I was in the Twin Cities this week to speak about racial equity and “Building A Bridge to a New America” at Augsburg College, a Lutheran college committed to diversity, where almost 50 percent of the incoming freshman class are students of color. Just as we delved into honest and hopeful conversations about action for racial justice — as we have in meetings in 30 cities now — this week’s terrible news brought us back to the dire and urgent nature of new national and local conversations on racism, white privilege, and the killing of people of color by law enforcement.
We again have the need to lament and reflect on the police shooting deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla. , last Friday and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday. There was also a local dimension to our discussions in Minneapolis, due the stabbing of 10 people in a St. Cloud, Minn., mall over the weekend, which raised complex questions at the intersection of terrorism, radicalization, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.
When I saw the video from the police car and helicopter of Terence Crutcher’s killing, I felt such profound grief and, yes, outrage once again. Here was yet another black man — another father of young children — who from all appearances was complying with police instructions and posed no imminent threat, his hands up and in plain view; seconds later, he was crumpled on the ground next to his stalled car. The video evidence also suggests that the law enforcement officers who shot him waited more than two minutes before attempting to render medical assistance. The audio from the helicopter is telling: “That looks like a bad dude, too. Probably on something,” a voice says from the air. Does anybody really believe that police would have drawn such a conclusion if Terence Crutcher had been a white man slowly walking back to his stalled car?
Keith Lamont Scott’s death in Charlotte on Tuesday came on the heels of public outrage over Crutcher’s death. While there are conflicting narratives — police have said Scott was armed, while witnesses maintain he was reading in his car — the community is understandably outraged. Protests that began peacefully unfortunately turned violent Tuesday and Wednesday nights, prompting the mayor to declare a state of emergency and the governor to deploy the National Guard.
The pain and rage felt by the black communities in Charlotte and Tulsa is something we all need to understand and empathize with. Community leaders, including local clergy I have spoken to, are feeling the emotions on the ground and are calling for transparency and justice and for peaceful protests. The lack of trust felt by communities of color toward law enforcement is so deep and has so often proven justified.
The protests that break out on the streets in the aftermaths of killings are not just about the latest individual case, but the lack of trust in a system of policing and criminal justice that justice needs to be put back into. The protests are about accountability in an age where police who use excessive force and act outside the law that they pledge to protect are almost never held accountable.
In Minnesota, I came prepared to reflect with the community there on the painful and prominent local examples of deadly interactions between the police and people of color. Philando Castile’s inexplicable killing by a police officer this summer shocked the nation as its aftermath was streamed live by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, with her little girl’s devastating words of comfort “I’m right here with you, mommy” seared into the memories and consciousness of so many of us.
But we also found ourselves discussing the very complicated issues raised by the stabbings at the St. Cloud mall. Dahir Adan, a 20-year-old young man who immigrated from Somalia as a 3-month-old baby with his family, stabbed 10 people at the mall — none fatally — before being shot and killed by an off-duty police officer. In the hours after the attack, a news agency for ISIS claimed responsibility, though so far discussions with Adan’s family and the people who knew him have yielded little evidence to explain how, why, or if he had been radicalized or inspired by the terrorist group. The stabbings happened in the context of a town that has a sizeable Somali population that has sometimes found itself targeted for racist and Islamophobic abuse. Somali teenagers at local high schools have seemingly been among the most frequent targets for this abuse, staging a walkout a few months ago to protest what they described as constant bullying. Whether Dahir Adan was ever a target of such bullying is unknown, as is what ultimately motivated him to go on violent rampage.
Displays of unity among white and Somali St. Cloud residents were reported this week, but so was anti-Somali and anti-Muslim backlash, including a restaurant owner in the southern part of the state posting a sign reading “Muslims get out,” and reports of trucks with white men waving Confederate flags roaring through Somali neighborhoods in St. Cloud. We need to remember that it can be simultaneously distressing to know that some Somali youths in Minnesota have been radicalized online — with some leaving the country to join ISIS or al-Shabab — but also morally repugnant to blame, intimidate, and abuse the Somali immigrant community as a whole.
All of these incidents point to the need for trust-building and trust earning between law enforcement institutions and communities that face not just historical oppression but current oppression. That trust building starts with honest “truth talks” like those that happened today at Berea College in Kentucky, where I gave a convocation. The two texts I used: the words of the police officer in the helicopter who looked down at Terence Crutcher and labeled him “ a bad dude;” and with Romans 2:11, which says “God does not show partiality.”
But our policing and criminal justice system undeniably does show partiality. And until that changes, we will suffer the police-caused deaths of more black and brown people — and more conflict and violence.
I remember thinking that my new book America’s Original Sin would be painfully timely — but the pain gets worse and worse. In the context of these continuing horrific events, conversations about race and faith are needed more than ever. I am told that many discussions are already happening, using the book as a conversation starter within, between, and outside of congregations. To build on that momentum, I am providing a space to have these conversations together — online. I’d like to encourage all of you to join me in continuing and deepening discussions around the issues I explored in America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Next Thursday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m., you can join me on Facebook Live for the first in a series of conversations that we’re calling “ Race, Faith and 2016.” We will talk each Thursday night between now and Election Day about how issues of race and faith are playing out in society today and are reflected in this fall’s political campaigns.
I hope you can join me for this vital conversation, and help build the “beloved community” envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which is more and more urgent today. Together, we can build a bridge to the new multiracial America that is coming, where privilege and punishment are no longer the result of skin color, and where racial justice is finally achievable for the benefit of all of God’s children.