So, This is What Democracy Looks Like”

In a sea of many, one man of faith emerges from a circle of comfort to fight alongside the hurting.

The “Justice for All” march, organized by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, pushed for federal action to stop police brutality and racial profiling throughout the country. It was all prompted by the recent deaths of Eric Garner, who died as police in Staten Island, New York tried to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes, and Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri along with grand juries in both cases declining to indict the white officers responsible for their deaths.

The Washington D.C. march, of which I was a part was just one of many marches, demonstrations, die-ins throughout the country in major cities such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Oakland, under the slogan “National Day of Resistance” on Saturday December 13, 2014. In the days leading up to the march, I was unsure about the turnout. Nearly everyone I discussed it with expressed ignorance about the event. Those that were aware harbored serious doubts about the utility of marches. As a result, I had serious doubts as to whether there would be a significant turnout, but I was pleasantly surprised when I boarded the Metro(rail) and realized that it was only my church circle of friends that seemed to be unfamiliar about the march.

At Freedom Plaza, the gathering place for the march, the beginnings of a crowd of at least 10,000 held placards reading #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter. Their cry was an organized and on message, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe!”

 

Black Lives at March

Before the march, I had discussions with people who questioned the relevance of protest. It is an outdated model, they argued, or it ultimately produces nothing tangible. Most suggested the need for utilizing the economic power that African-Americans wield to let their voice speak. My position is more nuanced, however. The civil rights movements and all other successful movements utilized a potent trinity of marches, protests, and boycotts. This in turn leads to changes in legislation, as incumbent politicians are then beholden to a sensitized, informed, more unified, and galvanized voting base. As I frequently heard marchers yelling in unison at the March for Justice, “This is what democracy looks like.”

Sensitizing and galvanizing was the exact effect of hearing from the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. Tamir was the twelve year-old boy who was fatally shot in November by a rookie Cleveland police officer within two seconds of arriving to investigate a complaint about the boy carrying gun. The gun turned out to be a toy. Joining those families was Levar Jones, the man shot by a South Carolina state trooper in September when he reached for his license at the officer’s request. Kadiadou Diallo, mother of Amadou Diallo (an unarmed 23 year old man, who was gunned down in 1999 by four officers, all of whom were subsequently acquitted), offered a sobering reminder that this narrative has been repeatedly played out far too often in this country.

“Why do our sons look suspicious?” asked Diallo. “Time and time again, we are going through the same history, and reliving the tragedy every time…”

 

The masses of people give a bit of hope that this tragedy does not have to a repetitive narrative. It was refreshing and encouraging to see the diversity of humanity–Black, White, Asian, young and old—marching because this is a human rights issue. “Look at the masses,” said Eric Gardner’s mother, Gwen Carr. “Black, White, all races, all religions … we need to stand like this at all times.”

The case of her son, gasping for breath in a chokehold, recorded for all to watch, took away the temptation to rationalize away the actions of the police, as some may have been tempted to do in the Brown case. Video of the Eric Gardner and Tamir Rice killings, alongside with the video of the shooting of Levar Jones, and against the backdrop of Trayvon Martin, has forced most to acknowledge, whether they want to or not, the gravity of the problem and the truth in the decades long complaints of the Black community.

The grief, confusion, frustration, and anger toward law enforcement and its apparent lack of accountability that these families have felt, rumbles in people nationwide. Among those for whom this problem resonates, are people who purport to exercise faith whose narrative is focused on the ultimate triumph of truth and justice. Like the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, Christians should be at the forefront of issues where injustice rears its head until “justice flows like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.” After all, the Bible is replete with instructions on seeking justice and correcting oppression.

• Psalm 82:3 “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.”

• Proverbs 31:9 “Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.”

• Jeremiah 22:3 “ Thus saith the Lord; Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place.”

• Romans 12:15 “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”

• 1 John 3:17-18 “ But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?

• Isaiah 1:17 “Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

Until the day that all things are made new, Christians have a moral duty to do something.




Can One-sided Injustice Produce Peace in America?

American ideals are put the test in the criminal justice system.
American ideals are put the test in the criminal justice system.

 

No more studies needed. We all know the system is broken. Now what?

One of America’s respected news journals recently published a serious challenge to American justice with the following statement and proceeded to prove that the statement is true.

“The biggest crime in the U.S. criminal justice system is that it is a race-based institution where African-Americans are directly targeted and punished in a much more aggressive way than white people.” (See the Huffington Post, page 1, dated November 23, 2014)

Before November 24, 2014, Michael Brown’s parents of Ferguson, Missouri, may have wondered if this could be true in the world’s greatest democracy. Would the President of the United States of America, an African American, arguably the most powerful person on earth, accept such on his watch, under his presidency, in direct violation of the United States Constitution and the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights? It appears as though the Congress of the United States and the Supreme Court of same, provide all the cover, protection, and religious saturation needed for such injustices to be justified, praised and to escape general condemnation.

The assertion by The Huffington Post of a system of injustice followed by points of confirming evidence cannot be ignored regarding the issue of the police killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014.

• Brown was an unarmed, eighteen year old African American youth in Ferguson, Missouri.

• His offense was observed by himself, the shooting policeman Darren Wilson, and a friend–walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk or at an intersection.

• A grand jury was convened by the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCullouch. Said grand jury took one hundred days to investigate and evaluate the evidence and determined the officer was justified in the shooting.

• Demonstrations against the shooting led to a heavily armed police presence, confrontations between police and demonstrators, and violence on the part of both groups.

As a backdrop to these events is the evidence of injustices on the part of the criminal justice system in the United States. While The Huffington Post detailed some of this, it has all surfaced numerous times and has been stated before Congress and many other groups repeatedly. This evidence includes these facts:

• African Americans comprise 13% of the US population and 14% of drug users but they are 37% of the people arrested for drug offenses.

• Where people of color make up about half of the population, about 80% of the police stops are of Blacks and Latinos and when Whites are stopped, only 8% are frisked. When Blacks and Latinos are stopped 85% are frisked.

• African Americans are arrested for drug offenses at rates up to 11 times higher than the rate for Whites though drug usage is about the same for each race on a per capita basis.

• Blacks are 33% more likely to be detained awaiting felony trials than Whites.

• All too often, poor defendants are poorly defended and persuaded to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, because three years in prison for a crime one did not commit, for example, may be better than risking thirty years for that same innocent crime.

• African Americans are frequently illegally excluded from criminal jury service, which denies them a trial by a system of peers. They are largely excluded from law schools and from judgeships.

• In the federal system Black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than White offenders for the same crimes.

• Two-thirds of the people in the United States with life sentences are non-White.

• A Back male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of spending some time in jail. Latino males have a 17% chance and White males have a 6% chance. Minorities with prison records find it much more difficult to secure employment upon release.

• While African American juveniles comprise but 16% of the population, they are 28% of juvenile arrests, 37% of the youth in juvenile jails and 58% of the youth sent to adult prisons.

These facts have been reported to many organizations including at United States Congressional hearings by The U.S. Sentencing Commission, The Sentencing Project, the American Bar Association, New York City Police Department, and the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

“So, what conclusions do these facts lead to? The criminal justice system, from start to finish, is seriously racist.” So reported The Huffington Post and other respectable entities quoted above.

At the time of the announcement of the grand jury’s finding or conclusion, the President of the United States, who is also a victim of racial hatred, spoke of the need for criminal justice reform, spoke of the progress during recent decades, and spoke of the need for more progress. However, as we judge the future by the past, another fifty years of progress will not bring equal justice under law. At the post grand jury report press conference held by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullouch, it was so easy for the prosecutor to answer every question from the press as he placed all the blame for the community’s grief on the victim. And he was very sad for the victim and his family. This has been done so many times before that a tenth grader could have done the same.

We must not give up but our faith must not end in the good will of a few good people. No more studies are needed. The facts are known. The nation knows about the Innocent Projects. They have unveiled the plight of too many people on death row serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit while thousands of young college rape victims have been ignored as their assailants escape. Millions of wives and children are battered, abused, and neglected yearly. Yet, some groups are over-policed, over-imprisoned, and over-killed while too many criminals go free.

 

That can no longer be called criminal justice. It is just criminal.

 

 

Parents and family members of Michael, we must continue to pray. It offers some relief, but we must remember our Lord was killed by hatred and He reminded us that we would be hated and victimized also (Matt. 24:9). It may be due to our race, the color of our skin, our economic status, the way we worship, or our beliefs. Injustices we see now may be preparing the way for worse injustices to be brought against us in the not-too-distant future. But a brighter day is coming. Judgment shall one day run down as waters and righteousness shall roll like a mighty river and will overcome evil (See Amos 5:24). Hold on. Pray, plan, prepare, prioritize, and Persevere.

 

 

 




Protecting Fragile Life in Ferguson

Google maps shows that Mike Brown was killed 1.5 miles from my church.

After he was shot, I spent a week away from my church and city with our Pathfinders, a youth group, in Oshkosh Wisconsin. Each day I got calls with updates and requests to find a way to help.   After the looting, men from our church, the Northside Seventh-day Adventist Church in St. Louis, Missouri, helped with the cleanup. Others went to be a positive influence to prevent illicit activity. The precious time I spent with my young people at the camporee, also allowed me to contemplate what I could pour into them to make sure they did not become a Michael Brown.

I know how precious and fragile life is as it says in James 4:14: “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” (NASB95)

When our twelve-passenger van neared Ferguson, we pulled in to the parking lot of the church, and started to unload the van. More than ten police vehicles with lights and sirens blaring darted past us as if the end of the world was at hand. We hurried home to see what the news was saying about our community. I wondered what I was going to do to make a difference.

Perspective

I reflected on my personal experience as a frequent traveler through Ferguson. Ticketed and going to court in Ferguson is something that most people around here experience. The scene in the courtroom is one that reveals why Ferguson is a powder keg: when I went to court, I counted approximately 15 court officials, all of whom are white, and of the 200 to 300 defendants, only a handful were nonblack.

 

I remembered watching a video depicting wild animals roaming through a city, and thinking how compassionate the people are towards animals. Search YouTube for “Bear in City.” I found one, Bear runs loose in the city and I watched as no one rushed to shoot the bear. Ordinary citizens people and the police looked, but did not make a quick decision to shoot the wild animal. This bear first appeared when children were on their way to school and still no one thought to kill it because it was possibly a danger to children. Police, parents and others just looked on and kept their distance until a conservation officer came to tranquilize the bear. One young lady in the video says “I don’t understand why they aren’t tranquilizing him or something to get him out of the city.” Just out of curiosity I decided to search YouTube for police dealing with wild dogs and came across this video St. Petersburg police change way they deal with violent dogs.

If we can look at the two videos and not see the lack of respect for the life of African Americans as compared to animals, we are in for more of what has taken place in Ferguson. I don’t mean that animals should not be treated humanely—I believe that all humans should be treated at least as humanely as the animals in these videos. And, I hope after seeing these videos, some eyes open as to why there is so much anger, frustration, outrage, and volatility in Ferguson and the St. Louis area.

 

Who is calling for justice?

Outrage after the shooting of Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, has caused many around the country and world to come to my community. I received calls from members of the international press, Germany in particular, who were coming to town to cover the shooting and its aftermath. As I walked in protest to lend my support to the Ferguson cause for justice, respect, and equality, I met Debbie Williams from Detroit, Michigan who came to prevent further abuse and mistreatment as something of her own unofficial observer.

“The story kept changing,” Williams said. “Each day I would hear something different.”

“I have an eye on you all, Williams said.

“The whole world is watching” chimed in an unnamed man for New York.

Jim Bryan and Meg Hegeman of the United Methodist Church in Columbia, Missouri were on their way back to their vehicle when I stopped them to ask why they had joined the protest.

“These are my people,” said Hegeman. Even though she was not African American she wanted me to know that she was in Ferguson on behalf of her parishioners, many of whom are members of an urban community.

“This has been handled very badly, overkill,” said Hegeman. “The role of the church is to speak truth to power.”

Bryan answered the call, really an email, from the Missouri Faith Voices to travel to Ferguson and stand for justice because, as he put it, “the scenes [on TV] are heart breaking!”

Bryan marched with approximately 150 demonstrators and four members of the clergy. His witness of the events, the solidarity, the empathy, and the insight that came with being there on the ground, was worth a thousand pictures or words.

“Meg and I can’t understand what it means to be Black in America.” He alluded to all the injustice he had seen and shook his head and my hand and left.

May the God we serve allow all who worship and love Him to learn from the tragedy in Ferguson and address the need to respect and treat all humanity as Jesus would have us do.

 

Bryan W. Mann, Northside Seventh-day Adventist Church, Senior pastor