Think back to the images from last year in Murrieta, California, where buses of unaccompanied minors and women with children, all fleeing violence in Central America, were blocked by angry, screaming adults. In his column about this incident, the Christian evangelical, Jim Wallis, told of a talk he had recently given on immigration to his son’s fifth-grade class in Washington, DC–a class that was racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse.
While the Black Lives Matter movement officially started after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin, the fight for true racial equality began long before then with the Civil Rights Era. Among the allies of the African American freedom activists were the Kennedy family, a large number of Jewish-Americans and notably, progressive evangelicals.
I met with a black friend for lunch about two years ago and discussed my concerns about the status of racial harmony in our community. I had my conscience aroused over the death of young Trayvon Martin and the reaction I received from my white friends in the days following the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman. I related to my black friend that the verdict was greeted by my white friends by offers of high fives and celebration. I was stunned and saddened and did not understand the glee.
Men and boys of color are 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by the police than their white counterparts. Of the 1,217 deadly police shootings that occurred from 2010-2012, men of color between the ages of 15 to 19 were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while the rate for white males the same age was only 1.47 per million.
This pattern is not new. It is old and repetitive. And it is sickening.
Douglas, author of the new book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes about the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in his killing, and the deaths of other unarmed black people that followed.
Douglas talked about violence faced by African-Americans and the black church’s response. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
'Some Folks Just Woke Up:' Families of Victims of Police Brutality Join 'Justice for All' March in Washington, D.C.
“Excuse my ignorance, I thought I was a free black man.”
“I’m 11 [years old], I matter.”
“You can choose to look away, but never again can you say you didn’t know.”
“How many times do we have to protest the same [s**t]?”
“White silence is white violence.”
“We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
These signs, and many others, lined the horizon of Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday in Washington, D.C. In a ‘Justice for All’ march organized by Al Sharpton and the National Action Network, thousands of protesters gathered to protest police actions that have resulted in the deaths of unarmed young black men across the United States.
After marching from Freedom Plaza to the U.S. Capitol, protesters listened to speakers from national racial justice organizations address some of these most recent acts of police brutality.
Al Sharpton sought to draw attention to the diversity present on the streets.
“This is not a black march or a white march. This is an American march for American rights,” he said.
Indeed, the black community was not alone in speaking up against police brutality. One Latina activist encouraged her Latino brothers and sisters to “voice their pain” from police harassment and “come forth and unify with the African American community so we can be strong together.”
“¡Ya Basta!” she concluded. [“Enough is enough!”]
The stories of young black men being killed by white police are sparking a national conversation. However, public responses to these painful stories reveal an alarming racial divide. From an unarmed teenager killed in Ferguson, Mo.; to a 12 year-old boy shot dead in Cleveland; to a white police officer on video choking a black man to death in New York City; and a startling series of similar stories from across the country and over many decades — our reactions show great differences in white and black perspectives.
Many white Americans tend to see this problem as unfortunate incidents based on individual circumstances. Black Americans see a system in which their black lives matter less than white lives. That is a fundamental difference of experience between white and black Americans, between black and white parents, even between white and black Christians. The question is: Are we white people going to listen or not?
White Americans talk about how hard and dangerous police work is — that most cops are good and are to be trusted. Black Americans agree that police work is dangerously hard, but also have experienced systemic police abuse of their families. All black people, especially black men, have their own stories. Since there are so many stories, are these really just isolated incidents? We literally have two criminal justice systems in America — one for whites and one for blacks.
Are there police uses of force that are understandable and justifiable? Of course there are. If our society wasn’t steeped in a gun culture, many of these shootings could be avoided. But has excessive, unnecessary, lethal force been used over and over again, all across the country, with white police killing unarmed black civilians? Yes it has, and the evidence is overwhelming. But will we white people listen to it?
Our nation has a problem. It is not a “black” problem or a “white” problem, but a “human” problem that we all succumb to — and have the power to change. Our beloved nation was NOT “conceived in liberty” OR “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” despite President Lincoln’s well-intentioned words. That was the hope, but it has never been the reality.
Many of my African-American sisters and brothers are furious. Yet another child has been felled. The challenge is this — if a tree falls in the forest and white folks don’t hear it, does it make a noise? Many of us who are white do not have the contextual experience or the “ears to hear” to understand the fear and the fury.
More than a decade ago, I pastored in a community that was predominately African American. It grew from 72 percent to 98 percent black in just seven years as a result of “white flight.” In the course of this time, the police force struggled because it didn’t listen to the people. Most of the officers were white and could legally live up to 30 miles away; as a result many (including the chief) lived in another state.
At one heated meeting, the police chief informed us what we “could” and “could not” do as we discussed community initiatives that included the older white and adolescent black residents in conversation and collaboration. Finally, as the pastor of one of the larger churches in town, I stood up and said, “Chief, please understand that we are not asking for your permission. We are telling you what we, as citizens of this town, are going to do. Now we need to know — are you with us? Or not?” The African-American residents stood and clapped loudly. I felt their pain and the reason for what some perceived as “paranoia,” but what I knew to be legitimate fury.