What’s a Mother to Do?

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

Is Justice a synonym for Vengeance?

Our second Unitarian Universalist principle reads We … covenant to affirm and promote:  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. On Sunday, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, MS; a small lay led congregation.  The speaker was discussing this principle by asking questions about the meaning of these words.

One comment made was that when we hear people in society demand justice it is usually in the context of condemning the person who has grievously wronged another. Is this justice?  We want justice for Michael Brown.  We want justice for Eric Garner.  We want justice for the hundreds of others unarmed men and women whose lives were cut short by police officers.  Is it justice, true justice, to bring the cops to trial and seek condemnation for their actions?  I understand the emotional surge behind these cries for justice.  I understand the racism behind these brutal acts of violence.  But will prosecuting a handful of police change the system that targets young black men?  Will it bring justice and healing to the heart of the families who lost their children, husbands, brothers, too young and too soon?

I have read that when families watch the murderer of their loved one executed the pain of grief is not abated by the justice meted out.  I have read they feel a bitterness take firm root in their hearts.  Justice in this manner does not always yield to peace of heart for the survivors of such violence.

I believe the police need to be held accountable and prosecuted for their disregard for another’s life. I simply do not believe that doing so is going to create justice with a capital J because condemning others is not a healing justice. When we scream we want justice, we want those who have committed heinous acts to suffer a severe consequence for their actions. It is not justice we want.  We want blood for blood.  It does not prevent another mass shooting, or terrorist bombing, or even another police officer from exerting excessive force (a twisted euphemism for torture and murder) on an unarmed person. Prosecute yes, but this action does not necessarily create Justice in the system.

My heart grieves that in this country we incarcerate nearly 7 times more blacks than whites. Roughly 9% of our Black young men are in prison. Our nation incarcerates 23% of the world’s prisoners. This is a horrendous wrong that needs to be addressed.  But how do we address it so that not one more young black man is targeted simply because he is wearing a hoodie or walking in his family’s neighborhood with his friends? How does this nation of laws enact justice when the system itself supports injustice?

When we target a specific population for alleged crimes, it is no longer justice that is the motivator but rather the motivation is maintaining power over a population. Power over others is how justice becomes twisted and deformed.  It is this perversion of justice that we are seeing in our nation today.  Convicting with inflated felonies and incarcerating a skewed percentage of a population removes the power of the vote from the population.  This is an act of oppression not justice.  We continue to pass new laws that expand the oppressive weight on a specific population.  The unjust revival of debtor’s prison is part of this expansion of an oppressive weight. This is good news only for the for-profit prisons looking to expand their industry.

Creating a for-profit business around incarceration is not providing justice–it is exploitation. For-profit prisons are an insatiable beast that craves more incarcerations.  So those who believe that the answer to our overcrowded prison system would be to be build more prisons, especially those of the for-profit ilk have a very twisted and deformed sense of justice. These corporations have a need to have laws passed that criminalize more people in order to keep their prisons filled to adequate operating levels. This is not justice, this is creating a market for an industry.

When Al Qaeda hi-jacked passenger jets and slammed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing 3,000 people.  We demanded justice.  And in our anger the United States of America invaded two countries to bring justice to the lives lost. In the seeking of justice American and coalition forces lost 8,259 lives and the number of Iraqi’s lost is over 206,000.  Up to another 20,000 Afghan citizens are estimated to have lost their lives in that long war.  But was this really justice or revenge?  It was the latter.  The ongoing struggle of this region to stabilize and rebuild is not going to end any time soon.  Again, we did not mete out justice, we meted out vengeance and created enormous suffering that will endure for generations. We are seeing the consequences of our vengeance with the rise of ISIS.  We exacted suffering 78 times greater than what we experienced and upon the wrong countries if there even was a country that deserved such retribution.

What does it really mean in one of my favorite hymns, We’ll Build a Land when we sing  “where justice shall roll down like waters?” Are we seeking justice or exacting vengeance on our enemies?  In the context of Iraq it was surely the latter.  Vengeance was indeed a terrible swift sword and it cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives before we found and killed the person responsible for that terrorist act. If justice is a synonym for revenge and condemnation, then we have to find another word for our second principle because I don’t think it means what we think it means.

However, when I read our second principle, I think of what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.  What does it mean to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?  What does that look like in my daily encounters with others?  I look first to the macro level. Am I being as loving as I can be in this moment?  Am I being generous in thought and deed?  Am I seeking to understand rather than be understood?  From here, I expand beyond those I know in my circle to those beyond my circle.  How do my actions relate to the neighborhood? the larger community?  How might I expand this notion of loving my neighbor to the larger community?  Then I begin to think about the systems I live in.  How do these systems limit the way we live?  How do these systems expand our ability to breathe?  How might I work to change these systems to be more inclusive in the ability to breathe free?

Justice then is not the exacting of revenge on a wrong committed.  Justice is a humble act of living day to day.  What does Life require of you?  But to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with this gift of Life.    (Micah 6:8 paraphrased)

 

Advent 2014

This is meant to be a season of great joy
Watching children’s glee grow brighter
With every ornament placed on the evergreen tree
And with every strand of light hung on windows
Shining like myriad of angels on that grassy knoll
singing peace and good will towards all.

I want to protect their innocence
To present the world as it could be
A world of deep mystery and fascination,
The wonder of a star that shown the way
Of possibility with each new life bringing joy.

This year it seems a charade.
I feel no joy in this season
Instead I feel despair.
A bottomless sadness
for another black man’s life taken too soon.
Another life deemed unworthy.
Another life lynched in the light of day
Another life reduced to viral fascination.

Facts need to be gathered, we say.
Facts reveal the truth, we say.
Facts prove the system works, we say.
Facts are dismissed or used to excuse.
Evil is justified by facts.

I want to cry.
I want to rend my clothes and don ashes
I want to howl my grief at the gods

If my tears declare black lives matter;
If I cry out mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa
If my outrage is loud enough, strong enough,
If I repent of my complicity
will the star of Bethlehem appear
To beckon us to follow a new creation,
a new way of being, a new way of loving the world?

 

(c) 2014 Fred L Hammond

The specific vs the system

I do not know if my family discussions at Thanksgiving are typical or not of other families, but this year the conversation trending at the Thanksgiving gathering this year was the no indictment charge for Officer Darren Wilson.  Some of my family thought if they were on the grand jury investigating this that they would have voted for indictment so that a criminal trial could have been pursued and a jury could have decided whether or not the officer was guilty of excessive force that killed Michael Brown.  The role of the grand jury was not to find Officer Wilson guilty or not-guilty but rather if there was enough circumstantial evidence to warrant a trial.  Others felt the grand jury was correct in its assessment that Officer Wilson did no wrong.  The grand jury’s decision not to indict does indeed declare innocence.  I personally wanted an indictment but an indictment, even if the criminal trial resulted in a manslaughter conviction, would still result in something missing in the pursuit of justice.

Not once did I hear the larger ramifications of this case–that there exists in the American justice system a racial bias towards people of color.  This scenario was not mentioned other than what appears to be a blanket dismissal of racism.  As I listened to my family discuss this, it suddenly dawned on me what is missing in this conversation.

White America looks at the specific case as if the specific case lives in a vacuum.  What has happened in Ferguson and in Staten Island are not seen as any part of a larger pattern or system.  They are entities unto themselves and therefore, White America says,  must be treated separately from one another.  And so must the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice holding a toy gun in an open carry state and John Crawford holding an air rifle that he is considering purchasing at Walmart must be held as separate individual cases.  And the young man who was walking down the street with his hands in his pockets on a cold November day.  He wasn’t shot, but as the police officer told him someone called him in as being suspicious because his hands were in his pockets.  These are not, White America proclaims, to be seen as related episodes that develop a pattern over time.

Our justice system is based on individual events not aggregate events.  But there is an aggregate that these cases and the thousands of others like them develops.  And White America does not perceive or think in terms of systems when it comes to justice.  We proclaim we are a nation of laws and that everyone can have their day in court.  This is an individual approach to justice.  It is not an aggregate approach to justice.  Nor a systemic approach to justice. Nothing changes in the system when a guilty verdict is rendered.  Therefore each case of police brutality that is exampled is an individual case and not part of a larger whole.  Every case of a police officer shooting a civilian is an individual case and not seen as part of a larger whole.  Yet, when it is a civilian who shoots a police officer, that, that is seen as confirming the aggregate.  That event in the reverse is seen as a pattern and informs the police and justifies their shoot first, ask questions later approach.

This leads to a false reading of reality.  All societies are systems based.  Whether it is a democratic society or a dictatorship or a plutocracy, societies are maintained by systems.  There is homeostasis that keeps the society at a certain level of tension that enables it to remain intact.  Just as the surface of a droplet of water has a level of tension to keep that droplet of water intact so too does society. If the tension becomes too little or too great the droplet of water will cease to be.  The individual molecules of the water in tension with other individual molecules of water hold that form that we call the droplet of water.  When the tension changes by removing or adding heat, that droplet of water either freezes or boils and becomes steam. Society is held together in a similar manner through the system that is created.

I have heard people say the decision of the grand jury in the Michael Brown shooting was the correct decision.  They state when looking at all the evidence the actions of Officer Wilson were justified.  Wilson felt his life was in personal danger by Michael Brown. They then state the protests therefore were unwarranted.  Even if what they state is true, that Officer Wilson acted correctly in shooting Michael Brown, they fail to see what this individual case represents in the larger system.  They fail to see that the Black community in particular is responding not just to Michael Brown’s death but to every instance of police profiling their community for decades.  It is not just this one case that is at the heart of the protests, it is thousands of them.

It is the accumulation of  hundreds upon hundreds of police stops where young black men are harassed by officers for walking down the street with hands in pockets.  Or driving with a group of friends and being pulled over in ‘a routine’ stop.  It is the immediate suspicion that is aroused when a person of color is seen in a neighborhood that allegedly is white. It is the assumption that a person who was arrested once for a petty crime, say shoplifting, is going to commit other more volatile crimes and therefore must be kept under heavy surveillance and become well known to the police. There is no freedom once a person of color has been arrested and convicted of breaking the law.  They will always be harassed in our system of justice.

I hear the conversations by Whites that the person had it coming.  If they were law abiding they would not have been stopped. If they were not doing anything wrong, they would have no reason to fear.  The assumption is riddled with the belief that blacks are criminals. This assumption is reinforced.   A recent TV news story reported a successful black business man was arrested for cocaine possession and fortunately his store’s video surveillance revealed the undercover cop planted the cocaine in his store.  The TV news story did not show the picture of the white officer who planted the drug but rather showed the black business man symbolically reinforcing that black men are drug dealers.  This black man did not have it coming.  He did nothing wrong.  Yet, time and time again, black men are killed not because they have done anything wrong but because they have stood up to their constitutional rights. This is what is happening in America.  We are taught daily that black equals criminal. It is reinforced by the media.

I hear the retort about Black on Black crime as if that somehow justifies police excessive force.  The assumption is that Black communities are doing nothing about this issue. It is a false assumption. They are addressing the issue, just because the media chooses not to tell that powerful story does not mean it isn’t happening.  And using Black on Black crime in this argument is an easy scape goat for White America to call upon to not face their culpability in the crisis of White police targeting and using excessive force against Black Americans.  What is White America doing about White on White crime?  Nothing. Exactly. We don’t even talk about it. Using the Black on Black crime argument is a ruse and distraction from the issue.

It is not the specific cases here that one needs to look at.  For every specific case that I can state where excessive force was used against a person of color, someone else can site specific cases where the police officer had no choice.  We are not going to get anywhere if we continue to focus on the individual cases.  White America needs to examine the patterns. White America needs to realize that what is happening across America today is of our creation.  We did this.

If we are going to promote America’s values as the best in the world, then we need the current conversation to be on how do we change the system that targets unjustly people of color.  It is okay to state our values and then to state we have miles to go before those values are fully realized.  But we need to be working on having those values fully realized.  Unlike Fox News stating something as so does not make it so.  We have to work on making it so. The system will change, one way or the other.  The temperature is rising and that droplet of water is feeling the tension mounting.  Are we going to do this in a mature manner with honest open dialogue or are we going to do this the hard way as has been our historical pattern with racial issues?  The choice is ours, White America.

Perhaps Love

“Perhaps love.”

“Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain**.”

It is, isn’t it?  We like to think, oh, no! That is not love.  Love is happily ever after.  Love is all roses and sunshine.  Love is all that and a bag of chips.

We need to face the reality … love contains conflict.  Love contains pain.

Now before I go too much further with this line of thought, let me clarify what I am talking about when I mention conflict and pain as being within love.

Let me separate out the pain and conflict experienced as the result of emotional/mental/physical abuse.  The sort of conflict and pain that arises from abuse is not about love, that is about power—control over another human being. Love is not about power over another person.  So when I state love contains conflict, love contains pain; I am not referring to abusive relationships.

I am referring to the pain that arises when someone is hurting, physically/emotionally/mentally.  I am referring to when a loved one is sick.  I am referring to when a loved one is being harassed.  I am referring to when a loved one dies—regardless of circumstances.

On a larger scale—I am referring to when there is injustice against people.  People who seek to love one another face conflict and pain when there is injustice.  I am referring to when pain and conflict arise because of a systemic condition of the hardening heart in the collective hive.

This has been a tough summer for those who believe that Love wins. I know for me it has made me seriously reconsider my calling as a minister who longs for the day when justice runs down like a mighty stream.  What am I doing here in Alabama?  What am I doing here in the United States? If I, as a minister, am not on the forefront of justice standing on the side of love with the people who are in pain, what am I doing?  I cry for justice to reign in this land.

Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson was only the tip for me.  I listened to my relatives defend his being shot and became nauseated.  His senseless death is an abomination to all of America’s ideals and principles.  But his death is not the only one, and we don’t really know how many others because our police and government do not track violent encounters[i] between police and civilians. A law was passed by Congress in 1994 requiring the Attorney General to collect and track such events and give an annual report[ii].  No such report has ever been submitted in 20 years.

There were at least 4 other deaths of unarmed black men in the month of August—their names must not be forgotten:  Eric Garner—Staten Island, NY; John Crawford—Beaver Creek, OH; Ezell Ford—Los Angeles, CA; Dante Parker—Victorville, CA.  How many more deaths are needed before America wakes up to the evil it is perpetuating?

This is the pain that love contains. The pain is greatest at the epicenter, with their loved ones who grieve senseless deaths at the hands of a corrupt system militarized by fear and racism. But it is a pain that radiates out like an earthquake and is felt far away by those who are sensitive to it.

How does a family live with such pain?  Where is their comfort to be found?  How do we respond to such an earthquake of pain?

There are other pains that love contains.  This past week Save OurSelves hosted a daily Jericho March around the capitol regarding the pains that our current state administration is enforcing on the people of Alabama—in total disregard of the pain and grief it causes their citizens.

These daily marches focused on Immigration Rights, Education & Youth, Women’s Rights/ Equal Justice, Worker’s Rights/Living Wage, Criminal Justice/Due Process, Medicaid Expansion and Health, and Voting Rights.

These issues all intersect with one another. There is a coordinated effort in our state to hold people down from their great potential by denying the ability to organize in the workplace, by removing funding from our educational budget, by taking away a women’s right of agency to address her own needs, by creating laws that unjustly increase incarceration and slavery in our prisons, and the grief experienced by loved ones who died because of no healthcare—when healthcare could be afforded to them with Medicaid Expansion.

Love is like an ocean, full of conflict, full of pain.  What does one do with the ocean so that Love wins?

We expand the ocean.  We support one another when pain occurs. We cry out together.  We let our wails be heard like the mothers in Ramah. We place our lives on the line when others are threatened.

Many of you know that I was arrested within the capitol building on Thursday for attempting to participate in a 24 hour prayer vigil for the expansion of Medicaid.   I spoke with our board president before I made my decision to do this but it was obvious that this was where my heart was leaning.  Too many deaths have occurred that could have been avoided if our governor, a doctor by profession, had agreed to expand Medicaid.  I could no longer be silent on this sanctioned death by denial of healthcare any longer.

The pain and grief he has caused 700 families this past year alone is unconscionable, not to mention the 300,000 people who are struggling and praying that they will not need medical intervention to save their lives.  My heart this summer has broken open and I am compelled to speak out in a way I have not before.

I see his refusal to expand Medicaid to be an evil act against the people of this state, people he was elected to serve.  Many of whom he defined as his brothers and sisters in Christ, since he has made it clear he does see non-Christians as his brothers and sisters in humanity[iii].  With brothers like that, who needs enemies?

Our Governor is a victim of his own lies and deceptions.  And like Governor Wallace before him, he must be convinced of his betrayal against the people he was elected to serve.  The only way I know how to reach him and save him from his own deception is to rip the veil off on white privilege and supremacy which this administration has fought to preserve and strengthen and to fill the capitol with hundreds, even thousands of people demanding to see Medicaid expansion now.  And to insist laws put into place that expand rather than contract a person’s ability to reach their full potential.

This must be a concerted effort and a coalition of people broad and deep.  It means we must be motivated more by love than by fear of the stigma of being arrested. As the Rev. Kenneth Sharpton-Glascow said to me in the Montgomery County Jail, Jesus was arrested for his civil disobedience.  So was Gandhi, so was Martin Luther King, Jr. so was Annie Pearl Avery, who is one of the original SNICK participants in the 1960s and who joined me in being arrested on Thursday.

Ms. Avery is now 79 years old and told the police at the Montgomery jail that it was partly her actions in the 1960s that enabled them to have the jobs they have today. She enjoined them to recognize that we are fighting again for rights that are being denied Alabamans and join us in our struggle—not fight us by locking us up.

But these people I mentioned by name are all people of color.  We live in a nation where people of color are disproportionately arrested even though all people share equally in the crimes committed.  I realize that as a white person, I have been conditioned to believe that only bad people are arrested.  And in this country, bad people are conflated with being people of color because that is what White America is taught to believe.  There should be no shame in being arrested for justice.

I am also aware that in our Unitarian Universalist movement, the temptation is to make an arrest for a just cause to be some sort of an elite status symbol.  Across our denomination clergy arrests thus far have resulted in no time served, a small fine, and some court costs.  In Washington, DC, the arrests of 112 clergy and faith leaders were an orchestrated show against deportation of immigrants.  We knew in advance that we would be released with no further court cases, no threat of prison time. The risk was minimal. It gave us media publicity.  If we are serious in our quest for justice, we need to take larger risks that place our lives on the line, a few hours being arrested is not a personal risk.

While there was some media present at the rally on Thursday, the arrests that happened were no media stunt.  The Governor’s office did not want to arrest us and pleaded with us to leave. We stated we needed to pray for the governor to expand Medicaid and therefore would not leave.  We were charged with trespassing in the second degree which carries a $ 500 fine and /or up to 90 days in prison.  We could have been charged with trespassing in the third degree which carries a small fine.(In delivering this sermon, I misstated the penalties based on a website I found regarding these terms.  It is corrected here to Alabama criminal codes.)  My court date is Sept 15. I cannot predict the outcome.  Our governor does not want to become the next North Carolina with thousands swarming the capitol and over 900 arrests.  He is hoping this will deter others to follow.

We must not be deterred. Love does not stand back in the face of evil actions. It stands firm.  It holds the pain felt and assimilates it into more love.

I am committed to justice for the people of this state and therefore I must be willing to sacrifice the white privilege I am afforded.  If need be, to be arrested and bear the consequences.  The consequences I face do not even compare to the lives painfully lost because of denial of healthcare.

The evil that we face today is the same evil that Martin Luther King faced in the 1950s and 60s.  My actions are not the seeking of a status symbol, they are a call to action, to be willing to put our heart and soul into the belief that people need to be free to reach their full potential.

I realize some of you may not agree with the actions I have taken.  I understand. I have said this before and it bears repeating, I do not desire a congregation that follows their minister blindly. I do desire that this congregation will be informed of the issues.  Study them.  Read up on them.  Consider these issues a matter of faith development importance because they are indeed a serious matter of faith development. The future of our faith is dependent on how these issues play out. There are forces that seek to take away our freedom to practice our free and liberal faith.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the billboard out on University Blvd entering Cottondale.  It is a huge sign displaying the #Secede.  This group wants to recreate the confederacy in the form of a White Supremacist Christian Theocracy.  I have talked with some people who have experienced this group firsthand and they are a vicious and hateful bunch.  They are feeding off this country’s and state’s current hatred for our President. Be forewarned, there is very little difference between this group and the white elected officials in Montgomery with their declarations of a specific Christian theology that places women back into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant and laws that place black and brown men into slavery through incarceration.

Perhaps love. Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain.  The ocean is wide and deep. There are many ways to hold that conflict and pain. Some will grieve and wail uncontrollably.  And that witness of love is essential.  Some will share their stories of injustice committed against them. And that witness of love is essential. Some may do so by supporting those who stand on the vanguard. And that witness of love is essential.  Others may march, wave banners, and shout slogans.  And that witness of love is essential.  Others may stand with hands raised in silent protest in front of the guns and tanks pointed at them. And that witness of love is essential.  And others may choose to engage the pain with civil disobedience, risking their livelihoods, their freedom to enable others to be free.  And that witness of love is essential.

Peace is not the absence of violence.  Peace is the ability to remain centered and grounded while the world is raging threatening storms.  It is the ability to move forward in love because of the inner conviction that justice is the victor already. Love ultimately wins.

Love is large enough to contain the conflict and the pain on the journey towards justice.

Blessed Be.

This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on August 31, 2014 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.

** This quote is from John Denver’s song “Perhaps Love.”

[i] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-ferguson-police-killing-african-americans-20140819-story.html

[ii] http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/12/dispatches-tracking-us-police-brutality

[iii] http://www.towleroad.com/2011/01/alabama-gov-elect-bentley-tells-non-christians-hes-not-with-them.html

Prayer for the End of White Privilege

Our hearts this evening are heavy.  They are heavy from crying out in grief and pain for yet another unarmed young man is shot and killed by those who are called to protect and serve.  How long shall this continue in our neighborhoods?  How long will people’s grief remain unabated?  How long will this injustice across our nation remain unseen, uncomprehended by White America? For too long, White Privilege has separated the people of this nation. For too long White privilege has covered the eyes and ears of White America so these actions by our police are not seen for what they are.

Transform our grief to righteous anger.  Let us have anger that rips off the scales of blindness so the eyes will see with understanding.  Let us have anger that like a skillful surgeon’s knife cuts out the gangrene of white privilege and racism to enable people to heal into wholeness.  Empower with a Mother’s love that will protect her children fiercely. Empower us with a Compassion that will reach out to intervene when we see abuse and injustice in our communities.

May our actions be a comfort to those who weep for their children. May our actions be our prayer to change our land into a land of freedom and justice for all its people.

In the name of the author of love, justice, and mercy, we pray.   Amen.

 

This prayer was offered by me, Rev. Fred L Hammond,  at a Memorial Service for Michael Brown at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, held in solidarity with Brown Family in Ferguson, Missouri. (c) 2014

Feel free to use with credit of author. 

Michael Brown

On Monday, August 25th, I conducted a memorial service as an act of solidarity with the Brown family in Ferguson, Missouri. Here are the words I shared with my congregation:

I speak as a white man who, while I believe I am fairly well educated regarding racism and white privilege in America, I confess I am not heart educated.  I could tell you logically and calmly the whats and wherefores of racism and white privilege in this nation.  But I could not tell you emotionally the detrimental effects of white privilege, because I am so well enveloped in it. Sometimes, I do not even know I have received it until much, much later. And only if, I am lucky enough to even reflect upon it.  White privilege is like an anti-body that automatically removes any social discomfort that might exist around me.  I don’t pay attention to the anti-bodies in my immune system until they no longer work.  And then, and only then, do I notice that I had anti-bodies working to keep me isolated from dis-ease.

White privilege is the anti-body for White people in this nation.   This is something that white liberals can talk about but don’t have the heart knowledge to develop the conviction to act against it.  And it is something that white conservatives deny for the same reasons.  When whites are held in the embrace of White Privilege anything that goes against that experience seems like a contrived falsehood.  Events like this are not in white people’s experience.

It is therefore vital for whites like me to listen to the stories and experiences of my neighbors who are people of color. To hear their first-hand accounts of not receiving the privilege that I am so very accustomed to. That is a struggle because human nature says; if it is not in our experience then it must therefore be false. This explains why people, white people in particular, were so quick to look for evidence, even made up evidence, to discredit the story of Michael Brown’s death.  The experiences of the people of Ferguson are not generally the experience of white people anywhere in the country—exceptions aside. It must be false, white’s state emphatically, because that is not our experience.

Michael Brown’s death is not an isolated event. As some would have us believe.  It is not a localized event as if there is some quirk in Ferguson that gave rise to his death. It is not a justified event as the Ferguson Police have tried to indicate by smearing Michael Brown’s character.

This is a frequent event. So frequent that children of Black parents are taught differently in how to respond to police than children of White parents.

One white mother wrote a blog about her white privilege as a mother of her three male sons.  If you are white, imagine if these statements were not true for you and what would you do about it as she describes her experience of white privilege?

“I will not worry that the police will shoot [my sons].

If their car breaks down, I will not worry that people they ask for help will call the police, who will shoot them.

I will not worry that people will mistake a toy pistol for a real one and gun them down in the local Wal-Mart.

In fact, if my sons so desire, they will be able to carry firearms openly. Perhaps in Chipotle or Target.

They will walk together, all three, through our suburban neighborhood. People will think, Look at those kids out for a walk. They will not think, Look at those punks casing the joint.

People will assume they are intelligent. No one will say they are “well-spoken” when they break out SAT words. Women will not cross the street when they see them. Nor will they clutch their purses tighter.  

My sons will never be mistaken for stealing their own cars, or [breaking and] entering their own houses.” [i]

This is the world that Michael Brown grew up in and it is the world that killed him.  This is our world, too.  The whiteness of your skin does not excuse you from responsibility in this world.  Being White is no excuse for not knowing that this is the reality our neighbors of color experience daily. And not just in faraway communities like Ferguson.  These experiences are happening in Tuscaloosa and across the state of Alabama as well.

When the Valedictorian of Central High cannot pass the entrance exam to enter the University of Alabama, we have a problem that screams injustice. When whites enroll their children into private academies instead of Tuscaloosa public schools, we have a problem that screams injustice. When police follow a group of black teens for no apparent reason in the West End we have a problem that screams injustice.  When a black student states that he dropped out of school at 16 because that was normal and expected of him, we have a problem that screams injustice.

It is up to us to determine what will be the legacy of Michael Brown’s disrupted life.  We can mourn his passing, say it’s a shame, and continue on, hardening our hearts to the reality that is demanding redress or we can get angry like the people of Ferguson have gotten angry.  We need some anger about his death.  We need some anger over the fact that he will not be the last unarmed person to be shot in 2014.  There will be others unless we stand up, Black and White, Latino and Asian, together to say no more.

Black lives matter.

Every faith group in Tuscaloosa should be screaming this from their pulpits as a conviction of their faith principles. We can no longer abide with white privilege and racism in this community, in this state, and in this nation.  Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for non-violent action, he did not advocate for calm as the clergy did in Ferguson.  There is a major difference.  One is an act of moral courage to evoke a response and change in the system of oppression and the other is a numbing drug administered by order of the system of oppression.

Which tact shall we take in honoring Michael Brown’s memory?  May we come together as a community to strategize how we are going to address these issues before another unarmed shooting happens and it is here in Tuscaloosa County.  Blessed Be.

[i] http://manicpixiedreammama.com/a-mothers-white-privilege/

Assumptions

Like many across our nation and the world, I am grieving the tragic events that have once again beset our country. The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager by Ferguson, MO police is troubling regardless of one’s position.  I have been trying to make sense of it all–and I admit these shootings in our nation against our own people is increasingly hard for me to understand. I was chatting with a relative of mine who is in law enforcement and they said something that I found interesting. They stated that assumptions are being made before the investigation has played out and now the investigation is tainted.

Assumptions.  They are like the operating system behind this computer program.  They are running always in the background, informing the actions of the person, mostly unaware, until one takes a long hard look at them.  My relative and I are operating from a different set of assumptions. People have experiences and they try to make sense of those experiences. They develop assumptions about those experiences and then use those assumptions to predict / plan how to respond to future events. Sometimes those assumptions are spot on, and sometimes, more times than we would like to admit, those assumptions are wrong.

But it is through assumptions that we act and have our being.  My relative has explained to me countless times that police have to make a decision in a split second regarding their safety.  Is the person a threat or not?  They have to assess what is going on, observe accurately all that is going on and make a decision in a split second.  That split second may be all they have between surviving a violent assault. It is not an easy job being a police officer. How aware the officer is about their own assumptions seems to me to be an important necessary skill that they need in order to do their jobs professionally and ethically.

There have been studies that have shown repeatedly that we see what we want to see.  I haven’t shared those studies with my relative but it is true.  We will see things that weren’t there and we will not see things that were there.  Have you seen the video with the man in the gorilla outfit? We are given instructions to count how many times a basketball is passed.  During the ball passing a gorilla walks their way through the crowd.  Up to 40% of people failed to see the gorilla.  We were not assuming that something strange was about to occur so we didn’t see it.  Or when a traumatic event happens how very disparate the stories are in relating what happened.  Police officers are supposed to be trained to be excellent observers of their surroundings and one would hope of behaviors in order to make those split second decisions.  But even with such training, assumptions are running beneath the surface.

I tell the story of my first time in Georgia.  It is not a story that I am proud of but it clearly indicates how assumptions play in our actions.  This was back in the mid 1980s, I was heading up towards Dahlonega, GA with my friend Glenn.  As we were driving. I am seeing these gorgeous plantation buildings with these shacks next to them.  You could see through the walls better than you could through the windows.  I was in total amazement.  I had no idea that people lived in such poverty in the United States.  I lived in CT at the time, one of the richest states in the nation. I told my friend that I needed to have a picture of these shacks because no one in CT would believe me it I told them.  It was simply beyond my experience.  We find a shack that had stuff strewn all over the yard and hanging from the rafters of the shack porch were these brightly colored dresses.  We stop so I could take a photo.   I get out of the car and I realize that this is a yard sale and on the porch was a woman with a shotgun in her lap. I hesitate and then ask if I could take a picture of her house.  And she gave permission.  I told this story of the woman with the shotgun numerous times but I didn’t have the photo in hand.  Then one day I am going through some photos and there was the photo– the woman on the porch surrounded by these hanging brightly colored dresses.  But where was the gun? It wasn’t in her lap as I recalled it.  The gun was not on the floor of the porch either. It simply was not there. I had an assumption in my mind about folks who lived in the hills of Georgia so firmly planted, that I placed a shotgun into her lap.  Now she may have owned a shot gun but it was not with her outside.

Assumptions change how we see the world and then we shape that world to fit those assumptions.

It is hard to fight those assumptions as well because even when we have the facts that contradict the assumptions, those assumptions are being proved true in our heart of hearts.  Re-read the paragraph above about my first trip to Georgia.  The assumption that I had still plays out in the very last sentence.  I apparently accommodated it to fit the facts but the assumption is still being played out.  I am embarrassed about it as it is not how I want to live my life. We are taught assumptions from an early age by our families, friends, and church.

These assumptions may or may not be true, that is the thing about assumptions. Just because you have one deeply ingrained does not mean it is correct.  Some assumptions some people may have:

1. There is only one true religion. (Funny thing about this assumption is it is always the person’s personal religion that is the one true religion.)

2. There is not enough to go around, so get yours before anyone else.

3. Those people are destroying America.  (those people is whatever the group du jour is. For Westboro Baptists they are Gays, for Tea Party folks they are the undocumented and Obama, for anti-abortionists it is Planned Parenthood, For Democrats it’s the Republicans and the reverse is true.)

4. Racism is a thing of the past.  (If only those Socialist Liberals wouldn’t keep bringing it up.)

There are assumptions being played out in Ferguson.  These assumptions didn’t start with the shooting of Michael Brown.  And that is another assumption that is being made by some people, that this shooting is an isolated event that has no contextual environment in which it grew into being.  My relative wants me to keep this event separate from the hundreds of unarmed young black men who were shot by police across this nation.  There are reasons for attempting to separating out each individual event.  Some of these reasons are good ones.  One good reason is that there may be some unique aspect of this case that would be lost when forced into the conglomerate of all the others.  Some are not so good.

There are also reasons to look at this horrific event in the context of what is happening in the United States. As another blogger wrote:  “There are reasons why white gun’s [sic] rights activists can walk into a Chipotle restaurant with assault rifles and be seen as gauche nuisances while unarmed black men are killed for reaching for their wallets or cell phones, or carrying children’s toys.”  There are assumptions of who is dangerous and who is not.  Whether we want to agree or not, being white in the United States in 2014 still carries privileges.  One of these privileges is carrying an automatic rifle into a Chipotle or a Target and not being seen as a threat despite the fact that all of the mass shootings in recent history have been committed by white men. That is some powerful assumption we are carrying and they are tilted towards perceived race.

Since 9/11 there has been a steady increase of militarizing our police force.  There is also an assumption at work here–what is it?  My hunch is that the assumption is that United States is now a battlefield.  Many cities are applying for federal grants to purchase military grade equipment in preparation of possible terrorist attacks on our soil even in small rural communities where the biggest threat is the pumpkin festival being rained out.  They are using this equipment in SWAT offenses for drug raids, storming houses with a no-knock search warrant in full military garb.  They have used it in ICE raids of factories where suspected undocumented personnel may work.  When the police are militarized it is small leap of thought to begin seeing towns as battlefields to be conquered rather than homes to be protected.  Ferguson is one such community that has militarized their police force and the pictures show they have turned their town into such a battlefield.  But they already saw their town as one long before the shooting of Michael Brown, long before the riots after the police responded with nonchalance and disregard of this event. Is it any surprise that increased militarization of police increases the anxiety level of the citizens.

When you treat people like they are enemy combatants, you are going to get enemy combatants. People do not respond well when their personal safety is threatened.  When peaceful demonstrations are met by militarized police, what is the assumption the police are operating on? The assumption is not that demonstrators are going to remain peaceful.  It is an agitation towards violence.  When police tell demonstrators, like they did last night (8/18/2014)  that they had to return home,  and the demonstrators attempt to do so only to find the way home is blocked by different police, and so they dutiful turn around as told and go back, to be met again by the first group of police telling them to turn around, this is an invitation to escalate. And it did.  The assumption is that the demonstrators are the enemy and not the police officer’s fellow citizens, an assumption that the trapped citizens couldn’t refute by their failed attempts of compliance. And the police would not listen to them when they asked how can they get home when roads are blocked. Such a response was considered non-compliance and arrests ensued.

I realize that I am operating on a set of assumptions as I write this piece. My assumptions tell me that our government is moving towards a police state unless someone speaks up and stops it.  My assumptions tell me that there is fear of the other in this country against one’s documented status, race,  class, sexual orientation and gender identification, and religion.   Prove me wrong.

Set aside fear of the other and begin listening to one another, without judgement, without critique, just listen to the very real pain people have experienced here.  We all share that pain.  Set it aside to listen to someone else fully attending to them.  America, prove me wrong and rise up to your ideals of Liberty and Justice for all.