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…

The Day After An Election

Photo credit: Vox Efx
Photo credit: Vox Efx

A couple of thoughts after the election yesterday.

The Kingdom of God is far more creative than our two-party, big-money political process. The best commentary yesterday evening pointed out the cycles common to electoral politics. Yet we’re meant to act surprised at how these things turn out. We’re also supposed to pretend that the system isn’t rigged, that every citizen has access to the same representation, that money’s role is neutral. In the end, for all the ways I’m grateful for our democracy, I have to admit to its fundamental lack of creativity and kindness. Held up to such predictability, the Kingdom of God as described and modeled by Jesus is almost unbelievable for its imaginative ethic. Here the last are first, the poor are rich, and those with the most power and influence are barely a footnote.

Also, communities of Christians will continue pursuing Jesus’ cause together the day after any and every election. Most of us will choose to vote thoughtfully, but our solidarity comes not primarily from the satisfaction of voting but from our common identity and cause with God’s people. For us the action is after election day, regardless of who was or wasn’t elected. We are concerned with the big picture, but most of us will give our best attention to the smaller places where mercy and justice can be pursued with and for those who share our zip code.

May God grant wisdom to our elected public servants. May God grant his church courage and faithfulness; may our skepticism and hope be rightly placed.

Michael Brown and the Discipline of Seeing

Since first learning about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO I’ve been thinking about different things I’ve wanted to write.  Parenting a newborn and some travel have kept me from blogging, which is probably not a bad thing: most of my initial thoughts have been articulated far better by others. If you’ve not done so, please check out these articles: The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland; Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin C Brown; Black People are not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crime by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Please leave a comment with additional reflections you’ve found helpful.

With all of the good, insightful, and prophetic things that have been said since Michael Brown’s tragic and completely needless death, there is one small thing I’d like to explore here. I have in mind those white people who were surprised by the slowly revealed details from Ferguson as well as the reactions of grief and rage from that community.

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It was impossible not to know about Robin Williams’ recent death. The outpouring of support, remembrance, and grief was everywhere. The conversations about depression and suicide that ensued were needed and important, a silver lining to a sad ending.

Credit: velo_city
Credit: velo_city

Williams died the day after the streets of Ferguson erupted in anger and fire, the “language of the unheard” as Rev. Dr. King would have explained to us. On that day and the ensuing days it was common to hear and read a version of this question: Why does the suicide of an actor command so much more of our collective attention than the murder of a young man and the lament of his community?

The question is entirely legitimate and just, though any expectation that the attention to these very different deaths could have played out any differently misses something true and wrong about America. In this country there have always been some lives that matter more than others. A white, male, celebrity like Williams occupies a place within our society that cannot be ignored. You couldn’t remain ignorant of his death even if you wanted to. Michael Brown, on the other hand, occupied a very different, almost invisible place. And yes, it’s true that Williams was a celebrity and so his death within a culture of celebrity-worshippers took on added, almost religious dimensions. But consider that even after Ferguson erupted in protest and even after the ugly facts of Brown’s death began to come to life, most white people had little understanding of the story, if they’d heard of it at all.

There’s nothing right about the death of a white actor taking precedent over the murder of another young, African American man, but there’s also nothing surprising about it. White America exists within a bubble which filters out the abuses and indignities suffered upon black and brown people. In the late 1950’s James Baldwin traveled to Charlotte, NC to document attempts at integration. He wrote, “I was told, several times, by white people, that ‘race relations’ there were excellent. I failed to find a single Negro who agreed with this, which is the usual story of ‘race relations’ in this country.” The same sentiment, with slightly different language, would be expressed by many white people today. Racial injustice is not something we think about because it’s not something we see.

If we’re honest, we’re OK with our blindness. It’s far easier to talk about Robin Williams than Michael Brown. After all, a celebrity’s death asks nothing of us while, were we to take actually see it, the epidemic of  alienation, incarceration, and murder of black men demands nothing short of a total rearrangement of the American way of life. A way of life that has benefitted some of us in tremendous ways. Better to remain blind than to give up our way of life.

Of course, this is not an option for those of us who are Christians. Jesus asked his followers, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” Well, the answer has too often been yes, but it doesn’t have to remain so. But if white Christians are to begin responding to injustice we must first develop the discipline of seeing.

What is a discipline of seeing? It begins by acknowledging that there is much that we from the majority culture will not naturally see. I recently heard Dr. Carl Ellis point out that much of the marginalization that is experienced by people of color is systemic and by default. It is a marginalization that is so tied to how our society works that it is impossible for some to avoid and almost impossible for others to see. Acknowledging that my experience of America is warped allows me to begin seeing more clearly how others experience this place and its prejudices.

Credit: Light Brigading
Credit: Light Brigading

A discipline of seeing compels me to seek new guides. I begin to understand that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t represent something aberrant but disturbingly normal. This realization, and thousands others like it, make plain the extent of my blindness. If I am to walk the narrow path in this newly-revealed reality I will need those who can point the way. Authors, pastors, and entire neighborhoods become voices I cannot live without if I am to avoid retreating into my former isolation. These women and men of color – all with distinct stories and perspectives, all standing outside the so-called privileges bestowed upon me – become the sources of wisdom I cannot do without.

As I begin to see more truthfully I can properly lament the death of a beloved celebrity while not allowing it to overshadow what is going down in Ferguson. That is, I’m able to grieve what is genuinely worthy of grief and not just what I’m told to feel badly about.

Theres a final thing about learning to see: the death of Michael Brown and the tumult that continues in Ferguson is quickly visible and important to those with eyes to see, but their sight is not limited to a series of events at a distance. A discipline of seeing means, that though my privilege works to blind me, I will notice how the injustices of Ferguson play out in my city and neighborhood. Michael Brown and Ferguson cannot become prominent but ultimately powerless symbols for those with eyes to see. Rather, the prejudices and pressures that are at work there must also be admitted to here.

Learning to see carries this great risk for those content with blindness: seeing leads us to grieve; seeing leads us to act. An enlightened sympathy for injustice at a distances bears no resemblance to Jesus’ expectation that his followers walk with those who suffer. The discipline of seeing allows me to grieve rightly a young man’s death a long ways away while stepping into the path of those same forces of death that even now wreak havoc on my neighbors.