Fear Brings Silence

A silhouette showing a police officer striking...
A silhouette showing a police officer striking a person, symbolising police brutality. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend of mine, now deceased, wrote a play some time ago called, “Our Young Black Men Are Dying and Nobody Seems to Care.” The playwright, James Chapmyn, composed this choreopoem which has the “voices” of young, black men, now dead, telling their stories. They are dead – some from police violence, some from black-on-black violence, some from HIV/AIDS …and nobody, it seems, cares.

I’ve seen excerpts of the work.  What I saw was chilling; it brought me to tears. Young, black, men, crying for someone to hear them, care about them…Chapmyn’s work was spot-on.

And yet, in spite of this work and the truth it shares, the situation is still the same. Young, black men are dying and still, nobody seems to care.

The silence of everyone is troubling; the silence and lack of desire to become involved by black people is heart-breaking. Silence means we acquiesce to situations before us. We are acquiescing to the violence and the “reasons” that the violence is said to occur that we have been fed.

Just this morning, I read the piece about the young man in North Carolina, 17-year-old Jesus Huerta, who, while his hands were handcuffed behind his back and he was sitting in a police care, apparently shot himself in the head and died. (http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/police-say-teen-shot-self-head-while-hands-cuffed-behind-back)

How does one do that? How is it possible? And why are we who think the story sounds “off” so silent?

OK. So Huerta isn’t black …but he is a young man of color…who is dead…under suspicious circumstances…and he’s not the first one for whom this kind of story has been told.  In 2012 in Arkansas, 21-year-old Chacobie (Chavis) Carter apparently managed to do the same thing.  Sitting in the back seat of a patrol car, young Carter was found dead, a small caliber pistol found near him, and his hands were still handcuffed. (http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/police-say-teen-shot-self-head-while-hands-cuffed-behind-back) In 2012 in Texas, yet another handcuffed teen managed to shoot himself in the head while handcuffed. (http://www.salon.com/2012/12/06/another_handcuffed_young_man_manages_to_shoot_himself/)

It just doesn’t seem feasible that a person can shoot himself while his hands are locked behind his back …and yet that’s the bill of goods we are being told…and nobody is saying anything.

I wonder if we are afraid to speak up and speak out.  Do you remember how, in the movie, Twelve Years a Slave, that  nobody said anything, did anything, while Solomon Northrup was hanging from that rope? For hours, he hung there, and people looked…and then looked away. Only a few were brave enough to offer him a drop of water. And I have read how, even during the height of the Civil Rights movement, though everyone knew horrible things were going on, few people had the courage to say or do anything. They had reasons; they were threatened with loss of life, home, job …or all of the above…and so they kept silent. The Civil Rights movement brought about change because young people and children …who had little to lose economically, refused to be silent.

Is it that we are still afraid to speak up against injustice because we feel we have too much to lose? Nobody wants to be labeled…you know, called a “radical” or “trouble-maker.” Everybody just kind of wants to go along to get along…and to hang onto what they have. The threat of economic and social ostracization is real. Many good people have remained silent, trying to hold onto their piece of “the American dream” and what little status they have. Fannie Lou Hamer, I remember, was beaten nearly to death and lost her home when she dared speak up for voting rights for black people. Nobody wants to be beaten or thrown out into the street for standing up for justice.

But what about the children? What about the modern-day lynchings that just keep happening? How in the world does a person with his hands in handcuffs behind his back manage to shoot himself in the head?  I don’t get it. Are more of us questioning … but are afraid to “make a stink” about it” Is it that we feel like we cannot afford to speak up and speak out?

Is that why our young men are dying …and nobody seems to care?

A candid observation …

Dangerous to be Black in America

The man who is accused of shooting and killing 19-year-old Renisha McBride says he was afraid for his life …and that he shot her in the face “accidentally” with his 12-gauge shotgun.

Sounds painfully familiar. Didn’t George Zimmerman say the same thing when he shot Trayvon Martin? And the police officer who shot Jonathan Ferrell  – didn’t he say he was afraid, which was why he pumped 10 bullets into Ferrell after having shot at him 12 times? What

What is clear is that it is dangerous to be black in America. Because black people have been criminalized and objectified, it is easy for a police officer or citizen or vigilante to claim that the killing of any given black person was “justified,” and that the shooting happened because the shooter …was in fear of his life.

Whenever I am in a strange neighborhood which also happens to be predominantly white, I am nervous. If I have to pull into someone’s driveway to turn around, again, I am nervous.  I realize that fear and racism, mixed together, make for deadly consequences. There has been, says Ruby Sales, founder and director of the SpiritHouse Project, a “rampant return of white vigilante violence that has resulted in black bodies being thought of as disposable and black people thought of as human waste.”  Instinctively, I know that that feeling is pervasive, and I have seen black people try unsuccessfully to defend themselves or loved ones in cases where there has been a tragic shooting.

Nobody listens to or believes the black accused.

In New York just this week, a 20-year old black male was released from prison after he had been accused of , tried, and convicted for a robbery. From the moment he was “snatched” off the streets in the Bronx, where Kalief Browder was walking home from a party, he protested his innocence …but nobody listened to him. Nearly in tears, he told reporters that he had missed his last years of high school, his graduation and momentous events in his life. In his face there is still a look of shocked and pained incredulity. (http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news%2Finvestigators&id=9317078)

Somebody needs to say something. I mean, not just somebody, but a lot of somebodies, black parents and relatives who are, as Fannie Lou Hamer said, are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  The late Gordon Cosby, pastor of Church of the Savior, remembers Sales, would say today, in light of the shootings and killings that are happening at the hands of police and vigilantes, that it is not enough to be outraged. People who care, Cosby would say, would be “compelled to change” what is going on.

The question is, “how does one change something that is so completely systemic, insidious and basically ignored by “the law?” How does one change something that “the law,” in fact, seems to implicitly support? It seems part and parcel of the same attitude that accepts violence in black neighborhoods and schools, even as children are gunned down, without a word, and, in fact, assists in the criminalization of even the youngest students by arresting kids for things that used to get kids sent to the principal’s office.

Change can only come if those who are outraged speak up and speak out,  making more and more people aware of what is going on. Onie Johns, the founder of The Caritas Village in Memphis, Tennessee, has set up a “ministry of presence” there. She moved from the comfort of the suburbs to a house in the inner city where she sees and lives how “the least of these” lives daily. The mission of Caritas is to “break down the walls of hostility between the races and build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor.”

Such a “ministry of presence,” practiced by those who are content and willing to accept the outlandish story of the man who allegedly shot Renisha McBride in the face, might help cut down this senseless, cruel and racist trend – and far too frequent trend –  of fearing for one’s life when a black person is in distress, seeking help. It might make people show compassion and concern, instead of cruelty and viciousness, supported by that fear.

Black parents know the drill in teaching their kids how to interact with a police officer, should he or she ever be stopped. Funny, we haven’t so much given the same drill, instruction on how to act when confronted by a vigilante, or what to do if they get into trouble and need help if they are in a white neighborhood.  We haven’t been teaching our kids on how to act, live and survive in a world where, apparently, far too many people look at us as “the boogie man.”

Perhaps we ought to begin. I am so tired of white people being afraid of black people …just because we’re black.

A candid observation …

Motherpain, working

Sometimes I wonder if, had it not been for women and children, would there ever be real change in the world?

Women in Liberia were responsible for stopping civil war there.  Women and especially children were the ones who faced fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, as the South tried to hang onto segregation. College students endured amazing humiliation and some pain as they defiantly sat at lunch counters in the South, demanding to be served. Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of a bus; Fannie Lou Hamer demanded that there be justice for all,  especially and including, black people.  Ida B. Wells Barnett fought to wake up a complacent and disinterested Congress about the horror of lynching in this country.

And mothers, heartbroken over the deaths of their children, have been a force to contend with, over and over.

Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, refused to let America miss out on what a lynched human being – who happened to be her son – looked like. She demanded that her son be sent home to Chicago to be buried; it is said that the stench of his deceased body, though it was in a coffin, could be smelled from blocks away as he was brought home for burial. That didn’t matter to Mamie, though it must have broken her heart. This was her baby. He had been lynched. Someone, no, everyone, would know …

It was those things that I thought about as I listened to a woman this past weekend in Valdosta, Georgia. There was a rally held in that city to energize and mobilize people to help fight for justice in the case of Kendrick Johnson.  Johnson’s body was found in a rolled up wrestling mat earlier this year. Officials said it was an accident, that Johnson apparently died while trying to retrieve a shoe, but his parents never bought that explanation and pushed for an independent autopsy, which revealed that the young man, only 17 years old, had died of non-accidental blunt force trauma. The rallies are being held to draw attention to the case, and to inspire law enforcement agencies, including the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, to open an investigation in the case.

At that rally, a young mother approached Ruby Sales, who is keeping tab on these suspicious deaths of young black men. This mother, who had driven to Valdosta from someplace in central Florida, told a horrendous story of what happened to her teen son. He was shot by police officers, she said, and was left on the side of the road to die.

He didn’t die.

What sticks out for me is this woman’s courage, tenacity and determination to get justice. She is a single mother. Her funds are limited. She doesn’t have a high-powered attorney to plead her case for her.

All she has is her mother’s love, not unlike that of Mamie Till.

These women are what the Bible calls “Rachel, weeping for her children.” Specifically, the verse, which is found in the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 31, says, “A voice in heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

How many mothers are “out there.” seeking justice?  How many young mothers are fighting the scorn of a system which basically blames victims, too often, for what happens to them at the hands of law enforcement? How many mothers are “mourning and weeping”  because their children are suffering, or have died, and there has been no justice?

I realized, as I listened to this woman in Valdosta, that my role as pastor has expanded some.  My heart bled for her as I listened. Justice in this country is not a given; indeed, many people have tasted injustice, made all the more painful and difficult to endure because we exist in a country that promises that there is “liberty and justice” for all.

Not so much.

As she talked, I stopped taking notes and looked at her eyes. I saw “motherpain,” a term I have just made up, but which is not a new phenomenon. She needed strength for this journey, a journey she is not going to stop, no matter the barriers and frustrations.

I prayed with her, and hugged her. Her journey and quest for justice will be long and difficult.

She is not the only mother fighting for her child.  She is not the only mother who will, again, fight for justice in a world which is so reluctant to mete it out. Our world is bent on saving the status quo, which is not, in the long run, all that concerned about justice for us common folk.

So, the mothers and children will continue to be the Davids of this world, going against Goliath, with so few resources, but hearts full of love.  They will be going up against a society where the Prison Industrial Complex would rather they sit down; they need bodies to fill their new prisons for profit. Justice isn’t an issue. Profit-making is.

And so, I’ll continue to pray and offer hugs to these women as I listen to their stories, functioning in an expanded pastoral role. I am learning that one does not have to be in a church …to be a pastor .  Mothers and children will make change in our world, but it won’t be without experiencing a fair amount of loneliness and fatigue, and, probably, some harsh criticism from people who will want them to go and sit down and be quiet. They will wonder why God has allowed their situation to happen, much less linger on. They will need a pastor.

Because for sure, they won’t stop fighting. They can’t. They musn’t.  “Motherpain,” accompanied by “motherlove” will drive them. And at the end of the day, somebody is going to hear their cries for justice.

A candid observation …



Justice Matters

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...
Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deutsch: 1964: Martin Luther King Português: Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I traditionally abhor marching, the Martin Luther King -type march. It’s my opinion that there are too many marches and too little action.


The march planned this weekend, then, in Washington D.C., commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech doesn’t move me. Sorry. It just doesn’t. That thousands of dollars have been raised for this march, to be used to pay for porta-potties and parking privileges, and probably for noted people who will speak is troubling to me as well. All that money being spent  for one or two days…when communities of black, brown and poor people are floundering …does not make moral sense to me.


But the work being done by a group devoted to empowering people and informing them about the social justice issues of today does excite me. The Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, Inc., (SDPC) named in honor of a civil rights icon,  the late Rev. Dr. Samuel Dewitt Proctor, deserves attention.


SDPC has invited 50 students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to participate in teach-ins. They will learn about the social justice issued faced and addressed by Dr. King in 1963, but they will also be taught about the social justice issues facing black, brown, poor and marginalized people today: issues including mass incarceration and the lack of jobs for “the least of these.”


This group, through an initiative called  the “To Be Free At Last Movement,” has created spaces for individuals and institutions to come together and forge partnerships that go across racial, ethnic, professional and denominational lines. That seems wonderfully Christian to me, reflecting an understanding of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ. That seems, as well, wonderfully indicative of an understanding of Dr. King’s desire to build a “beloved community,” where capitalism, militarism and imperialism are pushed aside as groups within the boundaries of the United States seek to make the way for justice to be meted out to those who need it most, but for whom it seems most elusive.


During this weekend, and in the days leading up to August 28, these students will learn what’s before them, and will plan a rally honoring A. Philip Randolph that will be held at Union Station in our nation’s capital.  On Sunday, the torch of leadership will be passed to them by veteran civil rights and labor leaders including John Thomas and C.T. Vivian. They will also participate in a Town Hall Meeting with Judge Greg Mathis during the weekend’s events.


With as much as there is at stake for “the least of these,” it is comforting to feel like someone gets it and is being intentional about training people to carry on what was begun back in the days of slavery. A high note was reached by Dr. King when he gave his famous speech, but many people have said that his dream has become a nightmare. African-Americans are still struggling, as far too many African-American men are incarcerated, and young African-American men still cannot get employment. There is still an overlying spirit of racism that suggests that black people are bad people, unworthy of freedom and too apt to complain when they have access to anything they want.


In theory, perhaps, but in actuality, that is not the case, and that’s why the work of social justice as concerns “the least of these” is so important.  It is important that young people be trained and strengthened even as they enter the fray.  Obtaining social justice for and by “the least of these” is some of the most difficult work ever. Those who fight for it fight against power, which, we all know and as Frederick Douglass said,  “concedes nothing without a struggle.” These young people are being sent into the lion’s den, so to speak, a lion’s den that people like Dr. King and Rev. Vivian and Rep. Lewis  knew and know well. They are being equipped to carry on the work – with all of its attendant opposition – of people like the late Fannie Lou Hamer and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. They are being equipped to struggle not only for black, brown and poor people, but people in the LGBT community as well. Justice is a right of all American citizens. Dr. King said he looked forward to the day when all of America’s children, black and white, Christian and Jew …would be able to walk and work together. It hasn’t happened yet, and in the name of globalization, the spread of people needing justice has grown.  Justice matters.


That an organization is willing to take on the behemoth task of equipping young people to carry on the work that Dr. King talked about is exciting. It is worth tapping into.


The march? Not so much.


A candid observation …