“Why do we applaud rebellion in film, but not in Baltimore’s streets?”

I posit that the reason audiences fail to see the similarities in fictional uprising (which we love) and what occurs in real life, is the absence of that second element. Excluding the most ignorant and racist in our country, Americans generally get a sense that there is a problem with the unjustified killing of innocent black people by unsympathetic police officers. While they may not fully comprehend the scale of implicit bias, they understand that black people are more likely to be treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. So we can check off the first element.

As for the second, black rioters have been called plenty of things by the mainstream media; “heroic” is not one of them. Instead of being depicted as people who are doing what little they can do to bring attention to injustice, they have often been cast off as looters, criminals, “thugs” and miscreants taking advantage of the political climate.

Broadcast journalists contrast the rioters with Martin Luther King Jr. (white people’s favorite civil rights leader) and criticize rioters for failing to adopt MLK’s supposedly superior method of passive protest. All of this rhetoric is used to firmly embed in the minds of Americans, both black and white, that there is nothing noble about those participating in the riots — that what we are seeing on television is not the type of righteous revolution we associate with the civil rights movement — it’s mere buffoonery.

–  Christopher R. La Motte. “Why do we applaud rebellion in film, but not in Baltimore’s streets?” The Baltimore Sun, May 2015.

“…we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer.”

James Baldwin’s report on the “occupied territory” of Harlem in 1966 came to mind tonight as I read the reports from Baltimore.

The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition. What to do in the face of this deep and dangerous estrangement? It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose. Furthermore, no nation, wishing to call itself free, can possibly survive so massive a defection. What to do? Well, there is a real estate lobby in Albany, for example, and this lobby, which was able to rebuild all of New York, downtown, and for money, in less than twenty years, is also responsible for Harlem and the condition of the people there, and the condition of the schools there, and the future of the children there. What to do? Why is it not possible to attack the power of this lobby? Are their profits more important than the health of our children? What to do? Are textbooks printed in order to teach children, or are the contents of these textbooks to be controlled by the Southern oligarchy and the commercial health of publishing houses? What to do? Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government, and we in Harlem know this even if some of you profess not to know how such a hideous state of affairs came about. If some of these things are not begun—I would say—then, of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.

Martese Johnson and the Unimpressive Work of Justice

Martese Johnson was bloodied by the police on Wednesday. The UVA student is a graduate of Kenwood Academy, our neighborhood high school and the school my boys may very well attend a few years down the road. You’ll not be surprised to know that Johnson is Black. Hopefully you’ll also not be surprised to know that he is double-majoring in Italian and media studies, has no criminal record, and is on the university’s honor committee.

Martese JohnsonBlack Lives Matter. And yes, this still needs to be made plain.

I was thinking the other day about some of the emails and comments I’ve received since our church participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in our neighborhood. People have seemed impressed by that protest. (Others, I’m sure, had other opinions but they’ve mostly been polite enough to keep those to themselves.) I’m glad we protested. It was the right thing to do. But, relatively speaking, it wasn’t all that impressive. It cost us a couple of hours, some time in the cold, and maybe a confusing conversation with our children.

Important as it sometimes is, protesting is easy. Changing the system that allows for Martese Johnson to be bloodied by those meant to protect him is hard. Very hard.

There are ways our church is taking small steps to be on the side of justice and systemic change. Mostly it’s complicated and involves a lot of conversations, meetings, organizing, and prayer. It’s hard to capture in a blog post or photo.

One of the groups I’ve been meeting with will gather on Saturday for another conversations. Over the past months this diverse group has been a safe place for anger and lament. We’ve done our best to tell the truth- all of it. And now we are asking about the next steps we must take together. What can be practically done? How might we measure momentum and success in ways not tied to supremacist and consumeristic metrics? It’s tough and good.

The video below is one we’ve share with each other ahead of our meeting. In it Michelle Alexander makes the case for a new civil rights movement and, in her own way, shows why people of faith must be deeply involved.

Each time I hear an ugly story like the one involving Martese Johnson I’m forced to evaluate my priorities. Am I contributing to the system that allows this to go on, or have I found ways to hinder and subvert it? We’ve got a long, unglamorous road ahead of us filled with many important moments, some impressive and others not. In Michelle Alexander’s speech I hear the provocative challenge for Christians to take seriously the way of our Savior. It’s a way that seemed highly unimpressive in the moment yet it’s the only way to find life where there should only be death.

Franklin Graham’s “crude, insensitive, and paternalistic” comments.

Frankly, Rev. Graham, your insistence that “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” “Listen up,” was crude, insensitive, and paternalistic. Your comments betrayed the confidence that your brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those of color, have afforded your father’s ministry for decades. Your instructions oversimplified a complex and critical problem facing the nation and minimized the testimonies and wisdom of people of color and experts of every hue, including six police commissioners that served on the president’s task force on policing reform.

In the nadir of your commentary, you tell everyone to “OBEY” any instruction from authorities and suggest that the recent shootings of unarmed citizens “might have been avoided” if the victims had submitted to authority.

And you bluntly insist, “It’s as simple as that.”

It is not that simple. As a leader in the church, you are called to be an ambassador of reconciliation. The fact that you identify a widely acknowledged social injustice as “simple” reveals your lack of empathy and understanding of the depth of sin that some in the body have suffered under the weight of our broken justice system. It also reveals a cavalier disregard for the enduring impacts and outcomes of the legal regimes that enslaved and oppressed people of color, made in the image of God — from Native American genocide and containment, to colonial and antebellum slavery, through Jim Crow and peonage, to our current system of mass incarceration and criminalization.

An Open Letter to Franklin Graham.

I’m grateful for these thoughtful folks – some personal friends among them – who took the time to respond to Franklin Graham’s condescending post from last week. I have nothing to add to what they’ve said so clearly and directly except this: Rev. Graham, you’re not helping.

The “bizarro-world” of Population Loss in Chicago

And that’s how we arrived at the bizarro-world reality that Lincoln Park actually lost roughly the same number of housing units as Englewood between 2000 and 2012.

You can see how dramatic the effect is by looking at population growth around the borders of downtown: where relatively loose downtown zoning holds sway, the number of residents boomed. But instead of gradually tapering off as you get further away, there are sharp drop-offs all around the central area. Often, a few blocks where the population grew by 50% or more are right next to a few blocks where population actually declined. In most cases, zoning plays a crucial role in those disparities.

But so what? Why does any of this matter?

For one, it matters because if the number of housing units in a neighborhood is capped, as that neighborhood becomes more desirable, affluent new arrivals will outbid existing residents and people of moderate income, pushing up housing prices and creating newly segregated enclaves. If we want regular people to be able to live in some of our safest, most transit-accessible neighborhoods, allowing the supply of housing to grow with demand is a crucial part of that affordability.

“Unnecessary population loss on the North Side is a problem for the whole city” by Daniel Kay Hertz.

This blog is a must-read for Chicagoans interested in how and why the city works the way it does.

Why I’m Still Mad About Jackie Robinson’s Stripped Title

JRW_US_CHAMPS_LLWS2014This morning Chicago woke up to learn that our Little League Champions, Jackie Robinson West, have been stripped of their title, ostensibly for using players from outside league-prescribed boundaries. Throughout the day I’ve watched as friends have posted their reactions on social media and one type has caught my eye. It goes something like this: Yes, it’s really sad that these young men have to suffer the consequences of adults who made bad decisions, but rules are rules and this was the right decision. I especially noticed this particular reaction because I agree with its logic in theory.

But only in theory.

There was an emotional reaction on social media today that was also worth noting. This one goes something like this: It is no consequence that the first all-black champions are the ones who are being targeted for violations. This would have never happened to a mostly-white team from the suburbs. It’s an emotional reaction because it’s almost impossible to prove. But does that mean it’s wrong?

I’ve written about this extensively and I don’t have the time to cite the endless examples now, but the fact remains that young, black men in this country face an incredibly uneven playing field. From how they are perceived in classrooms to how they are profiled on the way home from school, young African American boys have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as their white peers.

So yeah, all things being equal we Chicagoans could be frustrated about the coaches and other adults who made poor decisions and then move on. But all things aren’t equal and it’s the worst that this team who inspired such joy has been made into a reminder of something so wrong.

To me they will always be the rightful champions.

Until Lynching Became Personal

This morning I received the following reflection from one of the founding members of our church. Ramelia Williams is a seminary student and one of our finest preachers. She’s a friend whose wisdom I highly value. Please read her words carefully.

Photo via Creative Commons.
Photo via Creative Commons.

Why Ferguson?

News reports proclaim that Michael Brown’s parents have stated, “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction.” The President of the United States quoted those words in a plea for non-violent demonstrations. These weak statements reek of puppeteering and throw grease on the fire. These voices are akin to the false prophets in Jerusalem. “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush (Jere6:14-15, NRSV).” The parents of Michael Brown (or the attorneys who wrote the statement) do not seem to understand the historical continuity of this murder. This perpetuation of disrespect for black bodies and black lives makes blood boil and anger roar. It is a righteous anger that will not rest in peace until we can answer the question, “Cain, where is your brother Abel? …Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

A Crime Against All People Of Color In This Nation

When people of color were enslaved in this country that was full of Eurocentric descended peoples, it was the first time that a slavery system could identify its chattel merely by physical appearance. Jews had to wear stars on their clothing to be identified as the targets of genocide. But African slaves could lay naked in the road or hang dead from a tree, with no question about their slave status. Thus, from our landing in this country until 2014, we have been unified by skin color, whether we like it or not. A crime against Michael Brown is a crime against every person of color in this nation. Furthermore, by nature, African descended peoples are not individual entities but families, tribes and villages. The moment Michael Brown was gunned down it was a crime against the community of black folks across this nation and not a crime only against the Brown family. In fact, it was a crime against the larger Brown and Black families, all people of color in this nation.

The appeal for the avenging of Michael Brown’s blood is an appeal that every mother and father of a son of color in this country is making for their own child. This is not an appeal that can be self-contained by the Brown family. Rev. Martin Luther King prophesied, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This grand-jury approved murder of Michael Brown is a sanction for white power, white rule and white privilege. It makes a statement about the true power brokers in this country. I dare say, it is a message to the very president of the United States of America; hear ye, hear ye…this, Mr. President, is what we think of your people and your kind. It is from a very public, international stage that white folks have reminded people of color where they stand in this country. Our population may increase, but today, we are reminded that political powers give dominant culture the ability to continue to rule over the livelihood, lives, bodies and welfare of minorities.

Until Lynching Became Personal

Many social media commenters are hailing their disgust with “rioting” in Ferguson. Some have alluded to the fact that Michael Brown was a thief. To these commenters, I share the words of Ida B Wells, a Northerner, commenting on lynching in the South. “Like many other persons who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved justice and the mob was justified in taking his life…” These were her thoughts until lynching became personal when three of her dear friends were lynched. She then described Memphis as, “a town, which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons…” It is rioting when it is happening in someone else’s town, over someone else’s anger, in regard to someone else’s child. But I wonder how the tables might turn when this senseless killing of black bodies becomes personal to you? The story of Michael Brown allegedly shoplifting cigars is “meant to convey” to the subconscious that he deserved what he got in the end. This rendition of cops and robbers, cowboys and indians must end with a sunset and the victory of the good guys. To the person with even a miniscule quantity of humanity, 6-8 bullet wounds in the body with fatal consequence in exchange for $8-$10 worth of shoplifted merchandise means the scales of justice are grossly imbalanced. Even the Levitical Law only required “an eye for an eye!”

Why Ferguson? Because we are tired of the cheaply priced toe tag that hangs from the life of black bodies…