If Not Now, When? | Sojourners

If Not Now, When?

A sign is displayed near a bottle of alcohol and flowers left in tribute to the victims of a shooting during Tuesday night's protests, at the site of the incident in Kenosha, Wis.,  Aug. 26, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

On Sunday, Aug. 23, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, Wis., police in broad daylight in front of his three sons, ages 3, 5, and 8. The bullets damaged Blake’s spinal cord and left him paralyzed. His brutal shooting has not only left his body broken, but it has also affected the psyche of his young children — another generation gripped by fear of police.

A year ago, nearly one year to the day, Aurora, Colo., police confronted Elijah McClain after someone reported him as a “suspicious person” while he was walking home. He was unarmed and had done nothing illegal,  but officers used excessive force, placing him in a chokehold. Paramedics injected him with ketamine, and he suffered cardiac arrest. McClain died on Aug. 30, 2019. Officers still have not been held accountable.

Also on Aug. 24, though several decades earlier, 14-year-old Emmett Till was falsely accused of offending a white woman — an accusation that two white men used as reason to torture and murder him. Those men were acquitted and never held accountable.

We are entering a moment in our nation of overlapping grim milestones.

These tragic dates are punctuated by traumatic deaths and racial violence inflicted against Black bodies, and the legal system says no one is to blame.

So we protest. But even in our lament, we are brutalized. On Wednesday, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old, was arrested and charged with homicide in the killing of two people during the protests. He had traveled to the Kenosha protests from nearby Antioch with a semi-automatic rifle.

An alarming detail that has emerged is that after these killings, Rittenhouse is seen on video walking the streets with his weapon while onlookers shouted he just killed someone and officers pass him. In Kenosha, it seems a white killer can safely walk the streets with an assault rifle, while a Black father of three sons lays paralyzed because an officer used brutal excessive force.

The streets of Kenosha are illustrating for us just how broken our nation is today.

Kelly Brown Douglas writes in her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and The Justice of God:

In America the principal conception of the black body is chattel. This is the foundation on which all other recently stereotypical perceptions of black body are grafted. The black body as chattel is the core element in the construction of the inherently guilty black body. Its classification as chattel is also that which substantiates the fundamental distinction between the white body and the black body. This classification reinforces the protective line of whiteness with regard to America’s Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism … a free black body is a dangerous body because it presumably threatens the very social order.

Black people are tired of being perceived as a threat simply because of Black skin. Black people are overwhelmed and angry with the burden of 401 years of brutal oppression and empty promises in this supposed “land of the free.” As James Cone memorably put it, “Unlike Europeans who immigrated to this land to escape from tyranny, Africans came in chains to serve a nation of tyrants.” That legacy of monstrous injustice, which continues to this day, is why Cone insisted that “… it is impossible to do Christian theology with integrity in America without asking the question, What has the gospel to do with the black struggle for liberation?”

What's appalling are the sentiments of those who argue, if only he would have complied, he would not have been shot, without an acknowledgement of the long list of individuals who were clearly not a threat but were still killed by law enforcement — Breonna Taylor, Stephon Clark, Oscar Grant, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice — proving Black bodies are not safe sleeping in their own beds, walking in their grandmother’s backyard, playing at a recreation center, standing on a train platform, or sitting in their own living room.

We have a crisis in this nation. It is not only a Black issue or a crisis in the Black community; it is a human rights crisis.

In the spirit of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, we saw athletes across multiple sports, led by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, refuse to play on Wednesday to demand justice for Jacob Blake and call for police accountability and criminal justice reform.

What athletes and others are teaching us is this simple lesson: Wherever you are, whatever platform you have, whatever sphere of influence you enjoy, the time is now for all of us to do something. The time is now to use our bodies to protect the bodies of those who are unsafe. The time is now to use our influence, to take a stand, to become active, to go to places to demand justice, and to disruptively remove ourselves from places. The time is now to raise our voices to be heard and to call on our nation to recognize the effects of racism in our criminal justice system and to reimagine public safety in this country. As analyst and former NBA player Chris Webber said on Wednesday,  “If not now, when?”

We are dealing with a deep brokenness in our society, and it is going to require all of us to bring change. Black Americans are tired, Black Americans are traumatized, and Black Americans are angry, but despite it all, we are resilient.

We are sons and daughters of the freedom struggles of the past, and we have a responsibility to the young people, to Jacob Blake’s young children and their contemporaries. That is why we protest.

For anyone that has yet to do your part to call for change, if not now, when? The time is now.