When the Women Rise Up

In light of the tragedy of the past week, one thing is standing out.

It’s the women. Women, aching, crying, concerned and committed, are standing up and speaking up and speaking out.

Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, had the presence of mind to record the interaction between herself and a gun-holding police officer, doing a “live” recording that people could see immediately. It was phenomenal to watch. That she had the presence of mind to do that spoke volumes about her strength. As her boyfriend lay dying, as her four-year-old daughter sat in the back seat of the car, terrified, at times crying, and finally trying to comfort her mother, Diamond forged ahead, through her pain and terror, to tell a story she knew needed to be told.

Then there is the African American female cop who lives in Warrensville, Ohio who watched the video of Alton Sterling, a video in which she saw Sterling shot multiple times at point blank range, and this woman, a police officer, a woman, a mother …and an African American, spoke out. (http://www.ajc.com/news/news/national/how-dare-you-ohio-police-officer-nakia-jones-voice/nrtMG/)

Watching them, my mind went back to when Emmet Till was murdered – lynched – in Money, Mississippi after he  allegedly flirted with a white woman. He was visiting relatives and didn’t know …and was young and arrogant enough to disregard …the “Southern” way of life, which included the prohibition of a black man to pay attention or to “disrespect” a white woman. What that “disrespect” was was left entirely up to the white people, primarily white men, who made the call.

Emmett, only 14 years old at the time, was dragged from his uncle’s house in the middle of the night by relatives of the white woman who made the accusation against Till. His murderers beat him nearly to death; they gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head, and then used barb wire to tie his body to a cotton gin fan and threw his body into a river.

It was a horrific death, but those kinds of murders of black people were common in the South, and hardly anyone ever went to jail or prison – or even got charged, for that matter. It was the intent of the good ol’ boys that the narrative be that Emmet had just disappeared. But three days after his murder, his body washed up and was discovered. The authorities reportedly just wanted to hurriedly bury Emmet, but his mother, Mamie Till, who by now had been contacted about the disappearance and now the death of her son, refused to let them bury him. She headed from Chicago to Money, Mississippi, Emmet’s body lying in a funeral home waiting to be identified. He had decomposed so much that it was difficult to identify him, and the stench from his decaying body was so bad that Mamie could smell him when she got off of the train. But she went to that funeral home and demanded to see her son. She was able to positively identify him by a ring he had on his finger. She decided she would take her boy home, as expected, but what people didn’t expect was for her to insist that his coffin remain open so that the “world could see what they had done to her boy.”

Her decision was bold. It was courageous …and it was an action that stirred the complacency of people – white especially, but black as well – to sit up and notice an evil that was so much a part of American life that it was nearly taken for granted. There was some personal risk, one might assume, for Mamie, but danger to her was not her concern. She was tired. She had had enough. She hated racism and white supremacy. She had raised a good boy in a difficult time …and now, racists had killed her boy and wanted to cover it up and act like it was no big thing.

It wasn’t going to happen.

Her spirit was one of fire. Her spirit, like the spirits of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Coleman and Mary McLeod Bethune, and Rosa Parks …and so many women we usually mention but don’t give enough credit to, became a driving force in the continuing effort to take the covers off the shenanigans practiced by racist people who took stock and had confidence in their ability to mess over black people and get away with it. In these last few years of horrific police violence against black people, it has been women who have stood up and spoken up, saying, in essence, “no!” Sabrina Fulton, mother of Trayon Martin,  stood up. Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, stood up. The mother of Henry Green in Columbus, Ohio, Adrienne Hood, is standing up. There are more, and their impact cannot be underrated.

Mamie said, “no.” She said no, as did the women named here and so many others. Men in African American culture have done some amazing things, but it is the women who are standing out for me. And now, it is women, again, who are standing up. Nakia Jones, a police officer, could lose her job for standing up and saying that police who have race issues should not be cops. She said it and she said it with passion. She said that what she saw in the shooting of Alton Sterling was wrong,  and she said it boldly.  Diamond Reynolds said …no. If her boyfriend was going to die, she was determined that the world would know how it happened.  They said no and because of their courage, the world is having to look at things they have tried to run and hide from for decades.

I think there should be an award, a “Mamie Till Award” given to women who stand up and speak up with little regard to the risk to their own comfort.  While few people have any confidence at all that the police officers who killed Sterling and Castile, there is one thing most people have to admit: that because of the courage of women,  this world is a little bit more aware today than it was at the beginning of the week.

A candid observation …

 

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-death-of-emmett-till

 

 

 

Objectification Be Damned

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. Original caption: “Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

In this nation, there are left-overs from slavery, one of the biggest being the criminalization of black people, and especially of black males.

Black people were objectified while they were slaves; the objectification morphed into criminalization after Reconstruction as blacks were arrested for the slightest offenses to justify them being imprisoned and made to work for individuals and corporations. The situation is classically described in Douglas Blackmon’s book, Slavery by Another Name.  As more and more black people were arrested, the canvas was being painted that had on it the picture of black people; they were “bad” and not worthy of freedom.  It did not matter that black men were being targeted and manipulated by an angry South that resented their free slave labor having been taken away by the emancipation of the slaves.  All the public saw and heard was that black people were being arrested.  There was more trust in an unjust justice system than there was of innocent people who were being railroaded, their lives and the lives of their families forever destroyed.

That criminalization and objectification has made it easy and justifiable in the present day for law enforcement and vigilantes to shoot and kill black people, especially black males, with little chance of being held accountable, and/or to arrest them for non-violent offenses, most often drug related, offenses for which their white counterparts are forgiven.

But perhaps there is a bigger problem that we seldom talk about, and that is, how black people may have criminalized and objectified ourselves as well.

There is systemic injustice , supported by an insensitive and calloused justice system, that has resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of black males.  According to Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, one in three African-American men is currently  under control of the criminal justice system – in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole.  That is an inordinate number of individuals, the vast majority of whom, according to Alexander and others, are in prison for non-violent offenses. There is in America a racial caste system, and nobody seems to care.

But black people, too many of us,  don’t seem to care about ourselves. We kill each other with abandon.  The self-hatred comes right out of slavery and the racism that slavery spawned.  America did a good job of associating “black” with “bad,” and unfortunately, that association bred a sense of self-hatred in us that is obvious in how we too often treat each other.

There are some warriors of the race, people who refuse to accept what society has fed us. They stand up and fight for justice, no matter the odds against them. The work that Ruby Sales of The Spirit House Project supports the parents and relatives of people who have been victims of systemic violence. The bravery of Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, continues to inspire me, and recently, the tenacity of the parents of young Kendrick Johnson has been inspirational.  The parents of slain young black men have too much pain to be stymied by the doubts that self-hatred so often and too often produces. Historically, Mamie Till was one of those warriors who refused to let criminalization and objectification and racism and hatred stop her quest for justice in the death of her son.

The prayer is that more and more black people will step out of the tent which likes to house the disenfranchised, dispossessed and unwanted.  Staying in the tent only exacerbates the sense of hopelessness and gloom that inhabits people who hate themselves.  It feeds self-hatred. Getting out into the light, risking  failure in order to have a victory, is what is needed, objectification and criminalization aside.  The parents and relatives of slain black people need not be afraid, but need to take their cues from those who have entered the ring of injustice, determined to win, whether the violence against their loved one was done by police and vigilantes, or by angry black youth.

Just because there are left-overs from slavery doesn’t mean we have to eat them. They are spoiled and need to be disintegrated.

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 …

 

 

Zimmerman’s Attorney has Offensive Strategy

 There are several things which are troubling about the George Zimmerman trial, but the most recent include blaming Trayvon Martin for his own death,  and making the case that because a toxicology report showed that he had marijuana in his system that he might have been behaving in such a way that may have forced Zimmerman to act in self-defense.

When Mark  O’Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, said to Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, that Trayvon may have caused his own death, it reminded me of countless trials where women, raped, were blamed in court, for their assault.  Because of what a woman wore, or how she carried herself, or her sexual history, defenders of rapists were quick to suggest – and, apparently, juries were just as quick to agree – that the woman brought about her attack. It has always been offensive to hear that in rape trials; it is equally as offensive to hear in this second-degree murder trial. Because Martin may have defended himself against a man whom he did not know who was following him, O’Mara is suggesting that Martin was the aggressor. His death, if the reasoning is followed, was his own fault.

It is a totally offensive premise and suggestion.

The second issue is the suggestion that the presence of marijuana in Martin’s blood somehow contributed to behavior which was suspicious. It is a ludicrous argument. If the presence of marijuana in one’s bloodstream made people act “suspicious” to the degree that he or she had to be followed and observed for possible criminal behavior, there would be few students in high schools or college. O’Mara is a brilliant attorney and is doing a good job for his client, but at what cost?

In an article that appeared on U.S. News on NBCNews.com in March, 2012, it was stated that an empty baggie that contained residue of marijuana was found in Martin’s locker at his high school. (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/03/26/10872124-trayvon-martin-was-suspended-three-times-from-school?lite)  In that article, a family spokesman said that there was no substance found. Toxicology reports, however,  have apparently showed that the teen had marijuana in his system the day he was killed by Zimmerman.

In spite of research that shows that marijuana use does not make one aggressive – or indeed, has little effect on behavior at all, it is clear that O’Mara is going to make the case that young Martin was a “drug user,” lumping him in with those who use drugs that do in fact cause violent and aggressive behavior. It is no secret that young black youth are searched and punished for severely for marijuana possession, but that fact will be glossed over. It is also a fact that many teens use marijuana on a fairly regular basis.  In an article which came out in December, 2012, it was stated that :Marijuana use is holding steady among eighth, 10th- and 12th-graders in the United States.”  ( http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2012/12/19/marijuana-use-holds-steady-among-u-s-teens/) .It’s not just teens, the article stated; it’s kids as young as 8th grade! The article said that statistics proving marijuana use increase was gotten from studying 45,000 8th, 9th and 10th graders. In other words, a whole lot of kids smoke marijuana.

But O’Mara’s job is to get his client off, and it feels like there will be no justice for Martin. The young man will be made out to be a “druggie” who was probably, as Zimmerman said, “acting suspicious.”  Martin’s mother said in a TIME article in 2012, “They’ve killed my son. Now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” ( http://healthland.time.com/2012/03/27/did-marijuana-use-sentence-trayvon-martin-to-death/)

What O’Mara is doing is good defense attorney stuff – but it is offensive, as offensive as it is when defense attorneys defend rapists and suggest that the accusing woman brought about her own rape. If anything, it seems like George Zimmerman brought about this entire tragedy by following Trayvon when he was asked not to, but that point is not being argued very effectively by the prosecution.

As a mother, my heart aches for Sybrina Fulton, whose son is dead, and for Gladys Zimmerman, whose son is on trial, but my aching for Fulton is accompanied by anger and a sense of insult that Mark O’Mara has put in the minds of the jurors that all of this was Martin’s fault.

Just like women who have been raped have been reluctant to come forward for fear of a lack of justice, so have been black people been reluctant. Over the years, all-white juries have ignored evidence and convicted black people at will. The killers of Emmet Till got off when it was clear they had killed the young black boy. Mamie Till, Emmet’s mother, had the strength to stand in and through the cloud of injustice that served as the “trial” for her son’s killer’s…in spite of not receiving justice.  Emmet Till was thought to have caused his own death as well, by whistling at a white woman.

The verdict has yet to be announced. It may be that Zimmerman is convicted of something, if not second degree murder, then something, which will make it seem like justice has been done. That is the hope, but it is a dim hope as the defense works to Trayvon seem like a young black thug who brought about his own demise.

It is insulting.

A candid observation …