitated, and the police reacted by shooting rubber bullets, using tear gas. The police caused the escalation.”

“The weapons being used haven’t help because they shouldn’t have been used in the first place. They responded to the people’s unrest with military weapons. It should never have been done.”

He encouraged me to be realistic.  “All of this happened because of fear,” he said. “The way police operate now is based on fear of what has happened before. Police officers follow orders. They are a para-military organization. They follow orders and instructions. Who’s giving the orders? The chief. The elected officials. It all comes back to local politics.”

My friend paused, then added a sobering thought. “Fifty percent of the general population is mentally ill,” he said quietly. “I would bet that fifty percent of any police department is probably mentally ill, too.”

“The officer in the Ferguson case should go to prison…but my gut says he won’t. He would go to prison because under no circumstances should this shooting have happened this way. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ve seen it from the inside.”

Undoubtedly, another officer would disagree with my friend. Regardless of that , a couple of things really resonate: that the police shoot to kill …and that the police acted out of fear. That seemed clear to me; what I saw looked like an army confronting a mortal enemy, absolutely intending to kill them if it “became necessary” in their view.

The thing is, angry African-Americans are not an enemy. They are a people who have too often not experienced justice in the justice system, a people who have seen their children shot by police over and over, with little to none action taken against those officers. Too often, they have heard, the police were right, that the shooting was “justified.” Too often, as they have mourned the loss of their loved ones, they have also decried the lack of justice afforded them.

No, they were not “the enemy.” The police, however, seemed not to know that …or to care.

A candid observation …

 

A White Progressive Blames the Victim

As a rule, I hate the word “victim.” If one claims oneself to be a victim, he or she will invariably act like one.

That being said, there are times when people ARE victims…and when they are, to be blamed for their state of being adds insult to injury.

Over the years we have seen women blamed for being raped. If they hadn’t worn certain clothing, hadn’t acted in a provocative way, some have said, they wouldn’t have been raped. The argument is as infuriating as it is insulting.

I thought about that when, as a I talked with a “progressive” white person who is understandably upset about the looting going on in Ferguson, Missouri, expressed his disgust that I was believing the accounts of what happened that day that were not so complimentary. After calling me an “anarchist,” he pooh-poohed my assertion that black people have been oppressed historically in this country. Not so, he said. “Everyone here is treated fairly.”

He outright said that the police officer is “innocent of any wrongdoing.” “The facts will support that,” he said. He despaired that I and so many others were so eager to believe the “Brown side” of the story …and said he was tired of black people complaining, that all black people wanted was special treatment.

I was angry, and then I was sad. If a white “progressive” feels that way, then there is less support for the human and civil rights of black people than I thought. Don’t get me wrong; I have never thought there was a whole lot of support for black people, but if a “progressive” who grew up in integrated neighborhoods (he said) and who has always believed in civil rights can say this, then the base of support for black people is thinner than I imagined.

There was not, in the words of my “progressive” white friend, a shred of compassion for what happened to Michael Brown. He was glad that the video tape of the strong arm robbery in which Brown was allegedly involved had been shown. “Brown was no angel,” my friend said emphatically. “He wasn’t just a good kid about to go to college.”

That may be true…he was no angel, but I daresay not many 18-year-old males are “angels.” And regardless of his “angel” status, there is something profoundly wrong with how he was gunned down by a police officer.

My friend didn’t seem to care that Brown, after being shot, lay on a hot street, bleeding and uncovered, for hours. It was as though this young boy was just “another one of them” who deserved what he got. “Wait until the facts come out,” he hissed.

What got me was not just that my friend was so vehement in his remarks; what got me is that he is not alone. The police officer who has yet to be charged with shooting Brown is on paid administrative leave, and he has a ton of online support, with people donating money, prayers and support.

My gut level feeling is that this man is going to get off.

It happens so much in our community.

So Brown, dead and now autopsied three times, is being blamed for being dead. Had he not “bum rushed” the officer, as a third-party has offered as “the official account” of what happened, he would not be dead. My “progressive” friend doesn’t doubt her account at all. Facts, she has the facts…

The officer (who I have not named on purpose because he represents, to me, “everycop” who has done this kind of thing and gotten away with it) will keep his job. The St. Louis District Attorney is working hard to get the case to the Grand Jury as soon as possible, where anything said will be kept secret. The Grand Jury will undoubtedly be all white, will lend a sympathetic ear. The word and account given by the police officer will be taken as fact.  It id doubtful that the Grand Jury, which will be heavily controlled by the prosecutor (as all grand juries are) will vote for charges to be brought against the officer but if he is, a subsequent trial will be nothing more than a formality.

If this is the way “progressives” think, then I can no longer take comfort in the fact that such a group of people exists, as I once did. This man sounded more like a hard-core right-wing American.

The thought was and is so disheartening that I wept. I hate the violence. I hate the looting …but I also hate the injustice that has been the trademark of the relationship between “the justice system” and black people for years. I hate it that the white police officer is being protected while the dead kid is being vilified and blamed…for his own death.

It is sad, and troubling, and disturbing.

Yet, it is the landscape on which we all stand. And it hurts.

A candid observation …