As I have told people that I’m going to Ferguson for the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death it has raised a lot of questions.
Wait- which shooting happened there? Weren’t cops shot there? Didn’t Michael Brown attack the officer? So in light of that, I am providing a short recap ( full of my own editorializing) and framework to help us enter into reflection and engagement at the one year mark of the Ferguson uprising.
On July 17, 2014 Eric Garner was approached by police for selling loose cigarettes on a corner in New York. Though chronologically this happened before Michael Brown was shot, the story did not gain momentum until after the shooting in Ferguson.
For context, New York is known for its stupid and racist policy of stop and frisk.
Stop and frisk is an incredibly wide spread practice, used disproportionately on Black and Latino men, where people are stopped and searched and harassed by the police for no reason. This has never happened to me- as a member of the least likely to be harassed by the police demographic in the US- mixed white and Asian and a woman. But I believe the many Black and Latino men that have spoken up about this, I have watched videos of the practice, and it is harassment and dehumanizing and wrong. If it was done to rich white people in New York- the practice would have ended a long time ago. White people would never tolerate being handled by the police in this way.
I provide that information because it appears to me, in the descriptions of Eric Garner’s interaction with the police, that he is frustrated that police are harassing him again. In the course of questioning him, they decide to arrest him, and when he swats away the officers hand as he is putting on the handcuffs, the officer pulls him back and throws him to the ground using an illegal chokehold. Eric Garner repeated numerous times that he could not breathe. (This incident is why protesters use the phrase I Can’t Breathe.) The medical examiner found the chokehold, chest compressions, and poor health as the cause of death and it was ruled a homicide. Many felt that because the interaction was caught on videotape that the officers would be held accountable, however on December 3, 2014 a grand jury decided not to indict the officers.
Let’s all just stop and ponder if anyone believes that you should die for selling cigarettes on the corner.
Imagine this man was standing on the corner, selling loose cigarettes to some people. And when the police tried to handcuff him, he is angry and indignant and can’t believe he is being arrested and swats the officers hand away. Do you imagine this man ending up dead? Would he “deserve” it? What he had made a fortune betting on people losing their homes in the economic downturn? I use this example, because as much as people say they are colorblind, they assume, solely based on race that this man is an innocent and good individual. Even if there is evidence to the contrary.
Back to the timeline.
Several weeks later on August 9th Michael Brown was shot. There is video footage of him leaving a convenience store after stealing some cigarillos (which from what I can gather are mini cigars) He shoves a clerk out of the way and leaves with his friend. Now lets all stop and ponder for a moment if we really think that someone should die for that. Was it a smart move? No. Legal? No. Should you end up dead for it? No. He was physical, but he did not use a gun, nor did he beat anyone up. He stole some stuff from a mini-mart. Not a great decision, but not a violent crime.
He was also teenage kid trying to figure out what he was going to do after high school. He was hanging with a friend. He was not a monster, a demon, not the embodiment of evil. He was not invaluable as a human because he stole stuff from that mini mart. He was made in the image of God. And committed far less violent of a crime than King David and the Apostle Paul. White people have been very quick to dismiss the value of his life and I don’t see a Biblical basis for that.
Here’s a partial summary from wikipedia.
The entire interaction eventually resulted in Officer Wilson firing at him several times, all striking him in the front, with the possible exception of the two bullets fired into Brown’s right arm. In the entire altercation, Wilson fired a total of twelve bullets; the last was probably the fatal shot. Brown was unarmed. Brown was moving toward Wilson when the final shots were fired. Witness reports differed as to what Brown was doing with his hands when he was shot, but no credible witness said that he had his hands up in surrender.
However, early reports said that Michael Brown was facing the officer with his hands up in a sign of surrender. Activists across the country then adopted the image of standing with hands raised as a symbol of unarmed Black people being shot by police.
As shooting after shooting has continued over the year, as body after body has piled up, it has become painfully clear that black people and white people see the world completely differently. I really believed that white people would become more engaged and more concerned as the bodies piled up. But for the most part, they have not.
Here is my summary of how black and white people interpret these moments differently.
Unless the person being attacked has no criminal record, an intact family, and is in the middle of singing Open the Eyes of my Heart- they are probably a thug. Which is a euphemism for bad Black person that probably had it coming. So we don’t need to be troubled or sad, cause that person was a bad person and hence their life was not that valuable. And somehow all black people can end up in this category. Where their lives aren’t valued. Also it doesn’t count as racism unless the officer is wearing a klan hood and yelling racial slurs. Because white people are always innocent unless proven guilty. And video, work history, and past acts of violence apparently don’t count as proof. Proof is demanded, and yet can never established.
There is a tiny circle and things are only racist if they fit inside this tiny circle of very specific circumstance.
Who, let’s just remember, were right when they spoke up about slavery being wrong.
Were right when they spoke up about Jim Crow being wrong.
Have always been a prophetic voice to white people about their own blindness and racism. And they have never been greeted with agreement until 50 years after the fact. White folks love to claim MLK now, but back in his day, white folks thought he was moving things along too soon, and too fast, and too radically.
Black folks see racism as a big circle. It is a web that permeates all of our society where white people are constantly given the benefit of the doubt (#crimingwhilewhite) and Black people are treated with suspicion and fear and often violence. They are speaking up about a giant circle- law enforcement, the criminal justice system, the war on drugs. ( If you haven’t read The New Jim Crowe- just do yourself a favor and read it so you won’t have to tell you kids 20 years from now you decided to stay ignorant during a significant time of change in our society.)
So the Black community saw the shooting of Michael Brown as inside the large circle.
I would sum up this year as white folks repeatedly saying – nope that does not fit in the tiny circle. And black folks saying- it’s in the circle. And the circle is big. And your ignorant self is in the circle too cause you’re so blind.
And all year long, as each shooting has happened, this conversation has been repeated.
Then it happened, in an awful moment. The most explicitly perfect example of the little circle happened. A group of Christians- pastors, community leaders, and the type of people who show up to mid week Bible study welcomed a weird white kid into their Bible study and prayer meeting. And when it was done he murdered them because he is a white supremisict and he wanted to start a race war.
So I thought- well at least White folks will have to put this one in the little circle. It’s racism.
Yup. That one was racism.
That wasn’t right.
But instead everyone focused on the forgiveness of the family members towards the shooter. Which is the family’s right to do. But actually distracted white people from the real issue. The Charleston shooting not only should have been a perfect example of little circle racism, it pointed to big circle racism. I mean, “good black people” had been murdered while racial slurs were being yelled. Maybe white people would have to actually listen when Black people said racism was still a thing.
But one of the deepest affects of white supremacy, is that you never let anyone tell you the truth about yourself. You never have to learn from a Black person that isn’t Oprah.
Syncretism all day long
The weakness of white reform theology is that it has been over informed by the Western secular value of individualism. It is completely syncretistic. This syncretism blinds white Christians to corporate sin. I understand white people not wanting to feel culpable for systemic racism. But, white Christians should be able to open their heart to this idea. Being a sinner is one of the foundational tenants of our religion. So when someone suggests you might be sinning, the answer should be “Sounds about right. Because I am in fact, according to my religious world view, a jacked up sinner.”
In addition the fact that the Bible is addressed to a GROUP of people almost ALL the time should help us. Entire countries, entire tribes, entire groups of people are called to account by God. And no, not every individual in that group was committing the sin, but Scripture is very corporate in its worldview. American Christians are not. Syncretism at its finest.
After the shooting in Ferguson, activists rose up and organized and protested the injustice of the big circle of racism. And white people sent in the army to shut them up. And the activists didn’t’ give up, and they didn’t shut up, and they catalyzed a movement that is known as Black Lives Matter. And it is courageous, grassroots, and we should pay attention. I spent the last two days listening to Black academics and pastors and repeatedly called for a new theology and new view of church, that is formed by what is happening on the streets of Ferguson.
I am in Ferguson because I want to testify that Jesus was a revolutionary that would not have lived quietly in an ethnically segregated suburb attending an ethnically segregated church, turning a blind eye to the violence being done to black people across our country. I’m here because Black Lives Matter.