On November 26, 2014 a post that I was invited to write was featured on The Marin Foundation’s Patheos blog. It was a great honor to be asked to share my thoughts and perspective on the current unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. The full text of my post is here. I hope you’ll read it with an open heart. Thanks!
Growing up black in America informs my experience with bridge building and compassion in some unique ways. In attempting to connect with, understand others as well as being understood and contribute to positive change, I’m constantly faced with the reality that being a person of color in this country presents me with a different experience than if I were white. When major news items come up in the media, I can look at my Facebook newsfeed and see a divide where my friends who are minorities may be consumed with a topic and my white friends may not have even heard about it – or I might be the only one on their newsfeed to mention it.
In Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot to death by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer. News of the shooting seemed to immediately go viral on the social media sites I follow. Just as quickly as the news spread, questions were raised as to what took place that resulted in this fate for Michael Brown. As the accounts of eye-witnesses began to be shared via video and telephone interviews, it became apparent that the all too familiar story :a an unarmed black man had been killed by a white police officer. This, of course, was coupled with the presumption that the police would not handle the case properly and this suspicion was further supported with the camera phone images of Officer Wilson standing over Brown’s lifeless body that remained in the street for hours after his death.
I realize for many who may be reading this, the scenario of an unarmed youth being shot to death may not be something you hear about commonly, but as a black man in America I was raised with never ending reminders that police will treat people like me differently because of the color of my skin. This reality is so common in black communities that much of it is simply ‘understood’ and we discuss it to help the next generation be prepared for it. However, I haven’t spent the majority of my life in exclusively black spaces. In spaces that are mixed or mostly white, I’m often reminded that my white friends have a very different experience.
One evening while riding home in a car with friends from a Living In The Tension gathering, the topic of getting pulled over by police came up. There were five of us in the vehicle : two white females, two white males, and myself. For the first few minutes we talked about being ‘harassed’ by police – them pulling us over for seemingly nothing, or going only one mile over the speed limit. I resonated with this, but the response to the police was where I suddenly had my eyes opened to just how different our experiences were. They all seemed to have stories of taking the officer to task for the inconvenience of being stopped. The conversation shifted into tales of how badge numbers had been demanded and how even in their teen years ‘standing up for themselves’ got them out of a ticket – or at the very least, better treatment from the officer. They even shared stories of friends who had been defiant, used profanity with officers, or been flippant. I was shocked because I couldn’t recall a single incident with a police officer where I didn’t fear my personal safety and that I would somehow be carted off to jail. I don’t think any of them had ever been described as a suspect in a robbery or stopped only to be asked where they were going with no other reason given for the stop. I was taken aback because my experiences were informed by a very different reality. I was repeatedly taught that during a police stop I MUST move slowly, keep my hands on the steering wheel, announce every move I’m going to make, speak in a very slow and calm tone, use my most proper speech, try to appear as non-threatening as possible… and so on. I realized that for my white friends they had never been presumed to be a threat to the lives of officers while for blacks it had been the presumption from the moment the police engaged us.
These observations aren’t just anecdotal. There is data collected by police and regularly reported to the FBI that shows people of color being stopped far more than whites. In Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown was killed, 2013 data from the Missouri Attorney General shows that 92 percent of searches and 86 percent of car stops involved blacks but only 67 percent of the town’s population is black. Of that number 34 percent of searches of white suspects found contraband, versus only 22 for black suspects. It’s with realities like this, which are common across the US, that black people face the news of Michael Brown’s shooting and now the news that Officer Wilson wasn’t indicted on any charges of wrong-doing in this case.
As someone who is committed to reconciliation I ‘get it’ when people (of any race) don’t understand the unrest around the situation in Ferguson. If nothing in your experience immediately connects to that kind of radicalized oppression, I see why you may think of the news as over-hyped and the reactions as inappropriate. However, too often judgments are made about the character of the people involved that isn’t informed by a sense of compassion or understanding for an experience that may be very different from your own.
But why does that matter?
So often when discussion of topics of race, gender, orientation, economic status, and the varying experiences of people across these classes comes up, I simply sit and listen. I listen to see who is saying something damaging, who is searching for answers, and who is showing themselves as an ally to the more vulnerable party. This isn’t so I can judge someone as right or wrong, it’s actually to see where I can be a support, and where I may be able to find support later. What I really want to know is “do you care?”. I believe there are powerful connections to be made when people care for and understand each other.
My life has been enriched by people who have gone beyond our differences to see me and affirm how they connect with my story. The opposite has also been true – I’ve been wounded by people who – because they couldn’t understand me or because they didn’t care – have said and done some of the most hurtful and isolating things in my life.
We all have the potential to uplift or to tear one another down with our words and actions. When we show love by caring about the plight of the other, I believe we can begin to restore the humanity in all of us that is created in the image and likeness of God. When we show compassion and concern for things like the system of racism that creates situations like the one in Ferguson, or for the struggle of LGBTQ people to find love, safety, and acceptance in the world and in church, we can send powerful messages to people around us that say ‘I care.’
This is not to say that we always have to agree on these issues but rather to love the other person despite our differences or disagreements. So in your conversations, your comments on blogs and social media – in what you say from pulpits and soap boxes, in the way you respond to what you see presented on TV or as you walk down your street, please let love lead and communicate in word and action that people matter.
“We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.