The denial is staggering. My colleagues are weighing in, one by one and then in a rush, commenting on Facebook and e-mails and in messages about their conversations with white parishioners who don’t get it, who are sunk up to their knees like quicksand in white privilege and denial and a worldview that wants to assume that this doesn’t just happen and he must have done something and you don’t know everything and did you read the report? and did you read it as thoroughly as I did, because if you did you wouldn’t be so upset, you wouldn’t be sick and snarling and enraged and disgusted with humanity right now, you’d be the nice, comforting minister I expect you to be.
Forgive me, or don’t. I am indeed sick and disgusted and although a beautiful colleague of mine wrote this afternoon about the need to take hands and sing, I cannot sing and I am keeping my hands to myself because I want to punch something. But my feelings and my comfort and my inability to sing are not what matter. What matters to me tonight is a man named Eric Garner who sold loose cigarettes on the street and as the cops confronted and harassed him this summer, yelled at them to leave him alone. Yelled at them to leave him alone because he wasn’t doing anything. I can’t quote Mr. Garner exactly, but as I remember that he said something about how you all (meaning the police) were looking to make trouble with him, looking to arrest another black man. He was irritated and agitated and then they surrounded him like sharks in the water, methodically and murderously taking him down.
I can’t breathe, he said.
I can’t breathe.
And they held him down and one officer strangled him from behind and they held onto him until he was dead. Someone called it a lynching and I can’t see the difference myself.
He became a martyr in that moment, if you hadn’t considered that possibility. Eric Garner was a prophet who spoke truth to power and that power pulled him down to the sidewalk and killed him right then and there.
And they got away with it.
Brainy white analytical types want this to work somehow in their minds, as they have no life experience by which to process this cognitive dissonance as reality. There must be a reason for this. I can practically hear the gears whirring as I watch them try to make sense of what does not make sense for white people, even though one particularly lurid and egregious case after another of police brutality against black men has been paraded out in front of us for months. We are Romans sitting in the arena watching gladiators kill slaves (I know that’s not historically accurate – it’s a metaphor) and questioning the dead as they’re dragged away. Now, what strategic move did you not make that would have allowed you to avoid that fatal blow? There must have been something. Think.
The fatal blow is systemic racism and the compliance and complicity of white America. You think I have any answers? I don’t. I only pray that liberal white Americans can examine their own intellectualized response at this moment and challenge each other to see how harmful it is — how distancing, disrespectful and unfeeling it is.
No one who hasn’t lived it has a sturdy soapbox to stand on from which to pontificate and opine. We only have the perspective of our own context and location, which for most of us is well removed from Ferguson, Missouri. It is not a time for analysis. It is a time for empathic imagining, for humility and sorrow.
Where in America would a white 12-year old boy walking around on a cold afternoon in an unpopulated area and idly waving a toy gun be shot by a police officer literally two seconds after that cop got out of his squad car? Two seconds on the clock. Imagine that happening in your neighborhood.
When it came out in the news today that the officer who killed Tamir Rice had been poorly evaluated by a previous supervisor for his “dismal performance with a handgun,” white Americans said, “Ohhhh.” A dead black child wasn’t enough proof for some of them, you see. They had to have the Officer Timothy Loehmann’s gross ineptitude confirmed by a white authority figure.
White men wave real guns around crowded areas in America and are taken into custody alive. Tamir Rice, carrying a toy gun in an open carry state, wasn’t white. His parents are apparently not law abiding citizens, so one Ohio resident suggested to me yesterday (and this is a quote) that it was a good thing that Tamir was “put down before he got a real gun.” I fail to see a significant emotional and spiritual difference between the callous bigot who celebrates the murder of a kid and the white liberal who says it’s all really sad, but he shouldn’t have been waving around a gun. Both responses are distancing and victim-blaming: one pathological and the other quite ordinary and therefore, often unquestioned and uncommented upon.
“He shouldn’t have punched a cop,” is what a white man said in the sushi bar tonight about Mike Brown. So he obviously deserved to die. I didn’t say it. I didn’t want to start a brawl at the sushi bar.
He shouldn’t have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He shouldn’t have been big and scary. He shouldn’t have been black.
In my call for empathic imagining, I am going to ask, again and again, under what circumstances, exactly, would any of us accept an 18-year old member of our congregation to be shot dead by the police and left in the street for four and a half hours? Under what circumstances would we not move heaven and earth to get answers from a police chief after such a horrific occurrence? Under what circumstance can any of us imagine tolerating hearing one of our sons described as a raging hulk, would stand for the characterization of our child as some kind of beast by a police officer whose “injuries” sustained at our son’s hands are a pink mark barely visible to the naked eye?
On what planet do we really think it’s acceptable for a police officer to kill a teenager who may or may not have stolen a few cigars from the corner store, who may or may not have behaved in a belligerent way and then have the police chief and governor respond to our community’s outrage over his murder with tanks and tear gas? How would we feel, how would we respond, what would we demand, if there was no official comment or information for the an entire day after one of our teenagers was shot dead in the street?
Oh, they looted.
Oh, they burned down their own property. How stupid is that.
Oh, this guy really knows what he’s talking about. He is so spot on in his scathing critique of the violent and destructive response in Ferguson. Tsk, tsk.
Bad and destructive choices made by some people in Ferguson or anywhere affected by police brutality does not excuse white people from allying themselves with African Americans in the struggle for justice. When justifiably enraged black people take to the streets in violent ways in protest, or in crime sprees or to kill each other, that is not white people’s cue to retire to our armchairs, light our pipes and descend into the comfortable form of white superiority that manifests as condescending intellectual curiosity.
If Johnathan Gentry wants to speak to his own African-American community about the stupidity of looting and the futility of civil rights songs, that is his privilege. There is a conversation that is happening within the African-American community that no white person is entitled to comment on.
I have tried to avoid providing a lot of links to articles that support my points in this post because I know that someone who disagrees with me will only post their own links in retort, and that is a game that white people can afford to play while black men die in the streets. We need to have more respect, for God’s sake.
I realize that this post was a bit confusing. I started with Eric Garner and then I segued to Tamir Rice and then I referenced Mike Brown. Cleveland, Ferguson, Staten Island — who can keep up with it? It all blends together and I have compassion fatigue. I know. I do, too. I have outrage fatigue. But to sit back in the armchair because we’re too tired of reading articles does not honor the witness being borne by the African-American community right now. Perhaps taking to the streets is not your style, or is not possible for you. For many white folks, the longest and most important distance to travel in our claims to be an anti-racist, justice-seeking people may be from our heads to our hearts. Our longest march may be the one that takes us down from the dais of of competitive debate and rational inquiry to the common ground of listening, witnessing, mourning and embracing.
Put down the newspaper and the computer. There are caskets going by.