Saturday, March 07, 2015

Selma: Then and Now

Today (March 7) thousands of people, including several members of Congress and President Obama, have gathered in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, in which thousands of courageous individuals marched 50 miles demanding Voting Rights for Black people in Alabama. On this day 50 years ago a much younger John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette led a group of about 600 folks lined up two by two over the Edmund Pettis Bridge leading out of Selma. Before they could even cross the bridge, they were met by a phalanx of
local and state police officers in military gear and on horse backs, who sprayed tear gas and beat them with clubs, literally driving them back over the bridge. The march had been organized after a young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was beaten to death by a police officer during a protest for voting rights in a nearby town. That day, which came to called “Bloody Sunday,” brought national attention to Selma. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went on television and called on people from outside the South, particularly clergy, to come to Selma to support their cause, and three weeks later, 8000 people marched over the bridge, and the same police who had beaten folks three weeks earlier, were now ordered by the state and federal governments to protect the marchers on their walk.

While anyone who has seen the recent movie “Selma” knows the outline I just shared, there is so much more to the story, then and now. Eighteen months ago , while on a Civil Rights bus tour led by Dr. Todd Allen, I was in Selma and met Rev. Fredrick Reese, a pastor, school teacher and local organizer, who had been leading marches demanding the right to vote to the Selma City Hall for years before it came to national attention. Our tour through Selma was led Mrs. Joanne Bland, who when she was 14 years old joined hundreds of other young people who march to the court house demanding their parents’ right to vote.
We saw Brown Chapel where people gathered as they prepared to march on Bloody Sunday. We walked over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, drove the 50 miles between Selma and Montgomery, and stood in front of the state capital in Montgomery where Dr. King proclaimed:

I know you are asking today “How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long because truth pressed to earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Five months later the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, assuring all people, regardless of race, the right to vote.

Over the past three years, I have been writing a book (due to be published this fall – title yet to be
determined) telling the stories of White people in U.S. history who worked alongside People of Color
for racial justice. Two of the stories I have written involve Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, two of the hundreds of White people who joined their Black brothers and sisters in Selma. During the evening following King’s stirring Montgomery speech, Viola Liuzzo was killed by members of the KKK as she was driving between Selma and Montgomery after having driven some marchers back to Selma so they could begin their trek home. On our trip to Selma, we also paused at a memorial to Viola Liuzzo, which was erected at the spot where her car was driven off the road and she died. Having spent weeks learning and writing her story, for me pausing at the monument was a moving and solemn moment.

In my research I also reviewed the story of Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister who was beaten by who was beaten by some angry White thugs before the march began. In a recent  New York Times article,  Rev Clark Olsen, who was with James Reeb the night of his death, and who also was beaten but survived, shared his reflections of that night and of the march itself. Rev Olsen struggled for years with “survivor’s guilt, ” but also recognized that racism was even at work in the way the country, and especially President Johnson, responded to Reeb’s death. While the march was precipitated by the death of a Black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, it took the death of a White man, James Reeb, to get the nation as a whole to act. Following Jackson’s death, there was no national media coverage, but Reeb’s death was front page news, and precipitated marches all over the country and over fifty phone calls to the White House demanding the president act in some way. Shortly after Reeb’s death, President Johnson went before Congress to propose the passing of the Voting Rights Act. In his speech he mentioned Rev. Reeb, but not Mr. Jackson.

Many Black activists today are rightly critical of White activists who use their White privilege to call attention to their efforts to fight racism. Despite the legitimacy of this charge, as a White person at times I have found that privilege is thrust upon me without my consent or knowledge. So too James Reeb; he did not ask for this attention, nor did Viola Liuzzo, but unfortunately it took their deaths to wake White people across the nation to the horrors of racism. Unfortunately, not much has changed in fifty years. The “Black Lives Matter” movement that has emerged following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has come about because just as Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death was not valued as much as James Reeb’s, so too the deaths of young Black men today too often don’t spawn the outrage that the death of White folks do.

The march from Selma to Montgomery addressed issues that are still as relevant in 2015 as they were in 1965. Like in Selma, today there are thousands of ordinary people working and marching for racial justice. Like in Selma, today there are public officials who need to be confronted with policies and laws that dehumanize People of Color. Like in Selma, today the media places higher value on White lives than Black lives. Like in Selma, today the struggle continues, as we trust in Dr. King’s vision that “the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice.”

[Photos by the author and from Google images]

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Philly's Own Ferguson

Last night I attended a community meeting at Catalyst for Change Church in West Philadelphia entitled “Philadelphia After Ferguson: A Meeting to Discuss Policing, Politics and Perception”. An impressive group of leaders including representatives of several activist groups, an editor for the Philadelphia Daily News, and representatives of the SEPTA police and the Philadelphia police Department made up a panel that was supposed to engage one another and the crowd in a dialogue. However, it quickly became evident that the event should have been entitled, “Philadelphia’s Own Ferguson: The Case of Brandon Tate Brown.”

Brandon Tate Brown was a 26 year old Black man who was shot by a police officer in the head on Dec 15, 2014. The name of the officer involved has not yet been released nor a copy of a video that was taken of the incident. Brown’s mother, Tanya Brown Dickerson, spoke to the packed sanctuary of several hundred people about the death of her son, and described the ordeal she went through, even trying to find out what had happened to him. She told how throughout the night she called her son’s cell phone and did not learn of his death until it was reported on the news the next morning. She asked for information about the officer who killed her son and a copy of a videotape that was taken of the incident. 

Then the moderator and media personality Chris Norris, instructed the crowd that the proceedings would follow a question and answer format designed to encourage dialogue among the panelists and the gathered crowd. However, almost immediately a group of Tanya Dickerson’s supporters began demanding that Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel “release the tape” and the name of the officer. Bethel responded in bureaucratic-ese saying the “investigation was ongoing.” He apologized to Ms. Dickerson that her son’s death had not been reported directly to her by the police (instead of the morning news), but beyond that made no promises to meet her requests. This only enraged her supporters more, and what was supposed to be a “discussion” turned into a shouting match.

As the event continued, the embedded racism in both the conduct of the police and the media became clear. While the name of the officer is being protected by the police department and the police union, Brandon Tate’s name and past criminal record were in the news even before his mother knew he had been shot. While police officers are able to hide behind the “blue code’ where no one reports a corrupt officer, community members can be arrested for obstruction of justice if they don’t “snitch” on a neighbor who has committed a crime. Kelvyn Anderson, president of the Police Advisory Board, a community group supposedly established to review such incidents, has gotten no information and told how it took over a year to get a meeting with the Police Commissioner when he first was hired. Thus the anger and frustration of the mostly Black crowd was palpable and understandable.

Yet I also don’t think much of anything productive was accomplished. There was a lot more shouting than listening, with members of the Brown advocacy group shouting over panelists even when they agreed with them. Moreover, the organizers of the event either were unable or unwilling to rein in the proceedings and abide by the very ground rules they had set. Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME and a leader in POWER, at one point compared the event to the SRC meetings where people come and vent and nothing changes. People who supposedly were in support of each other’s positions were interrupting and shouting over one another. After nearly two hours, the pastor of Catalyst for Change, called the meeting to a close, and surprisingly everyone abided by his call for a moment of silence in memory of victims like Brandon Tate Brown, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others. Then the meeting ended and I doubt anyone went home any wiser or feeling heard or satisfied.

While the process was supposed to be a question and answer dialogue, I was struck by how few people actually knew how to ask good questions. Most of the questions asked were rhetorical; that is, they were statements disguised as questions, and even when someone tried to address a question, there was no willingness to hear anything other than the answer the questioner wanted, which in most cases  were details about the Brandon Tate Brown case the police were not willing to release. As a result, instead of engendering greater understanding, the proceedings hardened people’s positions and raised defensiveness and distrust.

As one of the few White people in the room who was not a reporter or a police officer, I listened and watched. I sat next to a young East Asian man from the neighborhood, who at one point asked me if I thought he should try to speak; I rolled my eyes with a “good luck.” Several others tried to get a chance at the mike  and also went unheard.The few who were able to speak pointed out that the local community had a responsibility as well, and that depending on politicians to address all problems was shirking their own responsibility. Thus, I think there were far more perspectives present than the few that made themselves heard, and that was unfortunate.

I have thought and written a lot about what it means to be a White ally in recent years, and as I sat there last night, I wondered what it meant to be a White ally in that context. In that contentious setting my role as an ally was very unclear. The injustice is real, and the anger, frustration, grief and fear many Black people hold in many neighborhoods are understandable and real. As one of the police officers on the panel acknowledged, while violent crime has gone down over the last several years, mistrust of the police has sky-rocketed. Last night that mistrust  was evident, and to be honest I don’t know how they can get it back if “Philadelphia After Ferguson” is any indication.

[Pictures taken by the author; and

Saturday, January 17, 2015

MLK D.A.R.E – Why I Will Be Marching On Monday

On Monday, January 19 POWER, the interfaith social justice organization of which I am a part, along with several other social justice and labor organizations have organized a march called MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment. The march will focus on racial justice in three areas: education, employment and criminal justice. We will be demanding a fair and full funding formula for public education and local control of our school board (which has been under partial state control since 2001); we will be demanding a raise in the minimum wage to $15/hour and the right to form unions; and we will be calling for an independent citizens review board to work with the police and an end to “stop and frisk” tactics used by police. We are expecting at least 10,000 people from across the metropolitan area to participate. I intend to be one of them, and those of you who live near or in the city, I urge you to be there too.

This march is an extension of the many actions that have occurred over the past couple months since the decisions to not indict in the highly publicized  Ferguson and Staten Island cases. However, this march also marks the coming together of several organizations that have been working for a much longer time on their own campaigns and that recognize we share the same struggle for equity and fairness for all, just in different arenas. Further it recognizes that there is an ongoing process of dehumanization against poor people and people of color occurring in this country, and that the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not isolated events, but symptomatic of a deep and pernicious ongoing process of injustice. Furthermore the march recognizes the deep divides between the privileged and the oppressed, the haves and the have-nots. As the “Call to Conscience” statement written for the march states:

“Philadelphia is more divided along race, class and gender lines than at any time in recent memory. We are two cities, one of privilege and wealth, the other of poverty, police brutality, low and poverty wages, collapsed schools and collapsing neighborhoods.”

The march also recognizes that the memory of Dr. King itself has itself been sanitized, in that we remember him only as a great servant of oppressed people. However, as the recent movie "Selma" so clearly depicts, Dr. King was also  a modern day prophet whose words not only challenged the powers of his time, but speak to the powers of our era as well. As the “Call to Conscience” also says:

“It is time to break the silence about what Dr. King called the triple evils: racism, poverty and militarism. These forms of violence, indeed terror, exist in a vicious cycle, deteriorating hope, progress and opportunity, as a result of humankind's depravity toward its own.”

I am among those who are privileged racially, educationally and economically for whom this society “works” in terms of more than providing for my basic needs. However, over 40 years ago I first gained a glimpse of racial injustice as I walked the segregated streets of Durham, NC where I was attending college. Since that time I have sought to apply my mind, my heart and most importantly my body in working for the beloved community about which Dr. King spoke so eloquently. Though I am continually reminded I can choose NOT to care and be involved, over those 40+ years it no longer feels or seems like a choice I could ever make. I have developed friendships and heard stories of people who have suffered under the racial inequities that our society’s institutions propagate. These stories and relationships have worked their way into my soul such that I see their liberation as part of my own.

However altruistic and noble this may sound, there is a more selfish reason I am going. At a recent anti-racism training sponsored by POWER, I learned about a Zulu greeting that in English means “I see you.” And the response that is given is “Then I am here.” In the context of the workshop, this greeting was used to illustrate that some people in our society are not seen, that their needs and desires are invisible when it comes public policies regarding education, health care, employment, criminal justice, housing and the like. However, as I have reflected on that phrase, I have taken it also to mean something very personal for myself.

Over the years I have attended many trainings on anti-racism and have involved myself in organizations headed by people of color working on reconciliation and justice issues. However, because I look like the middle class, white male that I am, many times I have been challenged by people of color for my lack of empathy and understanding, and criticized for actions and decisions that people who look like me have done. In my mind I understand why this is so. Despite the election of a Black president, and the modest advances by people of color in corporate and public institutions, our society is still largely dominated and run by White guys like me. Furthermore, often the women and people of color who do get to those positions of power must play by the White man’s rules in order to get there. For instance, many, including me, have been critical of Pres. Obama for not speaking about more forcefully and consistently on racial issues, but could he have gotten to where he is, if he had? Conventional wisdom would suggest not.

So I get it – White guys who look like me and the institutions they run, are responsible for the inequities that exist – not solely, but largely. But I am not one of “those guys”. I am an ally and in every way I can think of I try to be an ally in solidarity with those who struggle against injustice. So, in a very selfish way, I am marching Monday, because I want to be “seen” as an ally and not a perpetrator of injustice.

Author Parker Palmer, recently said in an interview on a podcast  I heard that the most radical thing we can do is to show up with everything and as everything that we are. That is what I intend to do. I am deeply aware of my racist tendencies and behavior patterns, and the privileges I enjoy, and the fact that I am ignorant of other things I do that perpetrate the racism I abhor. I am all those things, and as that person I am going to show up and march with others Black, White, Latino, Asian and Native American and by our presence seek to be and work for the beloved community for which we all long.

If you are able, I hope you will join me.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Am I Crazy or What? Reflections from a Trip to a Gun Show on the Day Two Officers Died

On the Saturday before Christmas, Bryan Miller and I attended the Philadelphia Gun Show in Oaks, PA. Bryan is the executive director of Heeding God's Call (HGC), a faith-based organization dedicated to gun violence prevention. A major focus of HGC's work is to  attempt to influence gun shop owners to sign a code of conduct, which if enacted can reduce the practice of straw purchasing, a process by which legally purchased guns find their way to the illegal gun market. Illegal guns are almost always guns used in violent crimes committed in communities.

However, we did not attend this particular gun show to call attention to our cause but rather to learn a bit about the gun culture that continually resists any common sense efforts to change laws and adopt policies that would help reduce the presence of illegal guns used in violent crimes in our communities. I asked Bryan to go with me because of his vast knowledge of guns and gun culture from his 20+ years as a leader in the gun violence prevention movement. To say the least our experience at the Philadelphia Gun Show was both illuminating and chilling.

As we walked into the convention center, we were met by two police officers who were checking to make sure that we were not bringing loaded weapons into the facility. When I said "We have no weapons" one of the officers quipped: "Well make sure you come out with some!" I found this to be a jarring reminder of how deeply guns are embedded in our culture, and a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Imagine a building the size of two football fields with long tables running the length of the field. Then picture that on those tables laid side by side are every kind of firearm imaginable: tiny handguns, pistols of all shapes, automatic rifles, double-barreled shotguns, antique rifles and even high powered military style machine guns and rifles. This is what we encountered as we entered the convention hall. Now imagine that the aisles between the tables are jammed with white males from ages 10-75. There were very few women, and most were behind concession tables, and out of the thousands of people we passed while we were there, I only noticed two persons of color. As two middle aged white guys in blue jeans and baseball caps, Bryan and I fit right in. Even so, I felt like I had entered a strange space, where everyone looked like me but spoke and thought in an entirely different language. I understood the words, but they made no sense to me.

We mostly just walked, looked, and asked the vendors about their wares. Occasionally I picked up a
weapon and held it in my hand. I was surprised by the weight; these were not the toys of my youth when we played cops and robbers. We came across guns colored pink, a clear effort to attract the female customer, an apparently growing clientele for the gun industry. In addition to guns there were tables dedicated to other accessories including targets with life size replicas of various kinds of haunting figures (thugs, terrorists, thieves), hunting and military apparel, ammunition and books. In the middle of one section was located a booth, advertising itself as the Tea Party filled anti-Obama, anti-liberal and pro-gun propaganda and bumper stickers. However, the most disturbing was a sniper rifle we saw, which had the capacity and accuracy to knock out the side of a building from several thousand feet (see this gun at the top of the page). All of this was on sale for those who had the cash
and could pass the minimal criminal background check.

While I did not see or hear anything that was overtly racist, the clientele was at least 95% white males. I can't imagine that there would too many people of color who would feel comfortable in a setting where there were thousands of white guys with guns.for three weeks . Furthermore, there was nothing I heard or saw that indicated any awareness or empathy for the demonstrations that had been going on since the grand jury non-decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Moreover, there was a sense in which what we were experiencing was entirely normal for those gathered there, and that any effort to engage folks in a conversation about responsible gun legislation to reduce gun violence would not be tolerated. I kiddingly said told Bryan that we should set up our Heeding God's Call booth right across from the NRA Recruiting booth. Bryans only response was to point out that the location I had indicated was close to the exit, which we would need when we got run out.

After about an hour we had taken in all we could stomach and headed home. When I expressed interest in visiting a future gun show, Bryan told me I was on my own from then on. I get it; he has suffered the loss of a brother to gun violence and has been the object of voluminous hate mail from pro-gun folks. To even go one time was a personal sacrifice and a gesture of friendship. He has no need to see any more than he has.

After dropping Bryan off I thought my gun experience for the day was done, but I was mistaken. That very afternoon two NYPD police officers were murdered by Ismaaiyl Brinsley,  who claimed his action was in retaliation for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. As I watched the news that evening, I was reminded yet again that no one, not even armed and trained police officers, are immune from gun violence. News commentators and op-ed pieces focused on the connections to the post Ferguson/Garner demonstrations, and conservative commentators such as Fox News sought to place the blame for the murders on NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio, Rev. Al Sharpton, Atty. General Eric Holder and President Obama, even though each of them had repeatedly and consistently condemned any acts of violence during the demonstrations.

Yet, no one asked about the gun that was used. It was as if violence and the presence of a gun in the hands of troubled young killer were givens. Two innocent men, who happened to be police officers, died because we as a culture have failed to fully question those givens.  A few days later the NY Times reported  that the gun in fact was purchased illegally in Atlanta, GA thru a straw purchasing process. Laws regulating the purchase of guns in Georgia are far more lax than in New York, so it makes sense that he would not have gotten the gun in New York. Pro-gun advocates take incidents like this as justification for people becoming more fully armed; i.e. to protect themselves. That logic goes out the window when we remember that the deceased officers were armed and trained. Perhaps we need to reframe the issue and ask why a gun would be so available to commit such a heinous act.
It was an interesting juxtaposition to experience in one day: a gun show celebrating our gun-crazed culture and the deadly reality of that culture's effect on human life. I have refrained until now from writing about this day partly to allow the funerals of the two officers to take place. However I have also waited because I have been trying to make sense of why we continue to think we can literally shoot our way out of gun violence. Many conservative critics and law enforcement organizations  want to pin the blame on the post-Ferguson demonstrations against police brutality (and obviously that played a part in the killer's mind), but in my mind such discussion deflects attention from the larger cultural mentality we have that the way to resolve tensions is by resorting to violence, especially with firearms.

As I have gotten older, I have come to trust my instincts, such that one principle I have adopted is "If something looks crazy, feels crazy, sounds crazy, it is probably crazy." Our inability as a nation to constructively address our fascination, even addiction, to guns and violence seems crazy to me. Yet my visit to the gun show soberingly reminds me that there are many people, especially white guys who look like me, who think I'm the crazy one for even considering such things.

So I am caused to wonder....Am I crazy or is this whole scenario a little bit too insane?

[Pictures by Drick Boyd]

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The God of Interruption - An Advent Meditation in the Light of Ferguson

For me, the period of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is usually a kind of personal sacred time. Each year I begin this five week season by making a list of all the people, events and things in the past year for which I am thankful. Then I go thru Advent with a sense of yearning, anticipation and renewed hope for a better world. Advent then culminates with the celebration of Christmas with its mixed focus on the birth of Jesus, the coming together of family, and the sharing of presents. Then a week later we welcome a new year and I write down hopes for the year to come. I began this practice nearly 40 years ago when I was in college  and it has served as sort of liminal time where I move from one year to the next, from being fatigued and doubting to having a renewed hope and focus for the future.

However, this year my Thanksgiving to New Year’s sacred time has taken on a different feel. Two days before Thanksgiving the decision was announced that Officer Darrin Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. A week later a similar announcement was made regarding the officers responsible for choking and killing Eric Garner. Almost immediately demonstrations erupted around the country. Die-ins were held in select shopping malls on Black Friday. In cities from east to west groups of young people marched with hands held high signs saying “Don’t Shoot,” “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.” Here in Philadelphia there have been marches that interrupted the city’s Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, a die-ins at major intersections during rush hour and following a Philadelphia Eagles game, a service of the Seven Last Words of Black people, and numerous marches throughout the city. Even larger gatherings have occurred in New York and Washington bringing attention to this issue on both a local and national scale.

While I have not participated in any of these marches or demonstrations, I have watched them closely and have been a part of numerous conversations both formal and informal. In these conversations there have been a wide range of emotions expressed from anger to guilt to confusion. Many of my white friends have wondered where and how and whether they should fit in the demonstrations. Others have wondered where the demonstrations will lead and what if any changes will come about because of them.  Some media commentators have focused on the few instances of violence and have questioned whether demonstrators  are “hurting their cause" by interrupting normal activities and generally causing disruption. To be sure in many ways at this point the demonstrations appear to more about expressing anger and frustration at police brutality and more generally a unjust criminal justice system, than calling for concrete specific change.

However, as I have studied the history of social movements, and particularly the Civil Rights Movement, what appears in hindsight to have been a clear, focused effort toward social change was at the time it occurred often chaotic, controversial and confusing. For that reason, I share the demonstrators’ anger and frustration, and at the same time I have hope that emotion can be channeled into concrete action for positive social change. However, if history teaches us anything, that process will be haphazard, confusing, frustrating and filled with stops and starts. Thus it will require clear leadership and perseverance over a long haul.

Coincidentally as I have been going thru my "sacred time," the demonstrations have given me a renewed appreciation for the disruptive nature of the birth of Jesus in his time. The Christmas story we hear usually focuses on a mother, father and a child born in a barn accompanied by angels and wise men. However a part of the story often overlooked is the social chaos that ensued because of his birth. According to the gospel of Matthew, when King Herod realized a child-king was being born in his midst, he ordered mass infanticide in hopes of killing his would-be adversary;  the people of the land were terrorized. As a counterpoint to Herod’s action in Luke’s Gospel when Mary learns of her pregnancy, she sings a song which in part said:

God has brought down rulers from their thrones 
but has lifted up the humble.
 God has filled the hungry with good things, 
but sent the rich away empty.

Then when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple a few days after his birth, the prophetess Anna and the prophet Simeon proclaimed the child was the harbinger of a new age..

The birth of Jesus, while at one level benign and blessed, at the same time set in motion a process of significant change. Contrary to the image of a silent blessed night, the birth of Jesus was accompanied by violence, chaos and fear, as well as hope for a better day. At the heart of the Christian story is a God who enters history for the purpose of interrupting and disrupting the status quo in order to bring hope and justice to hurting and oppressed people.

Angela Glover Blackwell, the CEO of Policy Link, an organization dedicated to promoting equitable and sustainable economic development in low income communities, grew up in St. Louis and recently spoke about the events in Ferguson over the past few weeks. Like Black people in nearby Ferguson, Glover as a child remembered being treated as a second class citizen because of her skin color. Reflecting on recent events in light of Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, she suggested that the demonstrations are a sign that people have hope. When people have hope and their expectations are not met, they get angry and act out. Thus, while recent events may appear on the surface to be chaotic and at times even violent, Blackwell believes they are a sign that people want better and are willing to speak up and work for it.

In the same way, the birth of Jesus was a sign of hope for his time and for ages to come. Perhaps in interrupting and disrupting our normally festive Christmas season, these demonstrations remind us that God is again breaking in to move us to work for a society where race and class are no longer the determining factor as to who is treated fairly and humanely, and who is not. They are a sign that people of faith and conscience, working together can and must fight to create a world where the lion and the lamb can lay down together and where the young black man and the white police officer can achieve reconciliation at a table of mutual respect, common concern and equitable justice.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The Meaning of Ferguson for White Folks

Over a week has passed since the announcement was made that Ferguson police officer Darrin Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of Michael Brown. Over the last week there have been demonstrations in Ferguson and cities around the country protesting the non-indictment and its relationship to police brutality, a racially discriminatory criminal justice system and other forms of institutional racism. Many articles, blogs and TV commentators have reported these events and others observers have sought to analyze the meaning of these events as they relate to the state of Black America and racism in this country. While the St. Louis Grand Jury did not indict, the U.S. Justice Department has initiated its own investigation into the event. Moreover, there has been a vigorous discussion and even debate among Black Americans over how to interpret these events. One topic that has been noticeably absent in these discussions is the meaning of Ferguson for white folks.

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, David Brooks, the respected NY Times columnist participated in his weekly National Public Radio discussion on the political issues of the previous week and said this about the reaction to Ferguson: 

“[President Obama in his reaction to Ferguson has shown] the ways we're still living with legacy of the civil rights movement - in that era - and the ways times have changed. The civil rights movement was as clear as you get to a right versus wrong issue as you get in domestic politics.

Now when we talk about racial matters, we're dealing with a variety of subjects - the legacy of racism, the problems we have with our sentencing, disappearance of working-class jobs, family structure - and to me what's happened is that racial issues have become embroiled in a whole series of very tricky domestic issues. And so what was once a pretty clear right versus wrong moral cause has become a moral cause, but much more ambiguous …” [emphasis mine]

Brooks’ comments reflects a common perception among most White Americans that during the Civil Rights Era the issues of racial justice were clear cut, but now it is much harder to sift out racism from other domestic issues. Moreover implied in Brooks’ comments is the idea that in many ways we should be past all these “racial matters.” Yet, had we been in Montgomery in 1955 or Little Rock in 1957 or Selma in 1965, these “racial matters” were equally entwined then as now with “domestic issues” like economics, education, the right to vote, and the nature of culture. Looking back the issues may have seemed to be a case of “clear right versus wrong,” but not for the folks who lived during those events.

Yet, for many Black Americans, the issues are still clear. If the Pew Research Center is to be believed there is a huge gap in how Blacks and Whites interpret these events. In August of this year Pew reported that 80% of Blacks polled thought Ferguson raised important racial issues, while only 37% of Whites thought race had anything to do with Ferguson. For Black folks the issues are clear; it is White folks who don’t seem to see things clearly. The gap in perception itself reveals that Whites and Blacks are living in two Americas with two widely divergent views of the deeper meaning of these events.

As uncomfortable as it may be, we who are White must recognize that in many ways we are Darren published testimony before the Grand Jury Darren Wilson expressed his fear of Michael Thomas likening himself to “a five year old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Darren Wilson is not a small man. He is 6’4”, and an armed police officer.  Yet in his fear he shot Michael Brown 12 times; how could not that literally be overkill? But more to the point, if I am honest, I have to admit that I understand his fear. Though I was raised by progressively minded parents and consider myself to be strongly anti-racist, deep in my psyche I have absorbed the image of the scary black man, and the irrational notion that young Black men are to be feared. A former teacher of mine, Dr. Charles Tillman referred to white racism as a form of mental illness; this deep fear is a clear example of how sick some of us White folks can be, and we don’t even know it.
Wilson, and the all-white Ferguson police force is White America. We would like to think that Officer Wilson and events in Ferguson, are an anomaly, but they are not. In his

The political leadership of Ferguson is America, too. In a town that is 70% Black, only one councilperson is Black, and the police force is all White. While we have a Black president and many other political leaders of color, when we look at the Congress, state governors and political leadership of the nation, the percentage of White leaders far outpaces the number of Whites in the country. And just like David Brooks, most of these leaders just don’t get that racism is a problem. More than that, the systems in place, be they criminal justice, education, health care, and other systems, are designed to serve Whites more fairly than people of color. The results are found in how much better these systems work for the average White person versus how they work for people of color.

The point of seeing ourselves in Ferguson is not to raise guilt or to get into a debate on the details of the case, but rather to recognize that as Whites in the United States, we are (in most cases) the unwitting beneficiaries of a system and a culture that provides us with advantages and opportunities that people of other races do not enjoy. This is not to diminish the hard work and individual success that many Whites enjoy; it is only to say that the game is rigged and we didn’t know it.

Furthermore, if the emotions and issues raised by Ferguson are ever to be fully addressed, we who are White must be as much a part of the conversation as our Black counterparts. In our churches, coffee shops, dinner tables and wherever White folks gather, we need to ask ourselves: what does Ferguson say about White folks like us? How are we like the leaders and police force in Ferguson? How are we like Darren Wilson? How must we and the society we live in change, so that the Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins of this world not only can survive, but have a fair shot at success in this country? When we get to our deep feelings and hidden thoughts, the answers may not be politically correct, but they will be honest.

As any therapist will tell you, healing from any mental illness (and racism is a mental illness), begins with honesty. We White folks need to get honest about Ferguson; it’s not just a Black problem, it’s our problem too.

[Images from Google Images]

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Today, as I was preparing to board an early morning flight to Minnesota, where I will join my family for Thanksgiving, I heard the news of the St. Louis grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. After briefly summarizing the prosecuting attorney's 45 minute statement, the reports centered on the response of the crowds in St. Louis and Ferguson. While mentioning the appeals by Brown's parents, African American leaders and even Pres. Obama to protest non-violently, the reporters went on to focus on the looting and shooting that occurred. I was struck by the contrast by the news reports and individual interviews of people on the ground who said that had heard some gun shots, but had not seen violence or guns. More disturbing than this skewed reporting was near lack of analysis of both the case itself and the larger meaning of these events.

No doubt many authorities, as well as a majority of White Americans, will want to say the grand jury's decision has been rendered, let's pack up and move on.   However, to many African Americans  ˘ this case is representative and symbolic of what it means to young and Black in America. Many will rightfully ask: Had the roles been reversed (a Black teenager shooting a White police officer) would the prosecutor and grand jury needed 105 days to render a decision? While it is good that the grand jury took such care to examine all the evidence and we must recognize the conflict of accounts between eye witnesses and Officer Wilson himself, but we dare not miss the larger issues at stake.

In a brief review of the history of Black America in the 20th century, one can't help see parallels between Ferguson and lynchings of the early 1900's and the state violence against protestors in the 1950's and 1960's.  These are not isolated incidents but part of a larger historical pattern where young black bodies are expendable in the pursuit of "law and order." Yes, we have come a long way from lynchings and Bull Connor's dogs and hoses in Birmingham, the riot gear and the National Guard being called out in Missouri should cause us to wonder if we have come as far as we think we have.

Just days before the verdict a 12 year old boy was shot by a police officer in Cleveland for waving a toy gun around. In Philadelphia and cities across the country, school districts that serve the predominantly low income Black and Latino students are underfunded and provide substandard education despite heroic efforts by teachers to make up for scarce resources. Lawyer/authors like Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy) have documented that the criminal  justice system disproportionately and more severely sentences Black and Latino men.  Whether talking about education, housing, health care, employment opportunities and general quality of life issues, if you are poor, Black and/or Latino/a your access to the opportunity in this country is circumscribed by your race and class status.

Michael Brown's death occurs in this context, and while the legal case may have been dismissed, the larger meaning of this event remains.... and must be addressed by a new Civil Rights Movement. One of the promising thing in Philadelphia is in response to the verdict, youth-oriented organizations led a peaceful march that their elders supported and praised. While I was not able to be there several leaders of POWER, the interfaith social justice network, were. Every death is one too many; every injustice is one too many. However, if these events can galvanize young people to address these injustices with the support of those of have lived thru injustices before, there may be some good yet to come from this tragedy.