After the release of the video documenting Laquan McDonald’s murder by a Chicago police officer, some clergy friends and I worked to pull together a prayer vigil at police headquarters. It was amazing to see hundreds of faith leaders and community members come out on a rainy night to pray for justice. The top photo is my friend Pastor Chris Harris and below is Michelle Dodson, our church’s associate pastor who prayed a powerful lament over our city.
I remember the days following September 11, 2001 more vividly than I do the infamous day itself. Or that’s how it seems to me now, a couple of days after the terrorist attacks in Paris. I read the columns and the memories and emotions of that other fall day come rushing back. I hear President François call the attacks an act of war, I hear him promise a merciless fight, and I can hear my own president then describing the attacks in Manhattan with similarly confident adjectives.
Tonight, waiting to board my flight just 48 hours after the Paris attacks, I read the first reports of the French warplanes that are now bombing Syrian villages. I remember watching the televised reports about my country’s similar retaliation in Afghanistan and wondering what I was supposed to feel as this ravaged country became the target of our collective wrath. I’m sitting on this plane, flying east over darkness broken regularly by small midwestern towns and I’m thinking about those warplanes, raining down fire on a similarly darkened landscape.
Right now. It’s happening right now.
In Lebanon families and friends are grieving their murdered loved ones, victims of a massive suicide attack the day before the attacks in Paris. There were not, as far as I can tell, any American skyscrapers or public monuments lit up in the colors of Lebanon’s flag in the days following the attack. Yet the French red, white, and blue were everywhere, a global response appropriate to our president’s assessment that the tragedy in Paris was an attack on the civilized world. Lebanon, it would seem, is not civilized enough to warrant our sympathetic outpouring. Or, more likely, we don’t see the Lebanese women and men who now grieve as being like us; we believe them to be different enough that our emotional response is categorically different. We ignore them.
This too feels eerily familiar. Almost 15 years ago we began preparing for two wars -wars that have never really ceased – because the victims of the September attacks warranted an unequivocal and ruthless response. We may not have initially known it, but it became clear as time passed that we were willing for tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis to die. For what? This has never been adequately explained to me.
Today, as in 2011, there are loud, powerful voices who demand vengeance. We are told that the only appropriate and honorable response is to make our enemies suffer. But can this be right? I’ve been to some funerals lately for young men in our city who were gunned down. At these funerals there are calls for justice and for peace, but there is something else too. There is grief, mourning, even wailing. There is lament and repentance for whatever role our own selfish apathy played in these horrible deaths.
A funeral deserve a dirge but it would appear that, once again, we’re opting for the drumbeat of war.
There is a connection between two people who have recently dominated headlines and news feeds: Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. It’s not the false equivalency between a transgender person and Ms Dolezal’s wrong-headed idea that she, a white woman, can identify as African American. Rather, the similarity that interests me is how these two individuals and their decisions have become the stories that matter.
In Ms Jenner’s case the narrative has generally been one of bravery, honesty, and even heroism. In contrast, Ms Dolezal has been portrayed as the villain: deceitful, manipulative, and potentially mentally unstable. Whiteness is what connects these two as their stories are elevated and made important by a predominately white media. In Ms Jenner the media found a privileged person whose radical decisions demand nothing of the beneficiaries of white supremacy. And in Ms Dolezal the media have the convenient opposite- a white person whose sins seem so strange and obvious that the ensuing reprimands risk no actual association. This particular white person can be ridiculed endlessly, her story deemed worthy of repeated news cycles because there is no concern that whiteness itself will be taken to task.
And so, in recent weeks, these two white people have been made ubiquitous as their stories seemingly require the media’s full attention and analysis. Ms Jenner became our example of bravery, a move which allows us to ignore that in America courage is most evident and most often required among those without the so-called privilege of white skin. With Ms Jenner as our hero we don’t have to consider how our own implicit biases and oppressive power are the reasons so many must be courageous in ways that will never be noticed or legitimized by our media. And with Ms Dolezal as our scapegoat we are off the hook for our less obvious racial sins. In contrast to her strange deception, our homogenous neighborhoods, segregated churches, and polite prejudices seem hardly worth acknowledging, much less confessing.
I don’t mean to imply that the issues raised by these two women’s decisions aren’t worth considering. Their public decisions are important and deserve compassionate critique. I doubt, however, that they are the issues most deserving of our attention and whether the ways which our white media frames these issues are legitimate and just. But should we expect anything different? Our white-washed society has always made it clear whose stories are worth knowing and whose need not be told. By accepting that these two people represent the most important stories of the moment, my own white life is made simpler, easier. And once again, black and brown people are made invisible, their stories of heroism and suffering deemed unimportant by a society and its media that care only for its(white)self.
Fear. This is what I saw in the video from McKinney, TX. Yes, fear in the eyes of the young women and men as the police arrived but, most evidently, fear in the police. Those with the badges and guns, with the authority of the state to justify their actions and cover their tracks- it was their voices and body language that betrayed the fear most plainly.
The police were afraid of these young women and men and they chased their black and brown bodies into the ground. It makes no sense. What can this be other than a sickness of spirit? What must be projected onto these children to justify such terror?
And then there is the young woman, pinned to the ground, the officer’s knee grinding into her back as his hand repeatedly forces her face into the grass. Surely she too feels fear; how could she not? But there is something else that comes through more clearly. There is defiance in her voice, courage in her body. She does not lay limp beneath this abusive power. She resists. She is brave.
This holy defiance is as old as this country. It is necessary because of this country.
The police officer’s fear is contagious. For many of us it is genetic, seemingly woven into the fabric of our white skin and privileged minds. We ignore it most of the time, telling ourselves that we are somehow uniquely immune to this country’s racist air. But it’s a lie and anything less than telling the truth about our complicity means that we are this brutal officer’s enablers.
We cannot be delicate about this.
The young woman’ defiance points the way forward. We hear it in her voice. We’ve seen it in the eyes of so many other young women and men. Fear need not have the final word. A mustard seed’s worth of faith is our starting point- the conviction that this will not be the end, that Justice himself will prevail.
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.
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 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.
Black 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.