On Monday my plane was taxiing out to the runway to take off at 8:05pm CT when the press conference announcing the Grand Jury outcome in Ferguson was taking place. Over the intercom, the flight attendant told us to switch our smart phones to airplane mode. I ignored him, furiously updating the Twitter feed of #Ferguson, through which I was able to follow the rambling, defensive speech of Prosecutor McColloch via the increasingly frustrated and despairing tweets of those watching. Even without hearing it directly, I could tell where this was going. The plane reached an altitude above the cell phone signal before McColloch had made the official announcement but it didn’t matter. I knew, and at thirty thousand feet above the country, traveling from Dallas to DC, I looked down out my window and tried to keep my heart from exploding.
On Tuesday I attended the #DCFerguson rally and march. Over one thousand of us gathered at Mt Vernon square and then marched in a two mile loop back into Chinatown, stopping traffic along the way. Most of the drivers seem nonplussed. Many opened their windows for high fives, lending their voice to our chants of “hands up, don’t shoot.” Metro bus drivers danced in their seats. Folks in apartment buildings we passed came out to their balconies and cheered us on. People at gyms got off the treadmills and stood jumping up and down at the windows. We passed a second floor boxing club where the boxers with sweaty hair plastered to their foreheads lifted big red gloved fists out the windows, grinning big. It was one of the most moving marches I’ve ever been a part of: nonviolent, diverse, angry and frustrated but also loving and hopeful, with a spirit of camaraderie. Some unfairly heckled the police officers that accompanied our march to ensure public order, but most didn’t. At the end hundreds streamed onto the steps of the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery, the rest of us facing them as final speeches were offered. “We must funnel our anger and frustration in constructive ways!” shouted the march organizer. “We must act in a unified way, putting aside petty differences!” The crowd cheered. And then, to honor Mike Brown’s family, we linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.” It was cheesy in the most wonderful way. It made me love my city even more. Justice is love in the public square.
On Facebook and Twitter, there has been a severe backlash against those protesting in solidarity with those in Ferguson. As noted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks these things, there has been a steady increase in hate group activity in the U.S. since 2000. This increase is no doubt linked to the changing demographics in the U.S., with whites poised to lose their majority status by the time the next census comes around. But the election of President Obama fueled white supremacy. According to SPLC: “The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, skyrocketed following the election of President Obama in 2008 – rising 813 percent, from 149 groups in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012.” While that number decreased in 2013, I have no doubt that the racial tensions resulting from the shooting of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson and the way in which the criminal justice system handled it, and the nationwide protests responding to these incidents, will bring those numbers back up. I preached about these birth pangs of a new America two years ago, and those forces of hate pushing back against the upending of the status quo, paraphrasing Dr. King by saying “hate anywhere is a threat to love everywhere.” Some of the comments on Twitter expose such callous dehumanization of blacks generally, and all those supporting the nonviolent protesters calling for justice. Some advocate violence. Here are just two examples of many:
I’ve seen this kind of rhetoric/attitude countless times in my work overseas in conflict zones. This is the same way some Burmans speak about Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. This is the way some Hutus spoke about Tutsis before the genocide, the way Jews were described in Europe before the Holocaust, the way folks like Bill Maher speak about Muslims. This dehumanization is what justifies and perpetuates institutional and overt violence against an entire group of people.
(by the by, here’s a great plea to white allies about how to respond to those in their Facebook feeds who are expressing one of these kinds of arguments, written by Spectra: Stop Unfriending. Of course, some folks with very extremist views just aren’t worth engaging. You won’t get anywhere. But many folks should be engaged).
But this isn’t just about hate. This is about justice. This is about a system that consistently treats black bodies and lives as if they are less precious. This is about a prevalent social and legal norm that sees and treats young black men as a threat to the state and to the white community. The results are lethal. As a I wrote in my piece last year after the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, “[Justice systems] are reflections of the broken nature of humans that established them. This despite the ways the criminal justice process itself tries to mitigate the worst impulses of human nature by ensuring ethical standards, due process, presumed innocence, checks/balances/appeals. But human nature is persistent, and sin is pernicious.” Here’s just one statistic among the many: whites consume and deal drugs more frequently than blacks, but blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for so doing, and go to prison far more often (see here). Of the more than 200,000 people serving time in state prisons for drug offenses in 2011, blacks made up 45 percent and whites comprised just 30 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is just one statistic among many, many, many that show how the justice system is not colorblind. And as a result, more black males are imprisoned than ever before, and then, stigmatized as criminals with felonies on their records, they are stripped of basic civil rights — to vote, serve on juries, face nondiscrimination in employment, etc. They have power stripped from them. This constitutes a “new Jim Crow,” as argued by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander. The efforts to restrict voter rights targeting minority communities further perpetuates this suppression.
Recently someone in my Facebook circle asked me: doesn’t the fact that blacks constitute approximately 14% of the nationwide population and nearly 40% of the incarcerated population indicate that they are more criminal? The statistic above about drug use disputes that, as have various studies by organizations like the Justice and Policy Institute, which indicate that whites commit crimes at similar rates but are arrested and imprisoned less often, or face lesser sentences than minorities for the exact same crimes for which they are convicted. One can’t help but be cynical when thinking about how many rich white folks on Wall Street got away with committing egregious crimes affecting millions around the globe. Mass murders, mass shootings, parents who kill their children … these are all examples of crimes that whites commit more often than blacks in this country. No race is inherently more violent than any other. The system just treats them this way. It’s a story as old as time, described in the very first chapters of Genesis.
Finally, there is the question of police treatment of minority communities generally, and young black men particularly. Several folks have pointed out the discrepancy between the police response this past weekend to 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, who was holding a toy gun and was shot to death almost immediately by arriving police, versus the police response to 63 year old Joseph Houseman who refused to drop his (not toy) rifle and kept threatening passers by with it. The police negotiated with him for forty minutes before successfully confiscating his rifle. He received it back the next day and was not arrested nor charged. This is just one example. There are many more. Can you understand why one would feel there is a double standard in our country?
The case of Mike Brown has illustrated these painful realities. It’s clear that Mike Brown committed a crime by smoking pot and shoplifting cigs (which, I would like to point out, I did both of in my teens. I also copped an attitude with Edina cops). What happened on his walk home, however, is much less clear. The testimony of police officer Darren Wilson is at odds with many eyewitness accounts (note that 16 of 18 witnesses say Brown raised his arms when Wilson started firing. Wilson fired at least six shots. Is that minimal use of force?), and without a trial he was never subjected to cross-examination (Mike’s companion that day, Darion Johnson, gives an account of events strikingly contradictory to Wilson’s). Looking through the mountains of testimony provided the Grand Jury, what took place that night remains frustratingly unclear.
Some have argued to me that because Mike Brown broke a law by shoplifting and charged at the cop, he deserved what he had coming to him. Well, first, shoplifting doesn’t deserve the death penalty. Second, I’m not convinced that Mike Brown did charge at Wilson, initiating the scuffle between them. Several witness accounts say Wilson initiated the attack. There’s just enough conflicting testimony to leave me with reasonable doubt. That’s why I, like so many others, hoped for a transparent trial to be able to better discern what exactly happened that night and whether Wilson was in the right to shoot an unarmed Mike Brown multiple times, twice in the head. When someone dies, I want a thorough investigation and accounting. That was denied. Maybe Mike Brown did attack Wilson, initiating the scuffle. In that case, Wilson may have been entirely in the right to defend himself and my heart breaks for the threats and difficulties he’s faced since that day (which he shouldn’t face either way. This isn’t, after all, about Wilson and Brown — this is about something much bigger. Demonizing Wilson just distracts from the larger issue. We’re all caught up in the same system that perpetuates these kinds of events). But we just. don’t. know. That’s what’s excruciating. Moreover, given what I already know about the justice system being weighted against blacks, it’s hard not to assume that the process favored Wilson. McColloch’s apparent role in guiding the Grand Jury toward a decision of non-indictment and his history of police cover-up, and the failure of Wilson and the police to follow protocol that night and the hours of briefings with Wilson that remain unrecorded leave me skeptical, at best.
We can also see in Wilson’s testimony and the way in which whites sympathetic to Wilson have been describing Brown illustration of the phenomenon of defining black men in ways that dehumanize them. Wilson described Brown as demonic, as a Hulk Hogan compared to a 5 year old Wilson (they are roughly the same size — both 6’4″, 200+ lbs, MB had a few extra pounds on DW but I wouldn’t call DW a small guy). One sympathetic to Wilson’s account described Brown to me as acting in an “uncivilized” manner. Compare this with the accounts of his family, friends, and community members as generally a quiet, respectful, and silly kid who had been helping family members load their car that morning and was supposed to start college later that week (Johnson’s testimony of Mike’s behavior at the convenience store describes him in an unflattering way, however, even if his description of Mike’s behavior on the walk home portrays him as victim to Wilson’s provocation/aggression). The contradictory descriptions are striking. Where is the truth? The media spotlight on the violence and looting being inflicted by a minority of protesters in Ferguson, activities which have been condemned forcefully by other protesters, only furthers the stereotypes of black men as more violent (despite the many examples of whites looting and burning cars and businesses, often in response to sporting events).
Mike Brown’s case illustrates these realities, but Ferguson is not just in Missouri. Ferguson is everywhere in this country. This not an isolated instance.
On Tuesday I urged my church community to participate in that night’s march “because Trayvon, because Mike Brown, because Tamir, because Jesus.” In his ministry, Jesus taught his followers to see those who were being treated as less than human by the systems of domination: the prostitutes, the immigrants, the poor — those who were demonized by the privileged classes as somehow a threat or unworthy, and so exploited and abused. For challenging the status quo of the political/social/economic systems of his time, Jesus was in turn demonized by the privileged classes, and then unfairly sentenced and executed by the state as a criminal. How can one not see what’s taking place right now through the perspective of the cross? This is all about the cross, through which we see how our ideals of love, justice, and truth are treated by worldly powers. As a follower of Jesus, I am taught to love by seeing those hurt by the powers and principalities, the ones the world treats as expendable, and to act in response … to comfort, heal abuses, and to challenge … maybe even to overturn a few tables in provocative, nonviolent acts of public disruption (Matt 21:12). Black lives matter, despite what the system and the comfortable privileged say to the contrary. The Truth matters. That’s why I’m out there.
I’ll let Mike Brown’s last words take out this blog post: