Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Storms of August…

The great American prophet Martin Luther King Jr. ended his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail with these words. “Let us all hope that…the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
In the past two weeks, that fog rolled back mightily into the town of Ferguson, Missouri. And maybe- may it not be true- across many other communities of our nation.

I’m sure by now you’ve read the news. An unarmed African-American youth from Ferguson- Michael Brown- was shot dead by local police, and people throughout his predominantly black town rose in protest of the killing. Unsurprisingly, competing details and stories emerged about what initially happened. What’s incontestable is that these protesters and police have clashed terribly in the days and nights since.

I’ll describe the picture that grabbed my attention most. Several local police, dressed in military camouflage and body armor, stood crouched with automatic weapons pointing directly at one young black man approaching them, hands held high to the sky. Without context, I’d have wondered if that was a scene from some foreign war zone or rebellion. Instead, it’s a striking image of fear and misunderstanding in our own country. And of rage.

You all know that I live in a diverse community, and that the largest racial group among my neighbors is African-American. It’s also the youngest neighborhood in Minneapolis. I see kids playing constantly. Running up and down the street, avoiding cars, bouncing basketballs, interacting with their older brothers, many of whom gather on front steps and around shiny automobiles, enjoying the summer and life. During National Night Out recently, I met a couple of my young adult black neighbors for the first time. One bragged sheepishly about his basement recording studio. “Wow!” I said, “Is it fancy?” “Nah,” he responded, “Just a little something where I can have fun and make music.”

It was a small window into his dreams, his joys, his tenderness, and I realized later what a gift for me that was to receive. Had I seen him on the streets before, I wouldn’t have understood his heart at all. Maybe I would’ve assumed something about who he was by the jeans he was sagging, the straight-brimmed cap he cocked to one side, the youthful smile or sneer of a still-developing sense of masculinity and self-respect. And if so, perhaps I’d have assumed uncomfortable things, generalities I’ve heard in other parts of our society, that those actions are symbols of criminal young men, of dangerous people, when they’re done by urban black youth.

I want to say that this experience has little to do with what’s happening in Ferguson. That it’s simply about my own ignorance and attempts to understand my community. But I can’t shake the feeling that misunderstanding between black Americans and white Americans exists more broadly. And could be increasing, and that it’s got something critical to do with the mutual suspicion between Ferguson protesters and police. On the one hand, the difficult news we’ve seen about looting and violence makes my heart go out to those police. It would terrify me to be in charge of responding to such explosive circumstances, all within the gaze of national attention. On the other hand, it seems clear that those destructive behaviors were the work of a small subsection of protesters, and yet in many cases, the broader mass of citizens were treated like threats, not neighbors.

That makes me wonder. In her incredible, challenging book The New Jim Crow, social scientist Michelle Alexander shared two research findings that have stuck in craw since I read them in 2013. The first was that, when asked to close their eyes and imagine a generic ‘criminal’, 95% of Americans picture a young black male. Such are the facts those neighbors I met recently deal with daily; they embody a far-reaching, negative societal stereotype. Whether that urges the Ferguson police to act toward their community with less compassion and more aggression, I can’t honestly say.

But it’s certainly a question that needs to be asked. And for outside observers like us, it’s worth examining our hearts and ideas to know on what basis we make our judgments. Are we quick to condemn the police because we assume they’re always acting with racial bias and mistrust? I met a former Minneapolis Chief of Police in recent weeks, and am certain he’d counsel a different course. His beat for years was my diverse northside neighborhood, and he talked about the challenges and joys colorful community. Thus, he’d encourage his newest officers to get out of their cars and meet their neighbors, to be part of the community. He was also clear about the dangers that police can face in our complicated and sometimes well-armed society. I want local officers to “protect and serve” always, not only my block, but their lives too.

Or are we quicker to focus on the initial event that sparked the fury, and think that Michael Brown “was asking for it” because he acted young and aggressive, and was found later to have smoked some weed? The other fact Ms. Alexander shared in her book that stuck me was that, contrary to popular wisdom, young black men are no more likely to use or deal drugs than young white men. But they’re something like 3-5 times more likely to go to jail for it. I smoked marijuana a few times in high school. It was youthful rebellion, I think, against my judgmental Christian school’s expectation. But I went to a private high school without officers at the front door, and lived in white suburbs without police roaming the streets. What would my life have been like would I have been in my current neighbor’s shoes and did the same things? In a word: different. Statistically, I’d be likely to have an arrest record, maybe done some jail time, not attended seminary. And I’d probably be angry about those disparities, prepared to protest and rage when something happened locally that felt like another injustice, another example of my society ignoring my dreams, my humanity.

This letter is already much longer than I typically write, though I’m at a nice desk and not in jail. Please forgive my obviously conflicted feelings and wordy, unfinished impressions. But this story has stung my gut, and challenged my best hopes for who we should be as a nation. Dr. King prayed we’d become a beloved community, not a society of suspicion, and that feels in danger to me today. May it not be so. May we remember that every fog, whether of atmospheric origin or of misunderstanding, can be lifted- or rather, broken through- not by more darkness, but by shining light. Jesus called himself a light for the world, because his unconquerable commitment to love over fear could always, with God’s help, blaze through every cloud. He believed it and so do I. But then, he called us lights for the world too, calling his followers to embody his hope, his faith, in God and in one another, to be one, united not divided.

Look upon any police officer you see this week with more appreciation and a prayer for safety, will you? And look upon your neighbors, of whatever color, with greater compassion and love too. And by all that is holy, shine your light. It’s from God. And it’s needed.

Grace and Peace,
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