Toya Graham, mother of six, sees son on the Baltimore news throwing rocks at police cars, tracks him down, and smacks him several times in the head for his behavior. A bystander videotaped this altercation and it went viral on social media and picked up on national TV.
Many praised her actions as Mother of the year for teaching her son that rioting is wrong. But to hear her say it, the real motivation was “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray. ”
Freddie Gray is the young man whose spinal cord was severed while being transported by police after an arrest. Gray died a few days later. His death sparked protests and riots in several sections of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. For a mother to live with fear that her son may end up dead like Freddie Gray at the hands of the police, is a fear that no mother should have to live with in her daily life.
What’s a mother to do? About a year ago, she heard gun shots outside her West Baltimore house and found a person who had been shot and left for dead. Her neighborhood is filled with violence. She reports she tries to keep him home but now that he is 16, she knows she can’t do that as often any longer.
West Baltimore is a poor area of the city. The per capita median income is 35% less than the Baltimore average and 56% less than the state’s average. 24% of the Black population is living in poverty. Unemployment is in the double digits and while it is down this past month to 11.5%, unemployment rate among black youth is at 16.1%, triple the national average. 60% of those over age 25 do not have a highschool diploma or GED. Life expectancy is 20 years less than other neighborhoods in Baltimore. A third of the properties are vacant or abandoned. This is the reality that she and her family face every day. This is the larger context to the Black Lives Matter movement. It isn’t just the police shootings of unarmed black men, it is the whole picture of the social landscape in which they breathe and have their being.
The New York Times has been publishing online a series of short documentaries entitled Conversations. There are two that I want to mention here. The first one I watched was about growing up Black. It focused on Black male youth sharing their experiences of racism. The youngest was 10 the oldest was in their 20s. One youth tells the story of walking down the street with his white friend and seeing a group of black teens walking towards them, the white friend suggests crossing over to the other side of the street. Another youth states that he will cross the street if he notices white people having a terror in their eyes as he approaches them. One wife describes all male teens and adults as potentially being seen by whites as a large scary black man. Her husband interrupts; I am not a large scary black man. One young man spoke about attending his school that was in two buildings and being stopped by police while walking to class from one building to the other. He expressed his shame and embarrassment he felt as his white student peers would walk pass him. This was not a onetime event, but one that happened several times. He was told the police were there to make him feel safe. He asks, “How can I feel safe when I feel like I am being hunted?”
The other short film was about parents having the “conversation” with their Black son. In white families, the ‘conversation’ usually refers to sexual behavior and responsibility but in these families the conversation is about how to act when, emphasis on when, police stop you. A father tells the story of placing and keeping his hands on the steering wheel in order to keep the police from becoming nervous about him and realizing that same action made his children in the back seat nervous and scared. A mother states, “It’s maddening that I have to prepare my kids for something that they are not responsible for.” Another parent instructs her children, “Under no circumstances are you to talk/ask questions to a police officer if stopped.”
To have this conversation be the norm in African American families is a terrifying prospect to fully grasp. It counters the white experience in this nation where whites are taught that the police are your friends and if ever in trouble, a police officer can help. Because whites typically do not have this experience with police, many are incredulous when they hear this reality for Blacks.
This is not a new phenomenon in America. This is not something that only began happening when Michael Brown was shot or Eric Garner was strangled. The Black Lives Matter movement is not reflecting on a new never before heard of act of aggression by police. Unfortunately this is a generational issue that dates back hundreds of years.
The issues faced by the black community in the 1870s after the civil war, in the early 1900s, and the 1960s are the same issues that are being faced today in 2015. In the 1870s and early 1900s, the police and vigilantes used lynchings to send a message to the black community; today we use the police and excessive force to the point of death to do the same. And when they are killed there is an immediate vilification and demonization of the victim to convince the public that somehow this death was justified. That somehow in this instance, the police officer had no choice but to shoot, or to hold the person in a choke hold, or slam the person to the ground and kneeing them in the back preventing them to breathe.
The riots that broke out in Ferguson and Baltimore as heinous as they are in their destruction of property and people’s livelihood; they too have a context in which they develop. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave that context:
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
I stated earlier the conditions of Toya Graham’s neighborhood of West Baltimore; the high unemployment rate, the high poverty rate, the violence that is already rampant in the streets. These factors have the effect of keeping people trapped in poverty. It does not help to have a system in place to also keep them there.
Alabama State Senator Smitherman stated recently in a public hearing that Alabama is one shooting away from making Baltimore look like a kindergarten outing. The issue of racism and excessive force by police is not just in cities like Baltimore, New York, and Ferguson but also throughout the south.
Here in the south we have statues and schools commemorating civil war leaders who fought to keep the slave economy intact. The statues around the Capitol building commemorates confederate soldiers. It must be painful to be reminded that this state wanted to keep African Americans in shackles. Imagine being a black youth attending a school named for Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. How must it feel to know that the school you are attending is honoring someone who wanted your family to remain uneducated and in slavery? Or to have the Alabama history lessons still honor Jefferson Davis as a great statesman and to honor his treason with a state holiday?
It does not help that Former President Jimmy Carter, a southerner, along with Congress officially pardoned him and restored him to full citizenship in 1978 posthumously. Davis had the opportunity for a pardon while he was alive if he applied for one, but is quoted to have said, to ask for a pardon would require repentance, and he hadn’t repented. There is no reconciliation for a person who did not see they had done anything wrong or immoral. Slavery is immoral. And to exonerate Jefferson Davis sends the message that it was okay after all.
Using excessive force against an unarmed person, especially when they are being compliant to police requests, is immoral. There was a recent video where the young black man under his own volition is in the process of getting down on the ground and a police officer runs up and kicks him in the face, breaking his jaw. This was not justified behavior, even if the person had run away from the cop moments before, it is not justified nor is it moral.
There were two commemorations happening in Selma this year. Bloody Sunday was 50 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement and the Battle of Selma, 150 years ago with the reenactment of that battle on the heels of the Bloody Sunday commemoration. At the reenactment, the KKK and other white supremacist groups were out in full number. Imagine how the predominantly black community of Selma felt to have the KKK once again at their doorsteps proudly waving their confederate flags for an era that while it must not be forgotten, needs to be placed into a new narrative of creating justice and liberty for all Alabama’s citizens. Instead it glorifies the confederacy and its rebellion against the Federal government.
This is the context in which the black community lives and breathes. To say racism is dead or is diminishing because we have elected to the highest office in the land an African American contrasts the vast unevenness of civil rights in this country.
So what is a mother to do? Julia Ward Howe in 1870 called on mothers around the globe to unite for peace and to help prevent the sending of our children to war. That declaration became the advent of Mother’s Day. Somehow the protest, the anger, and grief over the loss of young lives that gave birth to Mother’s Day has been reformed into a quaint hallmark card and flowers.
However, yesterday Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation was again brought to the forefront. Valerie Bell , who lost her son, Sean, on his wedding day, when police fired 50 shots into his car because they thought the occupants had guns but none of them did, joined Mothers for Justice United; a group of women and family members who have lost young men and women to police violence. She writes:
This year we are taking back the original intention of Mother’s Day: a day founded for mothers to stand up together to make collective demands. After the Civil War and the economic turmoil that followed, American abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, horrified by the wars and devastation of her time, penned a proclamation to mothers everywhere: “Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause,” she wrote. “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience… From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!”
Howe called on women to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
It’s now a century after the founding of Mother’s Day, and our sons are still being taken from us. Society has not disarmed, but militarized to the teeth. Mothers’ sons everywhere are still killing and being killed. We have had enough.
Yesterday Valerie Bell and other mothers of slain young black men marched in DC to bring attention to their grief and loss. It is not just the few that have made the headlines in recent months that they were protesting. The numbers are staggering.
Between 2010 and 2012, black teens were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white teens. In order for white teens to be of equal risk, it would require an additional 185 young white teens to be killed during that same time period or 1 additional death a week. The disparity does not stop there. Drug use among whites and blacks are about the same percentage. However, blacks in 2013 data collected by the FBI were 4 times more likely to be arrested for drug use than whites.
For me to stand here and tell you that the system is broken and needs fixing does not bring justice to this American tragedy. It is safe for me to speak. It is safe for me because I am at a distance from this reality. And many of you are also at a distance from this reality that is the nature of our social placement in society as Unitarian Universalists. We are considered a white liberal faith that can safely protest within our four walls, maybe sign a few petitions, and if we are brave, maybe join a rally to shake our fists in the air. But many of us won’t even do that much, we will shake our heads at this sad state of affairs and when this service is over return to our lives, celebrate Mother’s Day with our wives, mothers, and children and have a nice dinner.
But until we decide to listen and honor the first hand stories of people of color in our congregations and in our communities, our in-house actions are meaningless. Our declaring only to each other that we are white allies is really a vapid experience with no ability to make a difference other than to claim separation from those racists. We need to find a way to have heart awareness, a deep empathy that will call us to action, to speak up when our white co-workers proclaim that Freddie Gray got what he deserved or that Michael Brown was guilty or that young 12 year old Tamir Rice should have known better than to be black and playing with a toy gun on his property. Or when our white co-workers mention Brian Moore and other police officers shot and killed in the line of duty as a defense of police actions, we need to stand up and say the death of an officer does not justify the deaths of unarmed black men. This is not quid pro quo killings.
We must begin applying pressure on the system to create change so the deaths in the process of arresting someone ends. There is no call for police to kick a person in the face breaking his jaw. There is no need to shoot a shopper in Walmart because he picked up a toy gun. We need to have as much passion as Toya Graham who would go out in the middle of a raging riot and grab her son by the neck to pull him to safety. What would a mother do to save her children from harm?
What would you do, if you lived in her shoes?
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
10 May 2015 © Rev Fred L Hammond