A National Shame

AFRICAN AMERICANS around the country are finding it is dangerous to call 911. Jack Lamar Roberson’s family in Waycross, Ga., discovered this the hard way when they placed an urgent call to 911 in October 2013 because his fiancée thought that he had taken an overdose of diabetes medicine.

Instead of sending EMTs, the dispatcher sent the police. Within 20 seconds of being in the house, police shot Roberson nine times, with bullets striking his back, arms, chest, and head as he held his arms up in the air. Although he was a veteran, he did not die from bullet wounds at the hands of strangers in a foreign land. Instead, white police gunned him down in his home.

Killings like this—which could be called anti-black hate crimes by police—are far too common. “Operation Ghetto Storm,” a 2012 report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Project, revealed that white police officers, security guards, or vigilantes kill an unarmed black man, woman, or child every 28 hours in the U.S. In 2012, police officers shot 57 people in Chicago—50 were black, two were white. Miami police officers killed seven black men within eight months in 2011. The Houston-based African-American News & Issues headlined an article this spring: “Open Season on Blacks in Texas: Cops Are Shooting First & Not Asking Questions.”

These police killings of black people emerge out of a culture and system of white supremacy. In such a context, police killing of black people is not a black problem. It is an American problem that shreds the curtains of democracy.

Far too many people deny the place of race in these incidents. Instead, they accuse advocates for racial justice of playing the race card. Rather than coming face to face with the soil that breeds these crimes, these detractors blame or slander the victims—or they simply shift their gaze away from these deaths.

IN AUGUST 1965, when I (Ruby) was 17, I was arrested as part of demonstrations in Lowndes County, Ala., in the Southern freedom movement. After being released from jail in Hayneville, Ala., I walked with three other protesters to buy a soda at the Cash Grocery Store down the street. A volunteer “special deputy sheriff” named Tom Coleman stood at the steps of the store, holding a shotgun. When he aimed it at me, Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from Keene, N.H., pushed me aside and took the shotgun blast intended for me.

Daniels’ murderer—a man trying to kill an unarmed teenage girl—was acquitted by an all-white jury. Even the Alabama attorney general at the time described the verdict as the “democratic process going down the drain of irrationality, bigotry, and improper law enforcement.”

On that awful day almost 50 years ago, I was a teenager, black, and female in a segregated society that perceived me as disposable waste. Today, I have the faith, power, and connections to move the mountain of racial hatred that drives the same state-sanctioned murder that killed Jonathan and many other people during the long and bloody history of segregation.

The good news is that we are all valued children of God. Our question for today is, “What does it mean to be church in the 21st century when too many of our black brothers and sisters are still seen as disposable waste?” This question inspires a different conversation about what it means to build a beloved community while advancing democracy. When we interrogate these issues, we change the way we talk and act in the world. 

Ruby Sales is founder and director and Susan Smith is former Gordon Cosby Seasoned Voices Fellow at the SpiritHouse Project, which works to stop racist crimes against African Americans and to build multicultural coalitions to contest racism.

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